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.

“Goodell’s piece listed the usual suspects among the meteorologists and that’s not a difficult thing to do,” Ward said. “It’s very easy to single out the five or six prominent naysayers, and its very easy to single out the five or six who are basically on the other end of the spectrum—who are almost evangelists for climate science. What’s ignored are all the ones in between, and I think it’s unfair to characterize them as disproportionately skeptical.”

It’s the broadcast meteorologists in the middle of that bell curve that Ward is trying to reach through the one-day climate workshops he’s organized in various cities over the last four years. The next, which will focus on global warming’s relationship to extreme weather events, will take place at the American Meteorological Society’s annual meeting in Nashville, TN, in June.

The courses delve into popular “myths” about climate science, like solar radiation being the primary cause, but they aren’t meant to “convert” anyone, least of all so-called climate skeptics, which would be an “unrealistic goal in any event,” according to Ward (who hates labels like “climate skeptic”).

“What we’re really interested in is exposing broadcast meteorologists to the most current peer-reviewed science in these areas,” he said, “pointing out to them some outstanding resources (online, books, organizations, etc.), and giving them some familiar faces they can always reach out to get their questions answered in the most authoritative way.”

Ward has welcomed his share of doubters, however, including Pann, the Baltimore weathercaster who criticized Goodell’s Rolling Stone article on Facebook. Pann attended a workshop in Oxford, MD, last March.

“Tony concluded at the end of this session that he was impressed, but not convinced,” Ward said, adding that he couldn’t say why that was (Pann declined to be interviewed for this article).

“I was disappointed that he wasn’t more impressed with the presentations,” Ward said. “We had world-class experts on weather and climate, like MIT’s Kerry Emmanuel, and a solar radiation expert, Judith Lean, from the Naval Research Lab, who just blows people away.”

On balance, however, Ward feels like his efforts are paying off. Of the roughly 100 weathercasters that have participated in his workshops, between five and 10 indicated that they’d changed once skeptical positions on climate science.

“More importantly,” he said, “about three dozen have indicated anecdotally that they had found new avenues of information and data on a subject about which they had had only some cursory understanding, and now are actively involved in staying abreast of. These have gone from the ‘I-don’t-know’ to the ‘I’m-learning-more about-it-all-the-time’ stage. They’re the ones we’re most interested in.”

Ward and the C4 research group’s surveys agree that while some broadcast meteorologists don’t cover climate change because of skepticism or fear that it won’t play well with their audiences, the main impediment remains a lack of airtime. Education won’t necessarily change that, but it pays off outside the studio as well, when meteorologists get questions about climate at schools, Rotary clubs, and other civic events, Ward said: “Off-air communications are key.”

Unfortunately, there aren’t many workshops like Ward’s. The National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) distributes environmental information to meteorologists through its Earth Gauge program, and coordinates with COMET, part of the University Consortium for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), in Boulder, CO, to provide online training and course materials. But only 42 percent of weathercasters have participated in continuing education courses or organized learning experiences on climate change, according C4’s national survey, and the majority say that they are unsatisfied with the opportunities available to them.

There’s been talk about doing more, Ward said, but funding is tight. “I honestly find it strange that there are not more face-to-face opportunities given that many people talk-up the need to better inform TV meteorologist on climate issues,” he said.

Perhaps it’s time to start focusing on the meteorologists who want that education rather than the ones who don’t.

 

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Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.