In the absence of a clear answer, several institutions—the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF), the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research among them—have decided that education is the problem, and have launched projects aimed at teaching the weathercasters the basics of climatology. All proceed from the assumption that unreachable skeptics like Coleman are few and far between, and that most meteorologists are more uncertain than adamant, lost amid the Internet’s slurry of fact and counterfact. “While there is a group that seems to have made up their mind about climate change, there’s still a substantial portion that’s interested in learning more,” says Sara Espinoza, a program director at NEET. The AMS—which finds its credibility threatened by its televised emissaries a second time—is working with NEEF on a do-it-yourself climate science education package for meteorologists that points them to government data and peer-reviewed research. It is part of the AMS’s broader “station scientist” program, which aims to give meteorologists the tools they need to become the go-to authorities in their newsrooms on all scientific subjects, not just the weather. In essence, it is a doubling down on the wager that the AMS made fifty-five years ago: if viewers are going to assume weathercasters are experts anyway, we might as well try to make them experts.
It remains a laudable goal. But in my own conversations with skeptical meteorologists, I began to think that that earlier effort had helped create the problem in the first place. The AMS had succeeded in making many weathercasters into responsible authorities in their own wheelhouse, but somewhere along the way that narrow professional authority had been misconstrued as a sort of all-purpose scientific legitimacy. It had bolstered meteorologists’ sense of their expertise outside of their own discipline, without necessarily improving the expertise itself. Most scientists are loath to speak to subjects outside of their own field, and with good reason—you wouldn’t expect a dentist to know much about, say, the geological strata of the Grand Canyon. But meteorologists, by virtue of typically being the only people with any science background at their stations, are under the opposite pressure—to be conversant in anything and everything scientific. This is a good thing if you see yourself as a science communicator, someone who sifts the good information from the bad—but it becomes a problem when you start to see scientific authority springing from your own haphazardly informed intuition, as many of the skeptic weathercasters do. Among the certified meteorologists Wilson surveyed in 2008, 79 percent considered it appropriate to educate their communities about climate change. Few of them, however, had taken the steps necessary to fully educate themselves about it. When asked which source of information on climate change they most trusted, 22 percent named the AMS. But the next most popular answer, with 16 percent, was “no one.” The third was “myself.”
The biggest difference I noticed between the meteorologists who rejected climate science and those who didn’t was not how much they knew about the subject, but how much they knew about how much they knew—how clearly they recognized the limits of their own training. Among those in the former category was Bob Breck, the AMS-certified chief meteorologist at Fox affiliate WVUE in New Orleans and a thirty-two-year veteran of the business. Breck rejected the notion of human-driven climate change wholesale—“I just find that [idea] to be quite arrogant,” he told me. Instead, when Breck talked to local schools and Rotaries and Kiwanis clubs about climate change, he presented his own ideas: warming trends were far more dependent on the water vapor in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, he told them, and the appearance of an uptick in global temperatures was the result of the declining number of weather stations in cold rural areas.