On June 2, 2015, San Diego’s independent TV station KUSI set aside a segment of their weather report to editorialize about climate change. The message: climate change is minimal and natural – not man made. The message was delivered by Mark Mathis, KUSI’s weather reporter who has an A.S. degree in meteorology. Mr. Mathis based his argument primarily on the two following assumptions:
1) That climate change science relies largely on recent weather events and that these events have historical precedent.
2) That there has been no climate change since 1998.
A quick fact-check rebuts Mathis’s claim regarding climate stasis since 1998, as discussed in Forbes, hardly a left-biased media outlet. And of course, while recent weather events are consistent with climate change predictions, they do not form the basis for those predictions. (See also Bill Moyer’s excellent Eight Pseudoscientific Climate Claims Debunked by Real Scientists.)
Mathis’s editorial was not only discouraging because of its gross inaccuracy but because there was reason to believe that in the face of the Southwest’s mega-drought, record high land and sea temperatures, invasion of southern tree killing beetles, and proliferation of forest fires, the stubborn widespread denial of the science behind climate change was finally subsiding – at least in the Southwestern U.S.
KUSI has long been a pulpit for climate change denial. Its former weather reporter John Coleman regularly challenged climate change science. The basis for his opinions could only be attributed to an irrationally high opinion of his own qualifications and contrarian analysis. For an example of his self-elevated analysis, see Coleman’s KUSI blog. Notably, Coleman does have impressive qualifications — just not in science. He was the founder of the Weather Channel, although he sold his interest after the first year. When Coleman retired from KUSI, there was reason to hope the station would become more fact-based in its reporting of climate change. However, the climate denial segment by Mathis demonstrated that the denial at KUSI emanates from on-higher in the organization. Apparently, strong denier convictions are a litmus test for being hired to report weather at KUSI.*
In other respects, KUSI is a local gem. It provides fine grain sports coverage of local schools that is unmatched by any other station in the area. Additionally, it provides news during hours when it is not available on other stations. Most of its reporters are endearingly quirky and popular.
Moreover, KUSI is not alone in challenging science with the opinions of weather reporters. There are dozens of high-profile weather reporters across the country willing to pit their unimpressive scientific credentials backed by their impressive egos against the weight of scientific opinion and studies, as set forth in this 2010 Think Progress report on climate change denier weather reporters. Additionally, there are slick and well funded websites promoting denial of climate change science, e.g., junkscience.com, which goes to great lengths to make it appear that it is mainstream science and that climate change is based on “junk science.” Notably, and not coincidentally, the term “junk science” was coined by the tobacco industry to discredit science demonstrating the destructive health impact of smoking. Steven J. Milloy, the founder of junkscience.com, has close ties to both the tobacco industry and the oil industry, and he is a correspondent for Fox News.
Such misinformation is often promoted by people on the periphery of climate change science cloaked in false expertise. Mr. Mathis, with his AS degree in meteorology, is one such example and Milloy is another (see previous link). Denier “scientists” whose areas of study are in fields other than climate are a prime source for denier support. Ironically, even some oil industry scientists have long acknowledged the connection between human CO2 emissions and climate change. For example, it was recently revealed that Exxon has known about its impact on climate change since 1981, yet it funded climate change denial until just this year.
Perhaps more damaging than the purveyors of contra-scientific views on climate change is the conspicuous absence of weather reporters, or their news media employers, who accurately report climate change science. They may fear alienating viewers who hold strong denial beliefs or corporate sponsors, or there may be other reasons for their silence. Or maybe its a structural bias, as discussed in the very thoughtful Inside Climate News article – Why Don’t TV Meteorologists Believe in Climate Change? Whatever the reason, it is an important part of the dysfunction that is preventing the country from taking the steps necessary to avoid the greatest cataclysm humans have ever faced – one which will take a toll on life and habitability on a scale unmatched since volcanoes and a meteor wiped out most life on earth by rapidly changing the global climate from tropical to arctic.
Weather reporters are in a unique position to regularly and relevantly inform the public about climate change science. For many people who are challenged with the time demands of work and family, weather reporters may be the primary source of information about climate change. They should be the liaison between the general public and scientists and educators in all things involving our weather and climate. Interestingly, a high proportion of them are meteorologists though the necessity of the education to the task is dubious.
The Guardian, a U.K. news publisher, has made the forthright and incredibly reasonable decision to put climate change front and center in its reporting. Climate change: why the Guardian is putting threat to Earth front and centre. In comparison, our news programming avoids any reference to climate change as if it were a censored topic (as it is in of Florida and certain other states).
We are facing a climate catastrophe; One for which there is scientific consensus. Instead of educating the public about the science of climate change, weather reporters blithely engage in inane banter. Heat waves equate to “nice weather.” Weather reporters make gloating comments about how lucky the Southwest is to have record strings of warm temperatures and clear weather (courtesy of a mega-drought) instead of a polar vortex.
It’s unlikely that stations like KUSI or media outlets like FOX News can be dissuaded from their misinformation campaigns. But how do we get more neutral television outlets to report on it? – especially in their most relevant segments: the weather report? Given the political polarization of climate change beliefs, these stations can be forgiven for subtly introducing the topic. Three recommendations to start the change:
1) It would be incredibly helpful, especially in the Western U.S., to regularly see a graph or comparison of current seasonal average temperatures with historic averages. The same goes for precipitation, snow pack, and ocean temperatures. These graphs should be a routine part of every TV and newspaper weather report. While a few politically polarized viewers may see conspiracy behind such hard data, most viewers will not.
2) It’s time for the public to pressure stations to remove the self-imposed gag on climate change discussion – whether by petition, email, or boycott.
3) Environmental organizations should endorse the most environmentally accurate stations and encourage their supporters to watch these stations.
Photo by author of his own television set.