TV Weathercasters Skeptical Of Climate Science

A survey of nearly 600 broadcast meteorologists revealed that just over half believe global warming is real; even fewer believe humans are behind it. Ira Flatow and guests discuss how TV weathercasters present issues in science, and why they may doubt scientific consensus.



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IRA FLATOW, host:

For the rest of the hour, we're going to talk about climate science, speaking with climate science, here in Oklahoma and TV weathercasters.

A recent survey of nearly 600 broadcast meteorologists said that only about half believe that global warming is happening, and only a third of them believe we are the main cause of it, and nearly two-thirds of TV weathercasters think there is still a lot of disagreement about climate change among scientists when nearly all climate scientists think the story in climate change is pretty much case closed.

Just to give you an idea of what I'm talking about, here's a little sampling of what these meteorologists are telling their viewers.

(Soundbite of audio montage)

Unidentified Man #1: You know, to think that we could affect weather all that much is pretty arrogant.

Unidentified Man #2: I think we're going to die from a lack of fresh water or we're going to die from ocean acidification before we die from global warming, for sure.

Unidentified Man #3: The earth's climate has changed since the day God put it here. We have had these cyclical changes, and I believe that most of this is purely natural.

Unidentified Man #4: It's actually colder in Atlanta right now than it is in Caribou, Maine. What the heck is that about? Well, it's not global warming, I'll tell you that.

Unidentified Man #5: This is amazing, watching this stuff go on. Hundred years from now, Newark will be under water, right? How do you know? Now, I have a lot of trouble dealing with this because it's all whole hoodwinked theory based on computer modeling, garbage in, garbage out.

Unidentified Man #6: The crescendo of global warming myth nonsense exploded in my head and I had to write a real rant. Eventually, we'll realize that there is no global warming of significance, and we'll have the last laugh.

FLATOW: And some of those voices you heard were from very well-known meteorologists like John Coleman, the founder of the Weather Channel, and the weatherman for KUSI in San Diego; Chad Myers, the weather anchor for CNN Worldwide; and Joe Bastardi who is the expert senior meteorologist at AccuWeather.

So what does it take to convince someone, and especially meteorologists, of the validity of climate change? What is the role of weathercasters in educating the public about science? And are these weathercasters just confusing climate with weather?

Joining me to talk about all these things are my guests. Hank Jenkins-Smith is professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma here in Norman. He's director of the university's Center for Risk and Crisis Management. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Hank Jenkins-Smith.

(Soundbite of applause)

Professor HANK JENKINS-SMITH (Director, Center for Risk and Crisis Management, University of Oklahoma): Thank you.

FLATOW: Greg Carbin is still with us. He's the warning coordination meteorologist at the NOAA Storm Prediction Center here in Norman. And Ed Maibach is the director of the Center for Climate Change Communications at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. And he joins us by phone.

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow here in Oklahoma -in Norman, Oklahoma talking now about the meteorologists. And Ed, let me ask you, why did you do the survey?

Dr. ED MAIBACH (Director, Center for Climate Change Communications, George Mason University): Ira, welcome and thank you for having me on the show.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

Dr. MAIBACH: So the reason we did this survey is because of surveys that we conduct with the general public in which we learned that the public looks to weathercasters as a credible source of information about climate change. In fact, of all the sources that we asked the public about, weathercasters come up as, essentially, the second most-trusted source of information about climate change.

FLATOW: Wow. And so, tell us more about what you found.

Dr. MAIBACH: Our survey with the weathercasters, which we released last week, was...

FLATOW: Was it eye-opening to you?

Dr. MAIBACH: Well, eye-opening in a number of ways, not the least of which is that my interpretation of our findings is somewhat different than what has been characterized in the media.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. MAIBACH: So what I see, what we learned is that 55 percent of our respondents told us that climate change is real. Twenty-five percent told us they didnt feel it was real. And another 20 percent said they hadnt yet made up their minds. They werent sure yet.

