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Why Don't TV Meteorologists Believe in Climate Change?

Climate scientists agree in vast majority that human-caused global warming is occurring. But most U.S. weather forecasters don't. Why?

May 7, 2012
(Page 2 of 3 )
Mark Johnson, meteorologist for WEWS ABC in Cleveland, Ohio

"The forecasters live in the real world. They know models in general, and they know these models don't even get tomorrow right," says Joseph D'Aleo, a well-known climate skeptic and the first director of meteorology at The Weather Channel. "They aren't going to trust them to be right about what is going to happen in 2100." Polls show that a vast majority of weathercasters, about 75 percent, distrust models of climate change.

But Dixon says that mistrust isn't warranted.

He explains that climate scientists crunch different data that plays a large role in determining long-term climate variability, such as the movement of heat within the oceans or the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth's surface. "We're making projections about the overall climate," Dixon says, and that bigger-picture data is what makes long-term predictions so accurate. Plug in current wind speed into those models, he suggests, and the accuracy plummets.

"It's a bit disappointing that this confusion over the models still exists."

Seitter of AMS agrees there is a "disconnect" over the models and says it "can be easily fixed."

"Simply teaching [broadcast meteorologists] about the differences [between weather and climate] models, about how they are essentially the same, but used in different ways, can do a lot to clear up any skepticism."

State of Meteorology Education

Most research meteorologists have graduate degrees in meteorology or related fields like atmospheric sciences. About half of TV forecasters have bachelor degrees in meteorology, says Maibach of the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication. The other half is composed mainly of journalists who were assigned the weather beat.

Prominent broadcast meteorologists who are skeptical of climate science fall into both categories. For instance, John Coleman, co-founder of The Weather Channel and weatherman for KUSI-TV in San Diego—who has described global warming as "a fictional, manufactured crisis and a total scam"—has an undergraduate degree in journalism.

Others, including San Antonio meteorologist Bill Taylor and Cleveland forecaster Mark Johnson, both vocal climate skeptics, started with undergraduate degrees in journalism or related fields like communications and later obtained meteorology certifications from Mississippi State University, a three-year distance learning program. Still others, like Brian Bledsoe of KKTV in Colorado and Andre Bernier of WJW in Cleveland, also both known skeptics, hold undergraduate degrees in meteorology.

But even if all TV forecasters had degrees in meteorology would it matter? "There are virtually no undergraduate meteorology programs in the country that have a significant climatology component," says Bud Ward, editor of the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, part of a Yale climate initiative that has recently turned its attention to this issue.

"You can go through your whole degree without ever having taken a course on climate."

Even those programs considered top in the nation—such as Penn State and the University of Oklahoma—are only now adding global warming science to their curricula, though they have long taught the fundamentals of how the climate system works.

Bill Brune, an atmospheric chemist and head of Penn State's Department of Meteorology, says that students are exposed to concepts of climate science in two required classes—a survey course on atmospheric sciences and an upper-level undergraduate course called Radiation and Climate.

"In these and other courses, students are shown the changes in atmospheric composition and their impacts on atmospheric science and climate. The words 'climate change' ... do not necessarily appear on the course descriptions, but they are in the course syllabi or lectures."

Brune says changes are afoot. The course Climate Dynamics, currently an elective for meteorology students, was approved as a requirement starting next year. The class will cover climate change and its human influences, Brune notes.

Most undergraduate programs, including the University of Oklahoma, have added optional climate-related coursework during the past few years, a decision that some experts say could portend an increase in the number of forecasters who accept human-caused climate change.

D'Aleo, formerly of The Weather Channel and a former professor of meteorology at Lyndon State College of Vermont, says that introducing climate science into curricula will bias students against the belief that long-term climate change is driven by natural forces.

"When I was a professor years ago, we taught students how to think, not what to think," he says.

AMS and the National Weather Association (NWA), the other major U.S. professional organization for meteorologists, offer optional broadcast meteorology certification programs. To obtain AMS certification, forecasters have to take courses on a range of topics from atmospheric physics to remote sensing, to pass a written exam and to have their on-air work and forecasts reviewed.

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