It’s been a busy year for TV weathercasters: July was the hottest month ever recorded in the United States, unprecedented wildfires scorched the West, the worst drought in 50 years parched two-thirds of the county. Then, in October, Hurricane Sandy slammed into New York and New Jersey. Yet the cause of much of the meteorological mayhem – global warming – was rarely mentioned on air. The reason: There’s a shockingly high chance that your friendly TV weatherman is a full-blown climate denier.
Take David Bernard, the handsome young chief meteorologist at the CBS affiliate in Miami. In a rapidly warming world, Miami is at huge risk from rising seas and increasingly intense storms like Sandy. But rather than alerting viewers to the connection between extreme weather and the rising concentration of climate-warming pollution in the atmosphere, Bernard spent his time last summer posting 131 pictures of Dolly, his Boston terrier puppy, on his Facebook page. In Bernard’s view, climate change is nothing but a plot perpetuated by crazy liberals intent on bringing about, as he put it in one tweet, “global wealth redistribution.” In June, during a month when more than 700 heat records were broken across the country, Bernard tweeted that the Earth is “cooling” and defended the Heartland Institute, a right-wing think tank that has compared those who believe in global warming to mass murderers. As for Hurricane Sandy, which climate scientists believe was spiked by rising sea surface temperatures, it was just part of a natural cycle: “We have seen storms like this over and over again,” Bernard said.
Bernard is not only a top weathercaster in a major media market – he’s also a rising network star. A few years ago, he scored a national gig with CBS as a severe weather consultant, commenting on everything from hurricanes and tornados to heat waves and drought. “It’s like CBS deciding to cover a public health crisis by relying on a doctor who doesn’t believe in germs,” says Daniel Souweine of Forecast the Facts, a group that tracks TV weathercasters.
And Bernard is far from alone: A recent study found that more than a quarter of TV meteorologists call global warming a “scam,” while less than a third believe that climate change is caused by human activity. In fact, some of America’s most outspoken climate crackpots are TV weather guys. John Coleman, a co-founder of The Weather Channel who now tracks storms for KUSI-TV in San Diego, has called global warming “a fictional, manufactured crisis,” and aruged that “stamping out the global warming scam is vital to saving our wonderful way of life.” Anthony Watts, a former weathercaster in Chico, California, runs a leading climate disinformation site called “What’s Up With That?” And Joe Bastardi, the chief forecaster for the meteorological service Weatherbell, routinely misrepresents climate data during his appearances on Fox News.
If you’ve ever wondered why many Americans are so ill-informed about the risks of climate change, here’s your answer. “For most Americans, TV weathercasters are as close as they are going to get to real scientists,” says Heidi Cullen, the former on-air climate expert at The Weather Channel who is now chief scientist at the website Climate Central. “They are ideally positioned to help people understand that global warming is not a far-off, distant thing – that is happening all around them, right now, and it is affecting their lives.” But by failing to inform viewers about the realities of climate change, TV weathercasters neglect their scientific responsibility on a nightly basis.
Weathercasters argue that it’s tough to cram complex climate science into a three-minute broadcast. But enlightened weathercasters, such as Jim Gandy at WLTX in Columbia, South Carolina – hardly a hotbed of environmentalism – manage to do it very well. Gandy pioneered short segments called “Climate Matters,” which are two or three minute segments that focus on the science behind issues like heat waves and explains to viewers why global warming is likely to lead to, say, more poison ivy in their backyards. “If you do it right, you can build an audience for this,” Gandy says. “Climate science doesn’t have to be alienating or scary to audiences.”
The biggest problem is that most weathercasters are not scientists at all – they just play one on TV. Only half of on-air weathercasters have advanced credentials – often in “broadcast meteorology,” a dumbed-down, made-for-TV version of the degree. The rest, like The Today Show‘s Al Roker, are just TV stars with colorful personalities. And thanks to increasingly sophisticated forecasting technology, you don’t need to know much about cloud dynamics to get the job done. “I’ve never known a meteorologist to get promoted for his or her forecasting skill,” says a former network news producer who asked not to be identified.
Nor do weathercasters need to know much about how greenhouse gases are altering the atmosphere to get a coveted stamp of approval from the American Meteorological Society, the gold standard for weathercasters. “There is no requirement for the AMS certification to know anything about climate science,” says Jeff Masters, the co-founder and chief meteorologist at Weather Underground, an Internet weather site that is known for its aggressive coverage of climate change. In fact, the AMS itself has been slow to embrace the latest science on global warming. In public statements, the society has long played up uncertainties and natural causes for the earth’s warming. Only last August did the AMS finally admit that warming is “unequivocal” and that human beings are “the dominant cause.”
Another problem is corporate politics. “Most local TV stations are owned by large corporations like Gannett or Scripps,” says Terry Kelly, a former weathercaster and CEO of the forecasting company Weather Central. “Many of these owners have a conservative political bent, and tend to be climate skeptics.” At some, like Fox News, the influence is explicit. Others, like the Weather Channel – which is co-owned by Mitt Romney’s old firm, Bain Capital – avoided dealing with the issue by simply shutting down its entire climate unit in 2008. “The influence is rarely direct,” says a weathercaster who works for a Scripps-owned station. “But it’s just clear that if you want to say or do something about climate change, you need to be very careful, because you are likely to hear about it from upstairs.”
Smaller, privately-held stations can be even worse. Stan Hubbard, whose Hubbard Broadcasting owns 12 stations nationwide, calls global warming “the biggest fraud in the history of America.” His job, Hubbard says, is to make sure that “both sides of the argument have equal opportunity to be heard” – meaning that even widely debunked climate deniers get plenty of air time on his stations. Not surprisingly, the chief meteorologist at Hubbard’s flagship station in Minneapolis, Dave Dahl, echoes his boss’s views, suggesting that global warming is a “political theory” pushed by grant-hungry scientists.
It’s not always a matter of ideology, though. Many broadcasters are simply afraid that any talk of global warming will dampen ratings and scare off advertisers. “Talking about climate change is kryptonite for TV meteorologists,” says Paul Douglas, a veteran TV weathercaster and reformed climate skeptic who is now the chief meteorologist at Alerts Broadcaster, which specializes in severe weather alerting services. “They tend to abhor anything that might turn viewers off and make it harder for them to renegotiate a big, fat, six-figure salary. By even bringing up the topic, you know you’re going to alienate the percentage of the audience who still link global warming with Al Gore and conspiracy theories. Why run into the buzz saw of denial? It’s easier to stick to safe topics, like dew point and hot weather survival tips.”
In the long run, of course, avoiding the reality of global warming is a losing strategy – both for TV weathercasters and their millions of loyal viewers. “The simple fact is, the climate is going to get warmer and warmer as we put more heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere,” says Jeff Masters of Weather Underground. “As that happens, the weather is going to get more extreme. People who talk plainly and credibly about climate change are going to be more successful and draw bigger audiences. Weathercasting is not an industry that can bet its future on denial.”