The fact that two-thirds of them indicated a real interest in covering the story professionally leads me to believe that the glass really is more than half full already. We've got 55 percent saying it's real, they're interested in covering the story. We got another 20 percent they're not yet sure, but even they are interested in covering the story. So I see this as fairly congruent with the public's expectation.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. MAIBACH: In other words, the public would like to learn about climate change from their weathercasters, and most of the weathercasters around the country say they'd like to educate their viewers about it.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Hank, you've done some work looking at why people accept some expert opinions and - but not others. What's going on here?

Prof. JENKINS-SMITH: Well, there are a number of different filters that we have in place when we take in information of a complex nature. But the first thing you have to understand is that most people, and perhaps even weather broadcasters, arent deep specialists in any sense in climate change. Most of us have to be pretty selective about what we invest in knowing. As a result, we start with real various bases of knowledge in climate or any other technical question for that matter.

The second thing to know about the public is that most people have relatively coherent sets of beliefs about how the world operates and should operate. These are combinations of values that we hold about what matters, and how we should live our lives, and how we should be related to other people. And these types of values guide what we expect from the world around us. So if you are an individualist and you don't like lots of constraints imposed upon you from the outside, particularly governmental constraints, you're going to be skeptical of claims that would justify extensive governmental intervention in your life.

FLATOW: Hmm.

Prof. JENKINS-SMITH: If on the other hand you believe that there is a substantial role for government and that the government is there to mediate big problems that are generated by human action, you're more sympathetic to those kinds of claims. Now, given that we start with relatively various knowledge bases, those values can completely shift around what we think we know about these larger societal questions.

FLATOW: All right. We have to take a break. We'll come back, we'll talk more about the views of weathercasters, and we'd like to hear from you. Our number: 1-800-989-8255. Also, we have a live video stream going. You can watch us on -go to our sciencefriday.com site and click on our little video there. You can watch us streaming here from Norman, Oklahoma. Stay with us, we'll be right back after the short break.

I'm Ira Flatow, this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're broadcasting from Oklahoma here in Norman.

We're talking this hour about TV weathercasters and climate change, why some don't accept the scientific consensus on climate change, and in general, what does it take for people to believe scientists? Our number is 1-800-989-8255. We're talking with Ed Maibach, Hank Jenkins-Smith and Greg Carbin. Also, you can send us a tweet @scifri @S-C-I-F-R-I, or watch a live video stream at our Web site at sciencefriday.com.

Let's go up to the balcony for a question, yes?

Unidentified Audience Member: Ah, yes. My question was for Edward Maibach. He - Mr. Maibach, you said that TV weathercasters were the second most-used source for information on climate change and that sort of thing. I was wondering who the most-used source was.

Dr. MAIBACH: A great question. The - they're the second most-trusted source of climate change information. And the most-trusted was the general category of scientists. We didn't actually - we don't actually ask in our surveys about climate scientists versus other earth scientists or scientists in general. We just ask people about their trust in scientists, and they come up as number one.

FLATOW: That seems to say that they trust scientists more than the weathercasters trust scientists.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Would I be reading that right or wrong?

Dr. MAIBACH: No, actually we asked the same question of weathercasters and they trust scientists, too. A matter of fact, 73 percent of our weathercasters specifically do trust climate scientists as a source of information about climate change.

FLATOW: So then why you - if you have 73 percent trust in scientists and most of them are on the - virtually, all of them believe in global climate change, only 51 percent of those - of that population believes what those scientists are telling them?

Dr. MAIBACH: Our weathercasters have a misperception about the scientific consensus on climate change. As you said earlier, Ira, only a third of our respondents to this survey believe that the scientists themselves, climate scientists themselves, are in consensus about climate change being real and human caused.

FLATOW: Hmm.

Dr. MAIBACH: But a recent survey by - published by Peter Doran of climate scientists, indicate that, in fact, 96 to 97 percent...

FLATOW: Right. Right.

