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Posted at 01:30 PM ET, 01/23/2012

Global warming activists launch misguided campaign against skeptical TV weathercasters

If you present the weather on TV and you reject that global warming is the result of human activities, the spotlight on you is hotter than ever. But the attention is a colossal waste of energy.

Coinciding with this week’s American Meteorological Society Annual Meeting in New Orleans, the groups 350.org, the League of Conservation Voters, and the Citizen Engagement Lab have launched a campaign that exposes television weathercasters who take a contrarian stance on climate change science.

The campaign, called Forecast the Facts, launched a website that identifies 47 TV weathercasters by name who have publicly expressed climate change views considered outside of the mainstream. (It is also pressuring the American Meteorological Society to strengthen its position statement on the science.)

This confrontational approach is the wrong approach and promises to only further divide TV weathercasters whose views on the issue of climate change are already polarized.

The rationale for the campaign are results from a survey conducted by George Mason University in 2010* that found 63% of weathercasters believe global warming is due mainly to natural causes compared to just 31% who think it’s mostly a result of human causes. Some 27 percent of weathercasters referred to global warming as “a scam.” Whereas, the prevailing view among publishing climate scientists is that the Earth is warming primarily as a result of human activities.

Studies have shown some weathercasters don’t have the most reliable understanding of climate science and uneven levels of education. A 2002 study by Emory researcher Kris Wilson found many weathercasters held misconceptions on a range of climate science issues and their “politics” had the greatest bearing on that knowledge. Furthermore, some weathercasters are not scientists but broadcast journalists. And even for those with meteorology degrees, many of the degree programs do not require coursework in climate change. A 2011 survey of weathercasters at George Mason found only 42 percent of respondents had participated in climate change continuing education courses.

But the “Forecast the Facts”campaign makes no initiative to engage with weathercasters and enhance their education.

The campaign website asserts “viewers turning into their weather report deserve to be told the truth about climate change.” It’s hard to disagree that weathercasters should stay up to speed on climate change and pass along that knowledge to viewers. Maybe “Forecast the Facts” should be providing resources to make this happen rather than conducting a smear campaign.

This is not to say weathercasters shouldn’t bear some responsibility in becoming educated about climate change science. Nor does it absolve them from impartially communicating it.

In an editorial published in the Bulletin of American Meteorological Society several years ago, WJLA meteorologist Bob Ryan and NBC Telemundo meteorologist John Toohey-Morales took some of their peers to task for failing to set aside personal opinions in discussing climate change, writing:

If we “experts” communicate conflicting information, conveying personal opinions with no scientific basis, the public can become confused and often collectively “tune out” of the issue just when it requires the most attention. The same would happen if we gave conflicting personal opinions during dangerous weather events. When we stray from objectivity in communicating the latest scientific findings, we do the public a disservice.

Ryan and Toohey-Morales took a constructive approach - making a passionate but respectful appeal to their peers when they felt they had gone astray. But when an outside activist group flies onto the scene outing individuals and calling them “deniers,” it’s not going make their targets more open-minded nor motivate them to seek out the latest journals online. Instead, it may alienate them and further entrench a narrow perspective

In my experience talking to weathercasters and other individuals whose views about climate change don’t seem grounded in science, I’ve found it’s most effective to dispassionately approach the subject and simply discuss the evidence. Just as important: treat the person with respect and show you understand their perspective.

For example, I’ve seen some weathercasters fall into the skeptics camp as a result of overstatements by activists, politicians and journalists, who have made predictions of certain catastrophe and blamed global warming for every conceivable natural disaster.

Such hyperbole might be overcome by demonstrating that, in reality, global warming forecasts include a range of possibilities, and, while many are concerning, they are not all dire. And by being clear that, while scientists have found global warming may intensify some types of extreme weather (i.e. heat waves and heavy precipitation events), few if any claim global warming is the root cause.

Establishing common ground with the unconvinced and acknowledging climate change uncertainties and even points of contention may make them more receptive to key, well-established findings such as:

• Greenhouse gas concentrations have risen to levels unprecedented in hundreds of thousands of years due to human activities

• Many independent datasets indicate warming of the climate system is unequivocal

• Several lines of evidence suggest a large amount of the recent observed warming is due to human activities

• Due to the loading of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the Earth is virtually assured to continue warming; and this warming will impact humans and the environment

In other words, by plainly discussing the facts and describing the science in terms that embrace a spectrum of possibilities and perspectives, inroads might be made with those who are difficult to persuade or who view the issue through an ideological rather than scientific lens

No doubt it’s easy to become very frustrated or even angry when weathercasters say things like “we’re talking about the greatest hoax in history” in reference to global warming. And spending the time to have a conversation with those that may vehemently disagree with you or are even hostile to your perspective is hard, thankless work. Not to mention, it won’t always work.

But a sincere effort to respectfully make science-based arguments and carry on a dialogue sure beats the tactic of denigrating those who disagree with you.

Groups like the National Environmental Education Foundation (via Earth Gauge) and the McCormick Foundation have taken this kind of constructive approach.

I’m not sure what the alternative approach taken by “Forecast the Facts” will accomplish, aside from additional meltdown in this overheated debate.

Alternative perspective: Forecast The Facts Exposes America’s Climate-Denier TV Weathermen

Related: Classifying beliefs about climate change

(* Note, a more recent 2011 George Mason study found 19 percent attribute the changes primarily to human causes, 29 percent natural causes, 34 percent an equal mix, 8 percent responded they don’t think the Earth is warming, and 9 percent answered “don’t know”)

By  |  01:30 PM ET, 01/23/2012

Categories:  Climate Change, Media, Latest

 
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