Growing Public Skepticism About Climate Change Fuels Interest in Split Between Climatologists and Weathercasters

Two-thirds of weathercasters are interested in reporting on climate change, but that doesn’t mean they all believe it’s happening. Most—61 percent—feel there’s a lot of disagreement among scientists about global warming, survey results released by George Mason University yesterday show. While 54 percent agree that global warming is happening, 25 percent indicated it isn’t, and 21 percent say they haven’t decided yet.

Meteorologists and climatologists disagreeing over climate change isn’t new. As The New York Times points out, a January 2009 study published in the American Geophysical Union’s newsletter found that while almost 90 percent of some 3,000 climatologists surveyed agreed that there was evidence of human-driven climate change, 80 percent of all earth scientists and 64 percent of meteorologists agreed with the statement.

The split is gaining attention now because public skepticism about climate change is on the rise, driven in part by the recent discovery of some errors in the fourth IPCC report released in 2007 and the leaked emails from a British climate center last fall. Still, the overall science, experts say, is sound.

The doubt extends beyond our borders: In London, for example, the Science Museum is altering its climate science exhibit in response to public skepticism. “The museum is abandoning its previous practice of trying to persuade visitors of the dangers of global warming. It is instead adopting a neutral position, acknowledging that there are legitimate doubts about the impact of man-made emissions on the climate,” the Times reports.

Columbia Journalism Review examined the divide between climatologists and weathercasters earlier this year in “Hot Air,” an article that focused in part on John Coleman, KUSI’s weatherman in San Diego. He’s a “professional skeptic” of climate change, and some of his interviews and speeches have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube.

From CJR:
For the many Americans who don’t understand the difference between weather—the short-term behavior of the atmosphere—and climate—the broader system in which weather happens—Coleman’s professional background made him a genuine authority on global warming. It was an impression that Coleman encouraged. Global warming “is not something you ‘believe in,’” he wrote in his essay. “It is science; the science of meteorology. This is my field of life-long expertise.”

Except that it wasn’t. Coleman had spent half a century in the trenches of TV weathercasting; he had once been an accredited meteorologist, and remained a virtuoso forecaster. But his work was more a highly technical art than a science. His degree, received fifty years earlier at the University of Illinois, was in journalism. And then there was the fact that the research that Coleman was rejecting wasn’t “the science of meteorology” at all—it was the science of climatology, a field in which Coleman had spent no time whatsoever.

I don’t find it surprising that people trust their local weathercaster's reports. In all likelihood their meteorologist gives fairly accurate predictions on a daily basis, and they’d recognize him or her on the street. Climatologists, on the other hand, work with complicated models that forecast conditions tens or hundreds of years in the future, and most people probably couldn’t pick even a world-famous climate scientist like James Hansen out in a lineup.

I am surprised that more weathercasters don’t believe climate science. The New York Times hints that part of the explanation may be resentment: climatologists have doctoral degrees and positions at universities or research centers; weathercasters are only required to have a college degree.

Whatever the reason, there are efforts underway to bridge the gap. The George Mason survey, for instance, was part of a National Science Foundation-funded research project on meteorologists. Researchers will incorporate the survey data into developing and testing 30-second, educational segments that weathercasters can use in their daily broadcasts to educate viewers about the link between predicted (or current) extreme weather events and the changing global climate.

In educating their communities about climate change, perhaps meteorologists, trusted and important sources, will better inform themselves, too.

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