Dr. MAIBACH: ...of climate scientists do agree that climate change is real and human caused.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. MAIBACH: So there's a real, clear disconnect between what both weathercasters and the public think that climate scientists themselves are believing.

FLATOW: And Hank, what you seem to be saying is that if you go in with a preconceived idea about what you want to believe politically or emotionally, then you're going to come away with - coming out with the data you want to hear.

Prof. JENKINS-SMITH: In large part. But remember, it's - there are multiple layers that which this can happen. I mean, first off, deciding who is an expert. I mean, scientists are treated quite differently in the public mind based on what you would put in front of that term: Private business scientist, a consultant scientists, a government scientist, a - each one of these has it's own valence that it begins to add to trust and...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. JENKINS-SMITH: ...reliability. But if you have a strong set of values going in, you're likely to dismiss some people as not really being experts or worthy of listening to.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. JENKINS-SMITH: Furthermore, you screen data. The things that we pay attention to in the world around us are filtered as well by those that collide with or are in accord with deeply held values, and so that you have multiple layers of alteration of the world, or adjustment of the world as we see it to make it match...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. JENKINS-SMITH: ...what we truly believe.

FLATOW: Greg, you're always talking to weather people write, meteorologists -so they want to know what's going on with storms. What's your take on this?

Mr. CARBIN: Well, they often say that, I'm not a broadcast meteorologist, but I sometimes play one on TV.

FLATOW: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARBIN: I do interact with weathercasters on a regular basis, but I also interact with research meteorologists and operational forecasters. And there are a number of broadcast meteorologists who I consider colleagues who do not fall into the majority group here at all and they are closer to an agreement on the science, with respect to climate change.

You know, why this division in the broadcast ranks? I'm not really sure. I think that some of it could be due to the fact that you're dealing with relatively short-term issues when you forecast the weather. And when you're forecasting severe storms, you're talking about minutes...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CARBIN: ...maybe a day. And these broadcasters have a tremendous responsibility to get the word out. And they do a very good job at it. When you're looking down the road many years from now on the impacts of global climate change, it's easier perhaps to take an opinion as opposed to going with science, and you can get away with that perhaps a little easier than you might discounting a storm on radar.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. CARBIN: So there's a role that they play, and many of them find themselves in the role of station scientists as well. And it's a matter of trying to educate too, and I think that they have a tough job ahead of them. They have many hours in the day, sometimes long hours devoted to immediate weather as opposed to long-term weather.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. Now, considering that scientists are part of the general population with various beliefs, are there scientists in your own NOAA storm center who have trouble believing in climate change or global warming?

Mr. CARBIN: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And they are there - I mean, they are there getting educated all the time, right?

Mr. CARBIN: Again, I think it goes back to the role that Hank is talking about in terms of a world view. And it is interesting to think that someone can consider themselves a pretty rigorous scientist - and, again, I want to say that I'm not a climatologist. I'm a meteorologist - operations - 25 years of operations. But I look at science and I've been using science in my job. And it seems to me that, you know, the hypothesis is pretty well supported by the observational evidence here, and scientists should move on.

FLATOW: Well, I think you're just proving Hank's point.

Mr. CARBIN: Yeah, exactly, yeah.

FLATOW: But how much...

Mr. CARBIN: Okay.

FLATOW: ...how educated you are.

Mr. CARBIN: I'm in the hierarchy group, I guess (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. JENKINS-SMITH: That's right, yeah.

FLATOW: You don't want - if you don't want to see it, you won't see it.

Mr. CARBIN: Yeah.

FLATOW: That's what Hank was saying.

Mr. CARBIN: But, again, it's - look at the science.

FLATOW: Yes(ph). Okay. Yes. Step up to the mic please.

Unidentified Woman #1 (Audience): So you're saying that the naysayers are just taking what they believe to - that they hear from the experts, whoever the experts are, and they're filtering it through their own filters when logic tells us that if you have a bottle and you fill it with 75 percent gunk, that it's not going to affect what is still, or is existence?

FLATOW: Hank?

