In fact, anecdotal evidence of this disconnect had been accruing for several years. When a freakish snowstorm hit Las Vegas in December 2008, CNN meteorologist Chad Myers, appearing on Lou Dobbs Tonight, used the occasion to expound on his own doubts about global warming. “You know, to think that we could affect weather all that much is pretty arrogant,” he told Dobbs. “Mother Nature is so big, the world is so big, the oceans are so big.” Today’s most oft-quoted and influential skeptics include Joseph D’Aleo, The Weather Channel’s first director of meteorology, and Anthony Watts, a former Chico, California, TV meteorologist and prolific blogger who is leading a volunteer effort to document irregularities among the twelve hundred weather stations the National Weather Service maintains across the country (a concern that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration considers negligible, and in any case has factored into its calculations since the ’90s). When Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, Congress’s most reliable opponent of climate-change legislation, presented a list of more than four hundred “science authorities” who disagreed with the prevailing scientific opinion on climate change in 2008, forty-four of them were TV weathercasters. And after the signature of Mike Fairbourne, the weatherman for Minneapolis’s CBS affiliate, turned up on a similar petition that year, reporters for the Minneapolis Star Tribune called around and found that hardly any of the city’s TV weathercasters believed in climate change; one had recently called the idea “crazy” on a local talk-radio show.
More striking is the fact that the weathercasters became outspoken in their rejection of climate science right around the time the rest of the media began to abandon the on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand approach that had dominated their coverage of the issue for years, and started to acknowledge that the preponderance of evidence lay with those who believed climate change was both real and man-made. If anything, that shift radicalized the weathermen. “I think the media is almost sleeping with the enemy,” one meteorologist told me. “The way it is now, there is just such a bias as to what gets out.”
Free-market think tanks like the Heartland Institute, knowing an opportunity when they see one, now woo weathercasters with invitations to skeptics’ conferences. The National Science Foundation and the Congress-funded National Environmental Education Foundation, meanwhile, are pouring money into efforts to figure out where exactly the climate scientists lost the meteorologists, and how to win them back. The American Meteorological Society (AMS)—which formally endorsed the scientific consensus on climate change years ago, but counts many of the skeptics among its members, to its chagrin—has started including climate-change workshops for weathercasters in its conferences. For all of their differing agendas, the outfits have one thing in common: they have all realized that, however improbably, the future of climate-change policy in the United States rests to a not-insubstantial degree on the well-tailored shoulders of the local weatherman.
In the fall of 2008, researchers from George Mason and Yale universities conducted the most fine-grained survey to date about what Americans know and think about climate change. The short answer, unsurprisingly, was not very much. “Climate change is an incredibly complicated subject,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change and one of the study’s co-authors. “Most people are not interested in digging through the scientific literature, and in that situation trust becomes an enormous factor. We rely on people and organizations to guide us through this incredibly complicated and risky landscape.”
That was where the survey’s findings got interesting. When asked whom they trusted for information about global warming, 66 percent of the respondents named television weather reporters. That was well above what the media as a whole got, and higher than the percentage who trusted Vice-President-turned-climate-activist Al Gore, either of the 2008 presidential nominees, religious leaders, or corporations. Scientists commanded greater credibility, but only 18 percent of Americans actually know one personally; 99 percent, by contrast, own a television. “Meteorology benefits from the fact that we’re just about the only science that has an individual in people’s living rooms every night,” says Keith Seitter, the executive director of the American Meteorological Society. “For many people, it’s the only scientist whose name they know.”