If Global Warming Kills Us, Blame the Weatherman

Last Updated Mar 31, 2010 9:49 PM EDT

Who do Americans trust more than any other type of media personality? The weatherman. Sometimes formally trained meteorologists, sometimes not, our news station weathercasters nevertheless command more attention than other journalists; for local news stations, the weather report is very often the most popular segment.

And over the years, the reliability of meteorologists has improved significantly; next-day forecasts, at the very least, are pretty reliable. But a new study says that weathercasters are reaching much further into the future with their reporting. According to George Mason University's Center for Climate Change Communication, some 87 percent of weathercasters also talk publicly about climate change.

As you might gather from its name, the Center would be happy with that number if weathercasters also generally believed in climate change -- specifically, anthropogenically-caused global warming. But for the most part, they don't. Another majority, 63 percent, told George Mason that global warming mostly stems from natural causes, while 27 percent called the entire theory of global warming a "scam".

The problem, for George Mason (and me; I should note here that I generally accept AGW) is that modern meteorologists combine two qualities: the first is that they're one of the most skeptical scientific groups toward climate change, following only oil and gas geologists; the second is that they're probably America's most visible scientists, by a long shot.

So it's possible that weathercasters, with only four-year degrees and no grounding at all in climate studies (a field quite distinct from predicting local weather), are guiding the national dialogue on climate change.

What's guiding their opinions? Here are a few possibilities:

  • The models that meteorologists use can barely predict the weather a few days ahead, so they tend to scoff at models predicting years or decades ahead
  • Meteorologist see natural systems as implacable and impossible to affect through human agency
  • And like many people, they can confuse localized weather trends with what's happening on a planetary scale
  • Many meteorologists were disgusted by an early attempt from Al Gore to convince them of global warming, and now view it as a political issue
  • Although only 17 percent of meteorologists have graduate degrees, most are confident in their ability to judge other sciences
Many of the above reasons come from the Columbia Journalism Review, which just published its own huge article on meteorologists in its January / February issue. According to the CJR, there's also a sort of blue-collar resentment flowing from meteorologists to climate researchers -- climate science is viewed as a liberal delusion, based on unreliable, ivory tower research.

The CJR's writer, Charles Homans, came to the conclusion that many meteorologists have an earthy confidence in their own intuition. From near the end of his article:

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.

... when [Fox meteorologist Bob] 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. These theories were not only contradictory of each other, but had also been considered and rejected by climate researchers years ago. But Breck didn't read much climate research...

Breck scorned his licensing agency, the American Meteorological Society, which long ago signaled its own support of climate change theory, but it is in fact the AMS that has been encouraging weathercasters to become "station scientists" willing to speak to any scientific subject for years -- in a sense bringing the problem on itself.

Of course, one must also point out the various news organizations that also help guide their meteorologists: Fox, ABC, NBC and so forth. But those companies often have clear biases of their own. So who should talk to their meteorologists about their beliefs? Or are they basically right in their suspicions of climate science? Readers, feel free to chime in.