Rolling Stone’s Jeff Goodell rang an old bell in early December when he called out TV weathercasters for saying almost nothing about climate change throughout a year of extreme weather events—but he got people’s attention, in Maryland at least.
According to a blog post at Baltimore City Paper, Tony Pann, a meteorologist at WBAL, a local NBC affiliate, posted Goodell’s article on his Facebook page, calling it “ridiculous” and referring to man-made climate change as a “theory.” Mike Masco, a forecaster at WMAR, a local ABC affiliate, joined in the ensuing discussion, “calling global warming ‘the biggest scam in modern time,’ and insisting ‘I don’t drink the liberal coolaid [sic].’” And, asked for a comment, Justin Berk, a former WMAR weatherman told City Paper editor Evan Serpick, who wrote the post, that Goodell’s article “was written with an agenda.”
Unfortunately, Pann has deleted the Facebook exchange (which I haven’t seen). According to The Sun, “Serpick joined in the criticism on Pann’s Facebook page, getting into a climate-change debate with Masco and Pann”:
In an interview, Serpick said he considers it a dangerous thing given TV meteorologists’ broad reach during severe weather events.
“People should know this,” Serpick said. “[Pann] seems like a nice enough guy, they all seem to be. But it may work its way into what they say to the public.”
Neither Serpick nor Goodell was the first person to raise the alarm about the ironically large of number of weathercasters that disagree with the basic scientific consensus that human activity is changing the climate.
CJR made the issue a cover story at beginning of 2010, and The New York Times put it on its front page just a few months later. The problem lingers, of course, so it’s reasonable for Goodell to bring it up, but his article isn’t as nuanced as it should be.
At one point he reports that, “A recent study found that more than a quarter of TV meteorologists call global warming a ‘scam,’ while less than a third believe that climate change is caused by human activity.” But the study he refers to—a national survey of television meteorologists—is almost three years old and the research group that produced it, George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication (4C), has produced two new surveys since then that have provided a better understanding of forecasters’ views.
The survey Goodell cited “indicated that 54% of weathercasters nationwide were convinced that the climate is changing, 25% were unconvinced, and 20% were undecided,” for instance, while one released in June 2011 concluded that:
There appear to be five potentially distinct groups of weathercasters: three groups convinced that the climate is changing, but with different views as to why—mostly human causes (19%), mostly natural causes (29%), and human and natural causes in more-or-less equal proportion (34%)—as well as two distinctly smaller groups: those who are unconvinced (9%), or undecided (8%).
Also, in February 2012, the 4C group released the preliminary results of a survey of members of the American Meteorological Society (AMS). While cautioning that they might not represent the views of all AMS members, the researchers reported that 89 percent said they think global warming is happening; 59 percent said human activity is the primary cause; and 11 percent said that human activity and natural causes are play in more or less equal amounts.
The two surveys don’t undercut the argument that distrust of basic climate science is a problem among broadcast meteorologists—far from it—but, as the 4C group wrote in the first, they “advance our understanding of the weathercaster community in several important ways.” So, it’s unfortunate that Goodell didn’t mention them.
As the reaction to his article indicated, reducing a spectrum of views to the simplistic dualism of “skeptics” and “non-skeptics” is unlikely to win over many forecasters, least of all the ones who might actually be won over.
“I think that broadcast meteorologists get a bit of a bum rap,” said Bud Ward, who runs a series of climate change workshops for TV and radio weathercasters. “There is a critical mass who are educable and who want to be informed, and its certainly not 90 or 100 percent, but it’s not 10 or 20 percent either.”
That jibes with the results of the national survey released in 2011, which found that many weathercasters aren’t fixed in their views and would be open learning more about climate change.