The question of climate has become quite an important one in these times, much talked about–though not always agreed upon. The need for prompt action requires a strong consensus, but where are people getting their information?
Some read the scientific literature, others listen to talk radio and quite a few form their opinions based on comments made by their local TV weathermen. A combined study published by Yale and George Mason Universities found that 66% of respondents trusted their local weathermen on this subject, more than other media sources and more than public figures like Al Gore or Sarah Palin.
So it might be cause for concern to discover that, according to a recent survey of meteorologists, who seem to have such a direct line to the public on this issue, only one-third of them believe that there is a scientific consensus on climate change and 79% of them said that they felt coverage of the subject should reflect a balance of viewpoints. This is despite the fact that 96% of climatologists agree the global temperature is rising and that human activity is a significant contributing factor.
It is also despite the fact that the American Meteorological Society, the primary credentialing body for weather forecasters has affirmed the conclusions of the UN IPCC report. They state clearly on their website, noting some uncertainties, that “… there is adequate evidence from observations and interpretations of climate simulations to conclude that the atmosphere, ocean, and land surface are warming; that humans have significantly contributed to this change; and that further climate change will continue to have important impacts on human societies, on economies, on ecosystems, and on wildlife through the 21st century and beyond.” The Society now includes climate-change workshops for weathercasters in its conferences.
So why then are so many weather forecasters “going rogue” when it comes to this issue?
Several well-known forecasters — including John Coleman in San Diego and Anthony Watts, a retired Chico, Calif., weatherman who now has a popular blog — have been vociferous in their critiques of global warming. And in Rochester, NY, TV meteorologist Kevin Williams has publicly debated representatives of Sierra Club on the issue, drawing deeply from the support among fellow meteorologists as the basis of his argument.
Many weathercasters (who may or may not be certified meteorologists) are standing in as the only scientific authority at the station. They see themselves as public servants and believe they are qualified. And they are somewhat skeptical of climatologists, who tend to move in more academic circles. In a way, it’s a bit like a furnace technician or appliance repairman making derisive comments about the engineers who designed the products. While they are surely aware of some of the shortcomings of the design, that doesn’t mean that they really appreciate everything that went into it or that they could design something like that themselves. And since the two groups rarely communicate with one another, it’s easy for suspicion and mistrust to grow,
A crucial point that lies at the heart of this discussion is how many people fail to appreciate the difference between weather, which is about short term behavior of the atmosphere and climate, which is the broader system in which weather occurs. They rely on different tools, focusing on phenomena of differing magnitudes and time scales and have different inherent strengths and weaknesses. Some things are easier to predict long term. For example, in New York, at the beginning of March one could say with great confidence, that it will be warmer in August. Whether the same thing can be said about the following week is more uncertain.
Dr. Joseph Romm, editor of Climate Progress and a Senior Fellow at the American Progress, named by Time magazine as one of the “Heroes of the Environment″ for 2009 put it in somewhat stronger terms. “Asking a meteorologist to opine on the climate is like asking your family doctor what the chances are for an avian flu pandemic in the next few years…”
Charles Homans, writing for the Columbia Journalism Review frames the argument more scientifically. “Meteorologists live in the short term, the day-to-day forecast. It’s an incredibly hard thing to predict accurately, even with the best models and data; tiny discrepancies matter enormously, and can pile up quickly into giant errors. Given this level of uncertainty in their own work, meteorologist looking at long-range climate questions are predisposed to see a system doomed to terminal unpredictability. But in fact, the basic question of whether rising greenhouse gas emissions will lead to climate change hinges on mostly simple, and predictable, matters of physics. The short-term variations that throw the weathercasters’ forecasts out of whack barely register at all.”
RP Siegel is the the Executive Director of Cool Rochester and co-author of the novel Vapor Trails.