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Broadcasting Climate

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 6:47 PM GMT on March 04, 2009

Broadcast Meteorologists and Climate Change:

A few blogs away I wrote something of an essay, Opinions and Anecdotal Evidence. That blog was an analysis of the recent flurry of media coverage of global warming. That flurry seemed to be motivated by the change in administration being accompanied with a repositioning of the role of science in the federal government and the persistent cold weather in the northeastern U.S. One of the parts of my discussion mentioned results of polls of professionals who identify themselves as meteorologists. That is, those who call themselves climatologists overwhelmingly agree with the basic conclusion that the Earth will warm as a consequence of the activities of humans (97%). The number of meteorologists who agree with that basic conclusion is far smaller (64%). (Mongabay.com report of Poll, Doran and Zimmerman, Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change). I noted, anecdotally, that amongst broadcast meteorologists there is a high level of skepticism about the basic conclusions of climate change.

Writing this blog has been a very expanding experience. Some time ago a broadcast meteorologist from Huntsville, Alabama, Danny Satterfield, contacted me. We have continued a discussion over the past view months. Recently he sent me some links to The 36th Conference on Broadcast Meteorology. Within this meeting were a number of talks on climate change and the broadcast meteorologist. Here are links to a few of the talks at that meeting.

Uncertainty about uncertainties! Richard N. Berler, KGNS TV, Laredo, TX

Climate Change. Educating yourself and your viewers Dan Satterfield, WHNT-TV Huntsville, Huntsville, AL

Climate change: What we think we think Sean Sublette, WSET Television, Lynchburg, VA

Communicating climate change: a new NEEF/COMET initiative Victoria C. Johnson, UCAR/COMET, Boulder, CO; and D. Sliter and J. P. Lamos

YouSpeak: Broadcast Meteorologists' Attitudes about Climate Change Kris M. Wilson, Emory Univ., Austin, TX

First let me say that it is a fact that the world of academic and government researchers in weather and climate does not often overlap with the world of those who are practicing weather forecasters and, especially, the world of broadcast meteorologists. In the American Meteorological Society (AMS) the disconnection between these different constituencies of the Society sometimes becomes apparent. In these presentations one place they become apparent is in Sublette’s presentation. Sublette poses a couple of the Statements of the AMS on Hurricane Forecasts and Climate Change. He then asks the question of whether or not the broadcasts meteorologists agree with the basic conclusions of these statements. The answers are far different for the two questions, with the vast majority agreeing with the basics of the statement on hurricane forecasts and a less distinct majority disagreeing on the basics of the climate change statement. Sublette then probes the relationship between political convictions and opinions on climate change. I will advocate that you look at the presentation yourself, but it is easy to conclude that there is not a liberal leaning in the broadcast meteorologists who responded to Sublette’s survey.

Similar in spirit to Sublette’s presentation is the presentation of Kris Wilson. Both presenters used survey techniques and surveyed responses to particular statements. In Wilson’s presentation he asked broadcast meteorologists to respond to the IPCC statement that “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal.” and to John Coleman’s statement that “Global Warming is a Scam.” The spread of answers across strongly disagree to strongly agree was remarkably even. There was, however, consistency, with the largest number, not the majority, agreeing with the IPCC statement and disagreeing with John Coleman. Note, that only the question about warming being unequivocal was asked; the question of attribution was not asked. If you go through these talks, you will find that the attribution question raises majority disagreement.

An issue that comes forward is the role of uncertainty, with Wilson again concluding that scientific uncertainty is the most cited reason that broadcast meteorologists are skeptical of the conclusions of the research community. It is interesting to see in this series of talks both the presence of political beliefs and the use of uncertainty to maintain a position. (Old blog on uncertainty). This is suggestive of a lack of objectivity in evaluating the information at hand.

With regard to evaluating the information at hand, I mention the Distinguished University Professorship Lecture by my colleague Joyce Penner. This lecture looks systematically at the arguments posed as contrary to the IPCC conclusions of global warming with attribution to the industry of humans. An interesting theme that follows from the talk is that many of arguments that are posed as contrary use information that is taken in isolation. That is, the person making the argument makes a choice of valuing one piece of information at the expense of other pieces of information. I have seen this time and again in both scientific and non-scientific arguments. It is an interesting attribute of humans, and much like my behavior in not wanting to open the statements of my retirement account.

Returning to the presentations from the AMS meeting, in his talk Danny Satterfield is an advocate for education on climate change. He points out the political nature and the emotions of the subject. He and others in the conference point out the tensions of avoiding the controversial subject of climate change as on air content while at the same time being the general scientific voice of the station. He points out educational sources that he has found useful, including new to me, the AMS Environmental Science Seminar Series. And finally, he notes, a series of meetings bringing together the research community and broadcast meteorologists by the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media.


The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.