Global Warming: Man or Myth?

Scientists can also wear their citizen hats

You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows

with 12 comments

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:

Table 3

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:

Table 4

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:

Nature: $199

Science: $146

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.


Written by Scott Mandia

February 26, 2010 at 9:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

12 Responses

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  1. William Gray has no published papers???

    Mandia: I did not say that. His publications are focused on hurricanes and tropical meteorology and I have not seen a paper by him that addresses climate change. He is a vocal skeptic yet refuses to back his claims in the peer-reviewed literature. Talk is cheap. Please see this Logical Science post about Dr. Gray.

    what is a climatologist by definition???

    perhaps forecasting meteorologists are confronted on a daily basis with the messiness of the atmosphere and the strong oceanic-atmospheric links that drive the atmosphere. while academics are isolated from that chaos and treat it as a much simpler system, where weather is meaningless and thrown out.

    Mandia: You are not really serious about that second sentence are you? Please read up on climate models.


    February 26, 2010 at 11:23 am

  2. what is the definition of a climatologist?


    February 26, 2010 at 12:17 pm

  3. Did you know or can you believe that the New York State Motor Vehicle Department plans on scrapping the dyno emission tester for all cars that are currently required to undergo testing. That means that all cars 1995 and older and all trucks over 8501 lbs will no longer be required to pass a tail pipe emission test. 13 years ago all cars required tail pipe emissions, regardless of how old they were. These cars were very capable of passing these tests. Now they can run as poorly as the owner will allow. This will mean more HC’s and CO in the air. I don’t know if this will enhance Global Warming but it will surely enhance Global or at least New York pollution. This was just in case you didn’t know. I do at last 4,000 inspections a year and at least 30% or 1200 get a tail pipe emission test. I am only one of 4,000 inspection stations in NY and I am in the country.

    Tom Bove

    February 26, 2010 at 6:09 pm

  4. I’d like to see a poll of just those who have degrees in meteorology.

    D’Aleo has done real research in the past, so it is hard to understand his latest silliness with Watts and EM Smith as being anything other than dishonest. But Watts is just blindingly incompetent and EM Smith isn’t a meteorologist, but a self-proclaimed “computer expert”.


    March 2, 2010 at 10:18 am

  5. Superb research. Great article. Thanks

    Richard Pauli

    March 29, 2010 at 12:33 am

  6. Whether or not jfr117 characterizes climate models correctly, he/she seems to be on to something. Maybe this phenomenon reflects the same underlying process as Wall Street’s obliviousness to the looming financial collapse in 2007-8: The more closely you watch short-term fluctuations in a field (especially if you bet on them, as financial and weather forecasters do) the harder it is to spot big, long-term shifts. Especially when novel factors like mortgage securitization and industrial-scale carbon emissions enter in.
    One more reason not to pay too much attention to weathermen?

    Eric Scigliano

    March 29, 2010 at 2:17 am

  7. Is it possible that it isn’t the training they receive, but rather is initiated by the choices students make that pre-ordain their prejudice?

    In other words, perhaps students who are intellectually lazy pick a field of study that is not rigorous.

    I always though psychology majors were in that category.

    Gail Zawacki

    March 29, 2010 at 5:43 pm

    • Gail… right you are. Don’t most meteorologists aspire to be Television Weather presenters?

      [A wonderful movie is “To Die For” an early Nicole Kidman flick. 1995 See the trailer. ]

      Climatologists on the other hand would be very useful in business, finance, research etc.

      Richard Pauli

      March 30, 2010 at 12:24 pm

  8. what is the definition of a climatologist????


    March 30, 2010 at 7:57 am

  9. I think that it should be reiterated that the “AMS Seal of Approval” does not even require the completion of a 4-year college degree.

    55% of weather people have the “AMS Seal” (though this includes some who have the more stringent “CBM” designation. Shockingly 12% of weather people have NO “accredition” at all.

    Click to access TV_Meteorologists_Survey_Findings_%28March_2010%29.pdf

    Sadly the general public automatically equates local news weather person with scientist. No, no, no. It ain’t necessarily so!


    March 30, 2010 at 11:48 am

    • Hey, I want to be a weatherman ( no no, forget about that group in the 60’s )

      So, what is the minimal investment in certificates needed to put it on my resume?

      Richard Pauli

      March 30, 2010 at 12:27 pm

  10. Mighty late to the party here, but it does seem obvious that the AMS needs to rescind its Seals of Approval, since weathercasters off in the weeds are still flaunting theirs.

    A seal of approval ought to mean something.

    Anna Haynes

    January 12, 2011 at 1:25 pm

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