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Forecast: Warm With a Chance of Denial

• February 16, 2010 • 2:22 PM

Despite the weight of scientific evidence, many TV meteorologists are global warming skeptics, survey shows

Do weathermen themselves “know which way the wind blows”?

A recent national survey of TV weather forecasters, all of them meteorologists, reveals that nearly 1 in 3 believes “global warming is a scam,” 1 in 4 is not sure, and three out of four are not convinced that the warming of the Earth since 1950 is man-made.

As reported in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, the admittedly small survey sample of 121 forecasters was dominated by climate change skeptics who questioned the findings of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world authority on global warming, and the conclusions of the professional society to which they belong.

“While healthy skepticism is a hallmark of journalism, these data suggest a deeper cynicism among some on-air forecasters,” wrote Kris Wilson, a former weather anchor who performed the survey and wrote the report. Wilson is a geographer and a lecturer in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.

“While some said they trusted the IPCC, others said that that organization was ‘the most political’ and discredited its entire body of evidence,” Wilson wrote. “While some considered former Vice President Al Gore as a credible expert, others singled him out for special invectives and disdain, with one of them referring to him as a ‘snake-oil salesman.’ Ranking third in the category (12%) of ‘whom do you trust’ was ‘Myself.’”

Gore and the intergovernmental panel shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in establishing the scientific foundation for man-made climate change and educating the public about it.

Also in 2007, in recognition of the “vast weight of current scientific understanding” expressed in the panel’s reports, the American Meteorological Society issued an “information statement” concluding that “the atmosphere, ocean and land surface are warming” and that “humans have significantly contributed to this change.”

The survey was sponsored by the National Environmental Education Foundation, a nonprofit group founded by Congress, to help guide online courses on climate change for broadcast meteorologists. Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed said they were comfortable in their role as the resident scientist at their TV stations, but only one out of five has ever produced a story in the field on climate change. Forty-one percent cited “too much scientific uncertainty” as the “greatest obstacle to reporting on climate change.”

When asked about the IPCC’s conclusion that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal,” only 45 percent of the weathercasters said they agreed with that assessment, and 34 percent flat-out disagreed. Asked to respond to the panel’s conclusion that “most of the warming since 1950 is very likely human-induced,” half disagreed and another 25 percent had no opinion.

As reported by Miller-McCune.com, Wilson has written previously about how TV weathercasters are “potentially prominent science communicators” who enjoy top audience credibility scores on the air. They spend a lot of time giving talks to community and school groups, which is where they discuss climate change most often. Yet a number do not have degrees in meteorology or atmospheric science, as Wilson’s earlier research shows.

Miller-McCune.com has also reported on a 2009 Rasmussen Reports survey showing that while 82 percent of scientists attribute climate change to human activity, only 41 percent of Americans overall agree with that assessment.

It’s no wonder: They’ve probably been listening to their local weatherman.

Melinda Burns
Former Miller-McCune staff writer Melinda Burns was previously a senior writer for the Santa Barbara News-Press, covering immigration, urban planning, science, and the environment.

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