You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows
These famous lyrics from the Bob Dylan song, Subterranean Homesick Blues, come to mind when I consider why so many meteorologists and weather forecasters are skeptical or in outright denial of anthropogenic (man-made) global warming (AGW). Very outspoken skeptics that are meteorologists include, among others: Richard Lindzen, William Gray, Joseph D’Aleo (IceCap), and Joe Bastardi (AccuWeather). Non-degree holders (weather forecasters) that are also very outspoken skeptics include, among others, Anthony Watts (Watts Up With That) and John Coleman of KUSI News, San Diego. Of these people, only Dr. Lindzen has published papers related to climate change in peer-reviewed journals.
A poll performed by Doran and Zimmerman (2009) at Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois at Chicago of 3,146 Earth scientists showed 96.2% of climatologists who are active in climate research believe that mean global temperatures have risen compared to pre-1800s levels, and 97.4% believe that human activity is a significant factor in changing mean global temperatures. Among all respondents, 90% agreed that temperatures have risen compared to pre-1800 levels, and 80% agreed that humans significantly influence the global temperature. Petroleum geologists were among the biggest doubters, with only 47 percent believing in human involvement but meteorologists were also not convinced. Only 64% (23 of 36) of the meteorologists believe AGW is occurring.
As shown in the October 2009 Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (Wilson, 2009) the skepticism is shown to be far greater for television weather forecasters.
An e-mail survey was sent to 800 broadcast weather forecasters with 121 respondents. Table 3 of the survey is shown below:
Fewer than half believe that the climate is even warming despite the overwhelming evidence for global warming. More disturbing, only 24% believe in AGW despite the multiple lines of supporting evidence.
Table 4 also reveals a tremendous amount of skepticism:
Shockingly, 29% think that “Global warming is a scam.” Essentially, these folks think there is a massive international conspiracy being conducted by thousands of scientists in order to defraud billions of people. All I can really say is, “Wow!”
I will be coming back to question #20 above because I think it is a key reason for the skepticism but there is some housekeeping to do first.
What is the official position of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) regarding AGW?
Below is an excerpt from the AMS official statement. (Click to read the full statement.)
Despite the uncertainties noted above, there is adequate evidence from observations and interpretations of climate simulations to conclude that the atmosphere, ocean, and land surface are warming; that humans have significantly contributed to this change; and that further climate change will continue to have important impacts on human societies, on economies, on ecosystems, and on wildlife through the 21st century and beyond.
The position of the AMS is essentially the same as the IPCC (2007) and every international science organization. See: The Scientific Consensus
What is the difference between a meteorologist and a weather forecaster?
There is a huge difference. A meteorologist is a scientist with rigorous course work and research methods training. The first two years of undergraduate coursework include: Chemistry I and II, Physics I, II, and III, and Calculus I, II, III, IV. These courses are required before ever taking a single meteorology course. Upper-level coursework focuses on the physics of atmospheric processes. In other words, a meteorologist is an atmospheric physicist.
Anybody can be a weather forecaster. I teach an Introduction to Weather course at my junior college that is a science elective course for non-science majors. Students who enroll have no physics or chemistry courses and often just have a high school algebra background. Yet, after about five weeks of training, they can accurately forecast weather using computer models such as the NAM and GFS offered by the National Weather Service. However, they cannot explain the underlying physics of these models.
Why the skepticism from meteorologists and weather forecasters?
Because we are all human, we have our own political world view and we are influenced by outside forces. Meteorologists and weather forecasters are no exception. I describe a few of the major reasons that there is much misinformation about climate change in my page titled Reasons for the Misinformation. There are some reasons specific to meteorologists and weather forecasters that are likely behind the skepticism.
I will begin with weather forecasters.
1. Not distinguishing climate modeling from weather prediction
When determining long term trends in climate, weather is essentially the “noise” and climate is the “signal”. Question #20 from Table 4 above shows that 62% think climate models are not accurate while only 19% think that they are. Weather forecasters realize how challenging it is to predict weather just a few days ahead so it is easy to understand how they might be very skeptical of climate models that predict changes on a decadal time scale. I address this distinction on my Climate Models & Accuracy page. Of course, climate models are very accurate in many respects and are improving every year. Atmospheric Science Assessment and Integration Section Science and Technology Branch Environment Canada (2008) explains it well:
Climate is average weather, which is more predictable than day-to-day and hour-to-hour weather changes. Weather behavior is chaotic and often difficult to predict beyond a week or so into the future. By comparison, climate is largely determined by global and regional geophysical processes that change slowly. Hence, if these factors are properly understood and predictable, then the climate can be forecast far into the future with a significant degree of confidence.
