The unauthorized release of thousands of emails between several prominent climate researchers in late 2009 - a scandal often referred to as climategate - caused a significant minority of television weathercasters to become increasingly doubtful that manmade climate change is occurring, and that climate scientists and the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are reliable sources of information, according to a recent study.

The study, conducted by researchers at George Mason University and the University of Texas and published in the January issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, confirms what was previously anecdotally evident: people who were already skeptical of manmade climate change or who were not sure about the causes of recent climate change were more likely to respond to the allegations that scientists were conspiring to hide climate data and suppress dissenting voices by becoming more skeptical that manmade climate change is occurring.

Because TV weathercasters are one of the public’s most trusted sources of climate science information, their beliefs about climate change are an important issue in climate science communication. As I’ve written several times, weathercasters have an enormous opportunity to help educate the public about climate change, but they have (with some noteworthy exceptions) largely shied away from doing so, or in some cases aired erroneous or misleading information.

According to a 2010 survey, only scientists ranked above TV weathercasters as a trusted source of climate information by the general public. In light of these findings, the AMS, through its “Station Scientist” initiative, has been encouraging TV weathercasters to take on a broader role as science communicators within their newsrooms, including through reporting on climate change. In light of the recent findings, however, it’s clear that climategate set these and other similarly focused efforts back, at least temporarily.

Previous studies had already revealed a schism within the TV weathercasting community, with a large minority of broadcasters expressing doubts - sometimes on-air - about the scientific evidence showing that human activities are very likely causing global temperatures to increase, along with a wide range of associated impacts. For example, according to a 2009 study, 29 percent of AMS weathercasters agreed with the statement that “global warming is a scam”, and 41 percent identified “too much scientific uncertainty” as their greatest stumbling block preventing them from reporting more on climate issues.

The new survey, with 571 respondents, shows that rather than viewing the emails through the filter of the atmospheric sciences, many TV weathercasters approached the climategate story from a political perspective. One indication of this comes from the results showing that views of climategate did not vary according to the level of certification (some certifications, such as the AMS’ Certified Broadcast Meteorologist seal, require additional training in the atmospheric sciences). The study states:

... it is not surprising that TV weathercasters’ political ideology, and their belief in global warming, would influence their response to climategate. What is surprising, however, is that weathercasters who were more credentialed in the science of meteorology (as measured by their level of professional certification), on average, responded to the story in a manner similar to less scientifically credentialed weathercasters. In short, TV weathercasters appear to have responded to the Climategate story more through the lens of political ideology than through the lens of meteorology.

This is consistent with the social science literature on motivated reasoning, which holds that peoples’ preferences, including their political ideology, can influence how they seek out, interpret, and evaluate new information. Thus, political conservatives, who are typically more skeptical of manmade climate change, would be more likely to have their views affirmed by climategate than most liberals would be, since the latter group tends to be more supportive of the scientific consensus viewpoint. Here’s how the study explains this:

People are inclined to accept information that is consistent with their preferred views at face value, and they may search only for information that supports their views,” the study states. “In contrast, people tend to be skeptical of information that contradicts their beliefs, and they look for reasons to reject such claims. Because most evidence has flaws, inconsistencies, and ambiguities, people motivated to reject the evidence often can find a reason to do so.

The survey took place just six to ten weeks after the climategate story broke. Therefore, it may show a more significant influence on weathercasters’ views than still exists today.

Six subsequent investigations into alleged wrongdoing by the scientists caught up in climategate have cleared them of the allegations, but that has not made the story go away. There is a concerted effort by some to downplay the investigations and perpetuate the idea that climate scientists have something to hide. For example, in a congressional hearing last week, John Christy, a meteorologist at the University of Alabama at Huntsville and a frequent critic of the IPCC, told members of a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee that the climategate investigations - including one by the national science academies of several nations and another by the British House of Commons - were not legal investigative panels, and therefore were insufficient for exonerating the IPCC.

Even if climategate is no longer on the minds of many TV weathercasters, the new research clearly shows it at least temporarily set back work, as the study says, to “encourage weathercasters to embrace the role of climate change educator.” Given the enormous challenge of communicating climate science to the American public these days, any setbacks are unwelcome, since they only steepen an already uphill climb.

The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not represent any position of the Washington Post, its news staff or the Capital Weather Gang.