The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This weathercaster has earned farmers’ trust. He also believes climate change doesn’t exist.

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When he’s out on the road talking to farmers, there’s a story weathercaster Brian Bledsoe likes to tell, about how growing up on a farm 30 miles from the nearest excuse for a town in southeast Colorado taught him why weather matters.

“I just remember, when you’re on a farm or a ranch, and it rains, everybody’s in a whole lot better mood,” says Bledsoe, who now serves as chief meteorologist at KKTV in decidedly urban Colorado Springs. “As you get older, you realize you’re not just picking up on the emotional part of it. The more it rains, the more money people will make.”

Years later, after he’d fallen in love with the atmosphere and become a TV weather man, Bledsoe helped his own family cope with the crushing drought that swept the area during the 2000s. When the rain stopped, they sold off their carefully bred livestock, to avoid paying to feed cows their land couldn’t support.

“My folks did it, we sat down and went through this type of thing, that means you can do it as well,” Bledsoe tells ranchers — which makes them more likely to value the predictions he’s making. “You have to be able to tailor this information so that people in agriculture recognize that you grew up where they did,” he says. ‘When you get their trust going in, it can really take.”

So far, that’s worked. Bledsoe has cultivated a strong following among the tough men and women with whom he’s able to identify.

“We give this guy a little more credence than we do others because he comes from a ranch family,” says Larry Fillmore, who owns some 15,000 acres of high plains, and has been pasturing his herd in South Dakota through the drought. “He knows the environment, and he knows the problems we have.” His neighbor, Dwight Watson, nods agreement. “It’s more than just a computer.”

That’s fine, when Bledsoe is telling farmers when to plant and what kind of winter to expect. But inevitably, he gets asked whether any of the withering dryness they’ve been through over the past decade has to do with that thing they’ve been hearing about on the news — global warming. His answer: Not the man-made kind.

“If you go back through history, there were droughts that lasted decades. Something drove the Anastasi out of the Southwest,” Bledsoe explains, talking about how tree ring data suggests the late 1800s were a dry time too. “If someone comes to me and says, ‘Do you believe man is changing and driving our climate and how it works?’ I’m just not there, because I see other drivers as being much bigger governors in where we go.”

Even as the rest of the nation has started coming around to the idea that human activity has contributed to the extreme weather of the past few years, Bledsoe is among the holdouts, spreading climate skepticism in person, on the air, and online — and he’s not alone. According to one 2011 survey, more than a third of weather casters deny that pumping carbon dioxide into the air has anything to do with the increasingly extreme conditions they’re reporting. And they’re as close to scientific expertise as many households get.

The meteorologist profession has cast a weather eye on the idea of anthropogenic climate change ever since the 1980s, when it was a crackpot theory in a NASA lab. Doubts really took root in the 1990s, when President Bill Clinton first invited weathercasters to the White House, to try to win their support for the U.S.’ bid to negotiate a global treaty on climate change (a trick that President Barack Obama tried recently as well). As the Columbia Journalism Review chronicled, many of them reacted negatively to the idea of a politician getting them to buy into a scientific conclusion and a policy prescription, all at once.

“Climate change and global warming are so value-laden,” says Bob Henson, a spokesperson at the Boulder, Colo.-based University Center for Atmospheric Research, who published a history of broadcast meteorology in 2010. “People think it’s not referring to the physical effect so much as it is to the policy response.”

Henson says the outright refusal to acknowledge global warming has softened somewhat in recent years. At the annual meeting of the American Meteorologists Association, the issue has been so contentious that attendees requested small group sessions to talk through it, but this year the voices of climate denial weren’t as loud. “The dialogue is much more, ‘what does it mean?'” Henson says.

That may have something to do with an outreach campaign by weathercasters able to model how to talk about climate change effectively, even in the 2-minute weekend forecast format. Since climate is a complicated and nuanced subject, broadcasters are also encouraged to take their message  to Facebook or blogs, where they can explain at more length.

When Bledsoe blogs, though, his message just becomes more anti-climate change, not less. And often, because of the pairing of climate science and the policies deemed necessary to address it, that’s what his conservative rural audience wants to hear. On his blog last November, he recounted being asked about climate change during a speaking engagement at a California Beef Improvement Association conference in Reno, Nev.

“I told them that I think it is a economic and political agenda that has nothing to do with climate or protecting the environment,” Bledsoe wrote. “I told them it has to do with taxes and control…They said it was refreshing to hear that from a scientist, as almost all of those that attended believe it is nothing but a hoax.” Bledsoe opposes Colorado’s renewable energy mandates, which he says will raise electricity costs for drought-stricken farmers, and it’s easier to do that when you don’t think there’s anything wrong with the status quo.

But Bledsoe isn’t just pandering. He also feels he’s well-grounded in the science, having closely studied ocean currents, which he says are stronger drivers of the current warming trend.

“I see both sides fudging the data. What I try to do is take all that out of the way, and show them what I believe are the natural drivers of our climate, because our climate has been changing forever,” Bledsoe says. “The misinformation campaign is being run at a high level, and a high speed, and most people are too busy to do the research for themselves.”

That’s why Mike Nelson, chief meteorologist at ABC 7NEws in Denver, thought Bledsoe was worth trying to win over. Two summers ago, he invited the younger weathercaster to meet with climate scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, so they could hash out the science. A healthy exchange of opinions followed, but both parties went home with their minds unchanged.

“Brian Bledsoe is the one I respect the most — he’s not just throwing back the normal Fox News talking points,” Nelson says. “He’s just unconvinced that the increase in greenhouse gas emissions is going to be outweighed by these deep ocean circulations.” The two chat once in a while now online, just not about climate.

Ultimately, Bledsoe probably isn’t harming the farmers who trust his advice — in the medium term, his forecasts look similar to those of someone who thinks the greenhouse effect is causing the longer dry spells, not ocean currents. He’s still telling people in Southeast Colorado to buckle down for another couple decades of drought, and not to have any illusions that the rainfall of the 80s and 90s will return anytime soon.

“The thing that’s got me as much traction as it has, is I’ve been right,” Bledsoe says.”I want to show you what the weather’s going to be like going forward, so you can deal with it. It’s knock-down, drag-out depending on who you talk to. And I hate that, because it really sucks the science out of it.”

Though they might not believe that humans are causing climate change, the clean energy infrastructure that’s supposed to fix it — natural gas extraction, wind farms, and solar plants spurred by state laws requiring a shift away from carbon-heavy coal — could be an economic lifeline.

Already, Larry Fillmore has a bit of income from companies that have paid for the rights to explore his land, and takes heart in the little hillocks that he thinks might have formed from gas bubbling up from beneath. With his cows now pastured on more rain-blessed land in South Dakota, oil derricks would do just fine.

“You could put one right in the center of my bathroom, if you wanted,” Fillmore says. “Just hit it.”