In recent years, the world's scientists have begun to show that climate change is altering the magnitude and frequency of severe weather, and polls say a majority of Americans now link droughts, floods and other extremes to global warming.
And yet, this country's TV weather forecasters have increasingly taken to denying evidence that warming is affecting weather—or is even happening at all. Only 19 percent accept the established science that human activity is driving climate change, says a 2011 report by the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, making TV meteorologists far more skeptical than the public at large.
That's a troubling statistic for some climate advocacy groups, which recently launched the "Forecast the Facts" campaign. Those advocates worry that Americans hungry for information on global warming will seek answers from popular and enterprising TV forecasters who reject the climate science consensus—especially as social media use grows.
"Their denial has the potential to have a huge impact on their viewers," says Daniel Souweine, co-founder of the nonprofit Citizen Engagement Lab and campaign director of Forecast the Facts.
Climate skeptic forecaster James Spann, for instance, a TV meteorologist in Birmingham, Ala., has almost 98,000 Facebook "likes" and 60,000 Twitter followers, more than any local TV talent in the nation, finds one report. A recent tweet has Spann attacking Bill Nye, the TV host and science educator, for connecting hurricanes to climate change. "Somebody needs to tell this stooge the difference between weather and climate."
"Local weathercasters are sort of rock stars ... and surveys show that the general public cares about what their weathercaster thinks of climate change," says Edward Maibach, director of the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication and lead researcher on several surveys of meteorologists' global warming views.
But why TV meteorologists veer so far from the opinion of climate scientists is something researchers haven't yet polled. Experts interviewed for this story cite three main reasons for the disparity: their different levels of confidence in climate models, meteorologists' lack of education in global warming science and personal politics.
Distrust in Climate Models
About 97 percent of climate researchers believe that climate change is real and caused by humans, according to a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences. Most working meteorologists fall into that camp, says Keith Seitter, the executive director of the American Meteorological Society (AMS). TV forecasters make up a small fraction of meteorologists.
In 2007, the 14,000-member AMS released a statement acknowledging the scientific consensus that human activity is causing the world's climate to warm. The AMS is the nation's largest meteorology membership organization.
Seitter says most U.S. meteorologists are researchers, such as state climatologists or those who work at NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), universities and nonprofit institutions. About 10 percent are TV weather reporters, he notes.
They are "unusually skeptical" and "pretty vocal ... [This] has caused some conflict within the AMS." Some members have dropped their membership because of the society's stance on global warming, Seitter says.
Experts say one answer to the broadcaster/scientist disparity lies in their different levels of confidence in computer models.
While the models TV meteorologists use to forecast weather use the same "physics" as those scientists use to predict long-term climate trends (for instance, the same calculations for how the atmosphere and biosphere interact), the data they plug into them is quite different, explains Keith Dixon, a research meteorologist at NOAA, who focuses on climate variability.
Just using different data produces scenarios with vastly different accuracies, he says.
TV meteorologists generally plug in very localized parameters like current wind speed and sea surface temperatures, which provide clues to rainfall and cloud formation in the immediate future, in a particular area.
Weather models are usually only accurate in predicting five- or seven-day forecasts—if that. A common belief of broadcasters is that climate models are just as fallible.