Prof. JENKINS-SMITH: Yes. By and large, the...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. JENKINS-SMITH: ...the - but the point - I think you need to be somewhat sympathetic with people who do take different opinions here. The fact is that they - their level of expertise may be deep somewhere else, not here, but they're - what they will do is look at different analogies and different types of answers.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let me go to up there in the balcony. Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified Woman #2 (Audience): With no respect to Gary England, around here he's a very popular fellow...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman #2: ...are weathermen just figureheads that relay the information from computers to the public, or are they actually the scientists doing the research? I mean, I wouldn't expect Lakshmi Singh to go to Sudan and do the research herself, but on the flip side, I really do believe that what she says is important and valid and true. So don't they have some sort of moral responsibility as well?

Mr. CARBIN: My experience with broadcast meteorologists - and I'll call them that because the majority that I meet in my work do have a degree in meteorology, so there is a degree that goes along with that title. There are a variety of professional organizations that offer certificates of capability, American Meteorological Society and the National Weather Association have programs that you can go through as a broadcaster and you have to, you know, prove that you have the ability to speak to the science of meteorology.

Again, I don't think there is a seal of approval for climatology. And maybe there should be.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Did you want to, Ed, to comment on any of that?

Dr. MAIBACH: Yes. There are actually a couple of different seals of approval within the broadcast meteorology communities so that the National Weather Association, which is one of their professional groups, they offer one. The American Meteorological Society, they offer two different levels of certification. And some of the broadcasters who are on the air, the television weathercasters, are not - don't hold any of those seals of approval. So the questioner is exactly right. There's quite a diversity of TV weathercasters out there. Some of them are trained as scientists and some aren't.

FLATOW: If you go around the world and look at the countries and other - you know, all the weathercasters in other countries, would you find the same results, Ed, do you think? Or are they a little more believers like the rest of their population is?

Dr. MAIBACH: Well, we - Americans tend to be different. We really do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MAIBACH: We are - we feel - we feel very strongly about this issue and many different issues and I think Hank is probably more qualified than I to talk about sort of how Americans respond to important public issues in a very strong and polarized way.

What I can tell you on this issue of climate change, it is a politically polarized to the extreme here in 2010, but it wasn't always that way. As a matter of fact, when America - when Vice President Al Gore flew off to Kyoto to - to represent us in the Kyoto Protocol discussion, Americans, by and large, all agreed that climate change was real and it warranted dealing with it. Two-thirds of Americans at that time, irrespective of their political leanings, believed it was a problem that should be dealt with.

In the ensuing years, and now more than ever, it has become a politically polarized issue. And just as Hank was suggesting earlier, that political polarization very strongly colors the way individual...

FLATOW: It seems like the same thing happened with energy, energy conservation. When Jimmy Carter was president, he made it a keystone of his administration for, you know, to save energy because we aren't going to fight a war in the Middle East over it, but we could fight it by saving energy. And he said it was the moral equivalent of war.

And then President Reagan came in and said, just to show that he wasn't going to agree with that, he ripped the solar panels off the White House. So there was polarizing going on in a different issue back then, Greg.

Mr. CARBIN: Well, I think you can come to some common ground. It's amazing to me when I have conversations with the egalitarian crowd that you - we get beyond the science and the debate on the science and start talking about what we need to do to improve our environment, to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, to come up with sustainable energy. These are things that are almost universally accepted as a good thing to do. And so maybe it's time to move beyond the scientific debate here - which really isn't a debate, the science is clear on this - and move on to solutions.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255.

Yes, ma'am. You've been waiting patiently.

Unidentified Woman #3 (Audience): Thank you. People have been saying that because of the increase in snow in unusual places that that disproves global warming. Couldn't that possibly be effect from extra heat bringing up water from the ocean or melting of the polar ice caps, et cetera?

Mr. CARBIN: Absolutely. There are - it - that's a very local effect. And when we're talking about global climate change, we have to take ourselves outside of our own backyard and start looking at the planet as a whole.

