How a North Carolina meteorologist abandoned his climate change skepticism

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I became a broadcast meteorologist for WRAL-TV in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1981, and have worked there ever since. At that time, the topic of global warming had begun to receive some minor attention,  even though the science behind it went back to the 1800s. I was also undergoing a political transformation at the time, from Democrat to Republican—which, I believe, played an unfortunate role in my thought processes for years to come.

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Though I’d been educated as a scientist at Pennsylvania State University, my opinions were increasingly dictated by my burgeoning conservative political ideology. I rarely conversed with anyone who had a different opinion. I had just enough scientific arguments in my possession to make my positions on climate change sound credible, or so I thought. And I enjoyed poking fun at the very industry in which I found employment, by accusing reporters of not being “balanced” in their coverage, and always equating the worst-case scenario with the most likely scenario.  

When I spoke about global warming on WRAL, for example, I would point to the satellite temperature record showing little or no warming, and that what little warming there was had been detected only in the polar regions at night. Why was that a bad thing? Finally, I’d posture that plants love carbon dioxide, and so more CO2 would actually green up the planet!

But if I’m truly honest with myself, little by little and over a period of several years, I began to wonder if I was being fair and objective in my assessment of global warming. I wanted others to admit they were wrong, but was I willing to do the same? Finally, around 2005, everything came to a head. I woke up one morning convinced of my own confirmation bias. I felt I’d abandoned my work as a scientist to be an ideologue. I had always embraced science. I was a space program junky in the ’60s and early ’70s. I attended Penn State University to get a degree in Meteorology. Why with this one issue was I so willing to abandon science?

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I didn’t change my mind about global warming that day. Instead, I committed to talking with scientists who were actually involved in research and who published peer-reviewed literature in respected scientific journals. I also read many of those papers, and went back to my old Penn State textbooks and reviewed topics like how visible and  infrared radiation were emitted and absorbed by various gases in the atmosphere. My argument that global warming had nothing to do with human activity was, I realized, an argument I would lose in the scientific court of law. In fact, it would probably be thrown out. Perhaps I could debate how much of an effect humans were having, but no effect? I was just plain wrong. It was time I admitted it publicly.

I didn’t make a big splash at first. I simply made a few comments during my weather broadcasts and participated in a 2007 WRAL-TV documentary on climate change. I nursed my interest in climate science for another seven years before I took my first substantial approach to the subject: I suggested to our management that I produce my own documentary on climate change. I have been fortunate over the years to work for Capitol Broadcasting Company CEO Jim Goodmon, the forward-thinking and risk-taking owner of WRAL. He liked the idea and told me to go ahead with it.

I visited Barrow, Alaska, which is one of the locations where greenhouse gas concentrations are measured daily by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. I also traveled to the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory, both in Boulder, Colorado, where I interviewed prominent climate scientists Kevin Trenberth and Pieter Tans. Both of these scientists provided me with a wealth of information that assisted me in my search for scientific truth.

But this search sparked a flurry of other questions. Why was the country so polarized on issues of science, and why did it appear that religion was at war with science? I argued vehemently that we discuss politics and religion within our documentary. I’ll never forget the look on our producer’s face when I first made the pitch. But we did it.

Out of that research and filming, one primary culprit for this polarization emerged: unconditional loyalty to one’s tribe, a quality that is remarkably common. We believe what the people we align ourselves with believe, and rather than look for common ground with those who fall outside of that tribe, we seek the disparities.

When the documentary aired in May 2015, I was accused of drinking the liberal Kool-Aid, as well as being a Marxist and a Socialist—interesting labels to apply to someone who was a registered Republican for 30 years.

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Now, I’m proudly unaffiliated. When I speak to audiences, I urge them to test their hypotheses, and to develop a willingness to be wrong. I try to encourage them to find solutions to issues that can appease groups with very different priorities. When speaking with people of faith, I advise them to think of science as a tool for discovering more about their community, rather than threatening it.

I have to be willing to be wrong again and again. If I’m not, then I’ve fallen into the same trap I existed in before. Tribal loyalty has no place in science, but reporters will inevitably confront such loyalties in their audiences. I have to risk speaking to folks who don’t agree with me. And if I can’t make them change their minds, then the best I can do is provide them with ways of thinking that will empower them to change their minds on their own, when they encounter their own doubts.

Survival Stories is a series of local climate change dispatches.

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Greg Fishel is the chief meteorologist at WRAL-TV in Raleigh, North Carolina.