Because climate models are the only way to predict future climate change, these models are a key tool to be used in policy-driven decisions. Without faith in these models, there can be little faith in AGW and its future impact.
2. Lack of access to peer-reviewed journals
Broadcast weather forecasters are not in academia so they do not have free access to the peer-reviewed literature. There are hundreds of journals that publish articles related to climate science. Subscriptions to these journals can be expensive. Here are annual subscription fees for a few of the major journals one needs to read to be up to speed on climate change:
Journal of Climate: $140
JGR Atmospheres: $227 (online only)
One cannot expect weather forecasters to subscribe at these rates. That leaves the Web and books as the resource likely used. Neither of these are peer-reviewed sources and for every science Web site such as Realclimate there is a pseudo-science site such as ClimateDepot or Watts Up With That. Of course, it is becoming much easier to get peer-reviewed literature with the advent of Google Scholar and I have been able to get .PDF files from the original authors by simply asking via e-mail.
3. No scientific research methods training or atrophy sets in
Weather forecasters who do not hold a science degree are unlikely to have the skills to do quality research or analysis. If one does not understand the science nor can do a proper analysis of data, it becomes much easier to be skeptical of or deny the science. Bob Coleman and Anthony Watts fall into this category. Watts routinely posts seriously flawed analyses on his site. A recent example can found at Open Mind’s False Claims Proven False and Shame. Weather forecasters with degrees (D’Aleao and Bastardi) might also fall into this category because they are spending most of their time weather forecasting and not researching or teaching the underlying physics. Atrophy of their skills may be occurring.
What about those that do have degrees? Why the skepticism? Although meteorologists as a majority do understand that there is AGW, there is still much skepticism when compared to their peers in other sciences. Because I am a meteorologist, I think I am a good case study.
1. Climate change is missing in the curriculum
I received my B.S. Meteorology from University of Lowell (now UMass-Lowell) in 1987 and my M.S. Meteorology from Penn State University in 1990. Penn State (PSU) is considered one of the top meteorology programs in the world and my Lowell curriculum was modeled after the PSU program. My courses there were taught by two former PSU PhD’s and one from University of Chicago. I could not have had a stronger curriculum or instruction and yet, I was never required to take a paleoclimatology course in either institution. I left PSU in 1991 with the opinion that humans are probably playing a small role in global warming but we were too insignificant to be the primary forcing mechanism.
It was not until the IPCC TAR (2001) that I began to think that humans might be a significant cause of climate change. Since 2001, observations reveal to most scientists that AGW is very likely occurring.
As Bob Dylan also said, “The times they are a-changing” but not everywhere. For example, Penn State’s Climatology Option and SUNY-Albany’s Atmospheric Science degree include paleoclimatology coursework but UMass-Lowell’s Atmospheric Science (Meteorology) Degree still does not.
So it appears that we in the old guard never had the coursework and even some of the younger meteorologists may be missing the key courses to help them understand climate change.
2. Not distinguishing climate modeling from weather prediction
A significant number of meteorologists are weather forecasting. According to Wiki, in 2006, more than 90 percent of the 3,200 meteorologists employed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration worked as forecasters in the National Weather Service.
3. Lack of access to peer-reviewed journals
If a meteorologist is not in academia or another instituion that provides free access to peer-reviewed journals, access to the latest science may be cost-prohibitive. It is certainly easier to be skeptical when not armed with the latest scientific research.
Here is the good news:
i. Climate science research is getting easier to access on the Web
ii. The AMS is working hard to educate its membership about climate change (Wilson, 2009)
iii. It appears that more undergraduate meteorology programs are including coursework in climate change
As the science of climate change progresses and with the good news listed above, it is likely that fewer and fewer meteorologists and weather forecasters will be so skeptical.