People have a tendency, I think, in this particular dilemma - and Hank, you can correct me if I'm wrong - if the issue isn't immediate or isn't affecting you personally, it's much easier to discount the theories and say, well, I just, you know, I'm going to come up with my own idea on this because I'm not walking out the door into a heat wave. But the, you know, so we have to get away from looking at weather. And it's weather - that's weather, not climate, so we need to separate weather from climate in this debate, in talking about these events that we've seen.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. JENKINS-SMITH: I would add to that that those events are significant politically. I mean, even in the late 1990s, the heat waves that were going on were seen as broad justification for believing that climate change was happening. Now, we see the reverse. And it's not surprising that people of different dispositions will latch on to specific facts that would seem to buttress their point of view, hence, Rush Limbaugh makes a big point of cold temperatures when they occur.

Mr. CARBIN: Who is he?

FLATOW: Okay. We've got to take...

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

FLATOW: Talking about - a minor competitor right there. We're talking about climate change this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow here in Norman, Oklahoma. Let's see if we can take a quick - another question here. Let's see if we can get a quick question up there. Quickly.

Unidentified Woman #4 (Audience): Yes. She - playing on that, would you speak about - we are, what, 1.5 percent of the surface area here in the lower 48. That's all we are. And yet, they talk about the weather changes as if it were climate changes. The - would you speak a bit about the arctic temperatures these last decades and the ice loss?

Prof. JENKINS-SMITH: And that goes back to my point about being - personally experiencing the impacts of climate change. Some of the tribes in areas of the north, the Inuits and others that rely on almost semi-permanent ice up there are not happy. And actually, I know a broadcast meteorologist on his own dime travelled to the Arctic a few years back to bring that story to his viewers firsthand. And that's the kind of information that I think people need to know about, something that's impacting other people - maybe not you, maybe not this country, but it is going on and there are impacts globally.

FLATOW: Yes, ma'am, up there.

Unidentified Woman #5 (Audience): Okay. My husband texted me this question: So with the recent discovery of emails from the University of the East Anglian in the UK, isn't the validity of global warming a failing idea? And if scientists are funded or employed by government grants, wouldn't it behoove them to further the global warming idea to keep their jobs even if they have conflicting information to these ideas?

FLATOW: Ed Maibach?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MAIBACH: So that incident that you're asking about is frequently called Climategate. And we've actually looked at how both the public and how these weathercasters that we just surveyed are - what the impact of Climategate is on them. And I want to come back - well, first, let me say that as best I know the people involved in Climategate have been completely vindicated. There was no wrongdoing. And more importantly, nothing that was unearthed in Climategate has shed one iota of doubt about the underlying validity of climate change. But because perception is reality - I'm a social scientist so I deal in people's perceptions. We were very interested in what was the impact of Climategate on public perception and weathercaster's perceptions about global warming, being more or - you know, potentially being less - potentially - I'm sorry, I'm not saying this well.

FLATOW: That's okay. We know what you're (unintelligible).

Dr. MAIBACH: Was there a negative impact of Climategate in terms of eroding public belief in climate change? There we go, I finally spit it out. And what we found is in fact, yes, there really were both the public as well as our weathercasters - a certain percentage of them - came away from Climategate, feeling that this really has undermined their opinion, their belief that climate change is real. So despite the fact that nothing in the Climategate event really did cast any doubt on the validity of climate change, it did reinforce a certain percentage of the public and a certain percentage of weathercasters' belief that it is not real.

FLATOW: And it's something that will take time to erode away again. All right, I want to thank you all gentleman for taking time to be with us. We've ran out of time this hour.

Ed Maibach is the director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Hank Jenkins-Smith is a professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma here in Norman. He's also director of the University's Center for Risk and Crisis Management. Greg Carbin is a warning coordination - I'm going to get that right - warning coordination meteorologist at the NOAA Storm Center - Prediction Center here in Norman. Thank you all.

Mr. CARBIN: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Thank you for the tour yesterday, Greg.

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