TV Viewers Deserve To Have Their Voices Heard on Climate Change

Forecast The Facts Responds to Jason Samenow's assessment that our campaign is "misguided."  - January 24, 2012  

The Forecast the Facts campaign is already gaining attention, and as is to be expected, not everyone is applauding our efforts. On the far right, well known climate change deniers Anthony Watts and Michael Lewis accuse us of "laying the ground work for society controlled by corporate-government-military oligarchies," while leading denier weathermen like John Ghiorse and John Coleman dust off tired canards that the planet is actually cooling and that CO2 does not cause global warming. While those criticisms don't warrant a response, there is another line of analysis that does. Writing for Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang, Jason Samenow labels our efforts a "smear campaign" and a "colossal waste of energy," saying that we should be "establishing common ground with the unconvinced."  

The smear allegation is disturbing and important to dispense with first. Presumably Samenow is referring to the fact that we have included quotations from climate change-denying meteorologists on our site. As yet, not one of those quoted has suggested that we have misrepresented their views. Indeed, many of these TV meteorologists are openly proud to be considered deniers. They say so on air, online, in emails to us, and in their affiliation with prominent denial sites like Icecap. Compiling a careful count of weather reporters who reject the scientific consensus on climate change hardly qualifies as a smear campaign. In fact, there are many weather reporters we have researched that we believe fall in the denial camp, but we have not quoted on our site because we do not have sufficient evidence.   

That said, Samenow's other criticism, that our efforts are unproductive, seems almost reasonable, which is why we think it's important for us to explain clearly why we take the approach we do. 

Samenow backs up his main argument by juxtaposing our campaign with other, more "constructive" approaches that seek to convince climate change denying broadcast meteorologists through dialogue and factual presentations. To be clear, we applaud these efforts and think they should continue and be expanded. But it is totally implausible that these approaches alone will ensure that the American public gets the unvarnished truth about climate change from the nation's weather reporters. 

How can we be so sure? Because these efforts have been going on for years, and they have yet to turn the tide. Early entreaties to broadcast meteorologists date back as far as 1997, when then-Vice President Gore invited hundreds of weather reporters to a discussion at the White House. Since then, there have been numerous other efforts at dialogue, and they continue today. Again, we're not saying that such education campaigns should cease. We just don't think that they, on their own, will solve the problem. 

For one thing, there are many many people in the denialist camp who have no interest in constructive dialogue, such as the meteorologists mentioned above, some of whom refuse to even acknowledge that the Earth is getting warmer (a position that even vaunted skeptic Richard Muller, of the BEST study, has since renounced.) For people like this, there is no room for constructive dialogue, only accountability.       

Fine, you might say, but what about those meteorologists who are "on the fence."  Maybe they acknowledge that the globe is warming, and that man "might be responsible," but they're "not sure how much." (We talked to several such broadcasters at the recent American Meteorological Society conference.) Maybe Forecast The Facts will drive them into the opposite camp. Maybe, but let's remember a few things. 

First, these meteorologists are already getting constant implicit and explicit pressure from climate change deniers. They know that if they talk about climate change on air, the switchboards of their stations will light up. Many of them are also being told by their news directors to avoid anything controversial. There are just so many incentives for them to say nothing or, at best, to "report the debate" even when that has long been indefensible from a scientific point of view. But until now, they have yet to systematically hear from viewers who adamantly want them to do their job and tell them what is going on, not just with their weather but with the broader context in which that weather occurs--the climate. Those viewers deserve to have their voices heard.    

Second, and perhaps most importantly, the stakes of this issue simply do not allow for an exclusive embrace of the patient, conciliatory approach that Samenow advocates. We don't want to unnecessarily belabor the science here, but when the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Military, and the insurance industry all agree that humans are a leading cause of climate change, when prediction after prediction of climate models is borne out, when highly trained and incredibly learned professionals tell us that the window for action is closing, and when the effects of inaction are going to negatively impact millions if not billions of lives, it is simply not acceptable for professional journalists (that is, after all, what broadcast meteorologists are) to refuse to inform their viewers of this information, or worse to say that these things that directly contradict these facts. 

Just to bring this point home, let's imagine a different setting for this conversation.  Let's say these TV meteorologists were a large group of doctors who persisted in telling their patients that smoking does not increase the chance of lung cancer. And let's say we started an accountability campaign that demanded that these doctors stop giving that advice to their patients, and that the American Medical Association make a clear and unequivocal statement about the links between smoking and lung cancer. Would Mr. Samenow call on us to tone it down? Would he instead argue that we just need to calmly present the doctors denying the smoking-cancer link with the current facts, and politely ask them to reconsider their position? I doubt it.   

This brings us to the role of the AMS, an organization which undoubtedly would prefer to not be in the midst of this conversation. Members of the AMS staff will tell you (as they told me) that the vast majority of their members are not even broadcast meteorologists, but mostly academicians and government employees. The AMS will also tell you that the vast majority of their members fully understand and embrace the science behind global warming. And all of this is true. 

The problem is, the majority of broadcast meteorologists are also members of the AMS. And they also happen to be the members who are by far the most well known, with the widest reach in the public. And almost certainly for this reason, the AMS has actively sought to cultivate and promote their affiliation with these members, creating certification programs that allow broadcast meteorologists to carry the imprimatur of a scientific association. The AMS, quite literally, has given these meteorologists their stamp of approval. 

Like it or not, that decision puts the AMS squarely in the midst of this conversation. And in our eyes, there is only one way for them to appropriately comport themselves -- quickly pass a statement that is consistent with the current scientific consensus, and then vigorously promote that statement to their members. Anything short of this would be a derilection of their duty as a scientific association. That is the conclusion that more than 13,000 people -- those who have signed the Forecast the Facts petition -- have come to, and we hope that number grows significantly in days to come. Because in the end, Forecast The Facts exists for one purpose -- to make sure these people's voices are heard. We can only hope that the AMS, and broadcast meteorologists across the country, start listening.