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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 3 of 3 )
Mark Johnson, meteorologist for WEWS ABC in Cleveland, Ohio

The AMS doesn't require climate science coursework to earn certification. Nor does the society test forecasters' global warming knowledge during the exam. "There is no discussion of changing the requirements to include [climate change]," says Seitter of AMS. The certification program is geared toward making sure broadcasters have adequate knowledge of forecasting, "since this is what these guys are getting paid to do."

Seitter notes that forecasters are encouraged to take global warming courses on their own.

To get NWA certification, TV meteorologists similarly have to pass a written exam and have their work critiqued by the society. Applicants are not tested on their climate change knowledge.

Souweine of Forecast the Facts believes the AMS and NWA programs need to change. "A certification for meteorologists that has no requirement for them to be able to speak intelligently and in an informed way about climate change seems like an empty certification," he says.

Souweine says the campaign plans to put pressure on both societies to require such coursework.

But whether or how a weathercaster chooses to discuss climate change may come down to something harder to influence, says Maibach: their personal politics and beliefs.

In recent years, climate change has become a partisan lighting rod, with the majority of Democrats, about two-thirds, believing that Earth's temperature is rising from human activity, with only one-third of Republicans agreeing with them, say polls. 

No candidate who was vying for the GOP presidential nomination admitted to the scientific consensus, even if they supported climate policy in the past.

Meteorologists are not immune, says Maibach. "Climate change has become so politically polarized that someone's party affiliation is now the dominant lens through which people come to look at the issue—even if they have scientific training."

Maibach says he believes that personal politics are so central to views on climate change that he is considering asking TV meteorologists to state their party affiliations in upcoming surveys.

Audience Expectations

Weathercasters are often the only people at their stations with scientific backgrounds. As a result, they often engage in on-air chit-chat with news anchors on science issues, including global warming. They also write articles for the station's website and are frequently invited to give guest lectures at schools and various community organizations.

For many Americans, their TV weatherperson is the only climate-related authority they encounter each day.

"Most Americans are never going to know who the world's major climate scientists are, but they know who their weatherperson is," Souweine says. According to a survey by Maibach and colleagues, more than three-quarters of TV meteorologists say they have discussed the topic of global warming either on or off air.

The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication has hosted workshops across the country that connect TV weathercasters with climate scientists. During the day-long event, climate scientists discuss the link between climate change and weather, address the latest science and help meteorologists understand how global warming will affect their regions. "We go into this realistically," says Ward, the editor of the forum and workshop organizer. "We know we are not always going to change people's opinions, so that is not our goal. We just want to provide them with accurate information and give them avenues to ask questions."

But some, like D'Aleo, who is no longer on the air but runs a website called ICECAP, which promotes views of climate skeptics, say global warming should be off limits to forecasters.

"It is not our role," he says. "And in fact, many station managers have told forecasters not to do it, because if you take one side or another it will alienate a percentage of your audience and you might lose them." In 2010, D'Aleo did an on-air segment with Coleman in San Diego, in which he accuses climate scientists of manipulating temperature data on global warming.

Souweine of Forecast the Facts says that silence isn't an option. "Viewers do care about this ... They feel it is the job of the news to tell them what is going on, and [climate change] is the biggest weather story of the 21st century.

"When they don't mention climate change while reporting on another set of record high temperatures or unprecedented severe weather," Souweine continues, "it is like a news reporter talking about a string of murders and not mentioning there is a suspect in custody."

InsideClimate News intern Kathryn Doyle contributed reporting to this story.

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