Here in Atlanta, we’ve had a string of days in which the temperature has hovered around 70 degrees — more representative of late spring than late autumn. The balmy weather has left me in a funk.
Sure, I’ve enjoyed the chance to put my toddler on the back of my bike and take her out for a ride. Yes, it was pleasant to don a short-sleeved shirt to put up my outdoor Christmas lights. Of course, I like the long chats with my neighbors, who walk their dogs at a leisurely pace instead of rushing to get out of the chill.
But I fear the unseasonable temperatures are a harbinger of a slow-moving disaster — a serious threat to my child’s future. What will it take to get people focused on the crisis of climate change?
It would certainly help if TV weather forecasters at least noted the possibility of a link between the un-December-like weather and disastrous global warming. They are popular figures who are embraced by their local viewers as climate authorities. If they helped the public understand the dangers of global warming, the voters, in turn, would demand solutions from their elected officials.
But there’s a troubling dynamic that helps to explain why you’re unlikely to hear about global warming when you’re watching the weather report on the 6 o’clock local news: Many TV weathermen — and weather women — dispute the science of climate change, believing it’s a “scam,” according to a recent study. Their ignorance has contributed to the public’s apathy.
Even though cooler weather is expected soon, 2012 is still on track to be among the hottest years on record, according to the World Meteorological Organization, a United Nations agency. With the exception of 1998, the hottest years on record have occurred since 2000, climate scientists say. The longstanding consensus among scientists is that greenhouse gases are warming the Earth, melting the polar ice caps, raising sea levels and creating untold environmental havoc.
Yet, many television weather forecasters — who are not climate scientists — remain skeptical. Only about 19 percent believe that human activity is the primary cause of climate change, according to a 2011 study by George Mason University and the University of Texas. A similar fraction — 18 percent — knows that scientists have concluded that human activity is warming the planet, the study said.
Quiet as it’s kept, you don’t have to know much science to be a TV weather forecaster. Those with science degrees tend to be meteorologists with expertise in short-range climate models. They can predict the weather a week from now with relative accuracy, but they know little about long-term climate trends.
By contrast, climate scientists usually have graduate degrees and are associated with research institutions and universities. They use complicated models to study long-term weather patterns.
But there is hope the two groups can come to a consensus that elevates the discussion: TV weather forecasters are often members of the American Meteorological Society, which represents a broad range of experts in atmospheric sciences. Marshall Shepherd, the group’s president-elect, wants to help to educate “our colleagues in the broader community,” including TV weathermen, he told me.
A former NASA researcher who currently heads the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia, Shepherd said: “We want to forge an environment where all viewpoints are welcome. At the end of the day, though, our position will be based on the science.”
That rankles some in the ranks. Earlier this year, when the AMS issued a strongly worded statement on human-caused climate change, Glenn Burns, the popular weatherman for the Atlanta ABC affiliate WSB, was flippant in response to a question about it.
“Our climate has been changing since the beginning of time. Only the civilizations that adapted to it have survived. That should be our goal,” he said. And Burns is by no means alone in downplaying climate change.
Here’s hoping that Shepherd and the AMS can persuade TV forecasters to accept the scientific consensus. If they engaged their viewers on the subject, they could help to elevate climate change as a political concern. We’re running out of time before those balmy December days prove costly.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)