Meteorologists as Climate Change Deniers?

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A recent piece in the Columbia Journalism Review (http://www.cjr.org/cover_story/hot_air.php) examined the rise in global warming denial among the ranks of TV meteorologists.

It’s not just that the climate change deniers (as clunky a label as you’ll find) claim that the climate scientists got it wrong; it’s not that there was a mistake somewhere, some statistician forgot to carry a two in an important calculation or neglected to convert feet to meters.

No, the accusation is more venomous than that: Human-caused global warming is not an error, it is a hoax. It is an intentional fraud, a worldwide conspiracy.

As San Diego weatherman John Coleman wrote in a November 2007 opinion piece, “Global Warming is a nonevent, a manufactured crisis and a total scam.” The climate scientists are liars and con men who have no qualms about faking data if it will help assure them funding and continued research grants. It’s all about the money. (By this logic, doctors are secretly doing their best to make the public sick, thus ensuring a continued supply of patients and income.)

Curiously, Coleman is not alone; according to a survey conducted by an Emory University researcher, nearly one-third (29 percent) of the television meteorologists he asked responded that global warming was a “scam.” That percentage may or many not be representative of all local TV station forecasters nationwide, but it should be cause for alarm.

Coleman’s article, which has been widely disseminated and used by critics of global warming, reflects a curious anti-science, anti-academic position.

It’s the typical populist argument that the ivory-tower eggheads are pulling a fast one on the world: “These scientists know that if they do research and results are in no way alarming, their research will gather dust on the shelf…. But if they do research that sounds alarms, they will become well known and respected and receive scholarly awards and, very importantly, more research dollars will come flooding their way…. Their like-minded PhD colleagues reviewed their work and hastened to endorse it without question.”

This distrust of scientists is all the more evident when you realize that most TV meteorologists are not scientists — and certainly not climate scientists. Few of them have graduate degrees, and only half have college degrees in atmospheric science.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this; you don’t need a PhD to accurately forecast the weather. But climate change is an extremely complex issue, and (with all due respect to TV meteorologists) their specialty is short-term, local weather, not the science of long-term global climate patterns.

The danger is that the public will assume that Coleman and other global warming deniers are speaking from a position of personal expertise on the subject, that their skepticism about global warming comes from first-hand knowledge of the issues instead of right-wing talk shows and conspiracy-theory Web sites.

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