I don’t care what the weatherman says, when the weatherman puts politics ahead of science

Temperatures have risen in the debate between the different US political parties over climate change in recent years - and now the country's weathercasters appear to be more influenced by that than their professional qualifications in their opinions of global warming. Credit: Weather Central

Temperatures have risen in the debate between the different US political parties over climate change in recent years - and now the country's weathercasters appear to be more influenced by that than their professional qualifications in their opinions of global warming. Credit: Weather Central

Many US TV weathercasters responded to last November’s “Climategate” scandal more on the basis of political beliefs than meteorology, scientists have claimed. That’s important, Edward Maibach of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, notes, because of their comparatively high profile and large audiences. “TV meteorologists are potentially an important source of informal climate change education in that most American adults watch local TV news and consider TV weather reporters a trusted source of global warming information,” Maibach and colleagues write. “At least temporarily, Climategate has likely impeded efforts to encourage some weathercasters to embrace the role of climate change educator.”

“Climategate” refers to the publication of hacked emails from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) in East Anglia – which is jointly responsible for one of just three global temperature records. Among these were statements that suggested climate researchers may have inappropriately tampered with and illegally avoided sharing data, and tried to suppress other scientists’ work. Since then a series of enquiries found that the conclusions of their research are not in doubt, although they did fail to display the proper degree of openness.

In January this year, before the results of these enquiries were published, Maibach and colleagues paid weathercasters $30 each to complete 20 minute surveys. They used the answers to assess how their professional certifications, prior opinion of global warming, political ideology, age and gender influenced the Climategate story’s effect on their certainty that global warming is happening.

Writing in a Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society paper published online last month ahead of print, Maibach’s team found that 82 percent of the weathercasters had heard of the story. Among these, age and professional certifications were not linked to reduced certainty that global warming is happening. However, prior opinion, political beliefs and gender were. “Conservatives who followed the story were approximately 45% more likely than moderates, and liberals were 71% less likely than moderates, to report that Climategate made them more certain that global warming is not happening,” the researchers write.

Aware of Story (n=556) Proportion of Full Sample
Yes (n=458) 82.40%
Don’t Know (n=24) 4.30%
No (n=74) 13.30%
Attended to Story (n=455)
Very closely (n=139) 25.00%
Somewhat closely (n=171) 30.80%
A little (n=116) 20.90%
Not at all (n=29) 5.20%
Influenced by Story (n=428)
Much more certain global warming is happening (n=4) 0.70%
Somewhat more certain global warming is happening (n=7) 1.20%
It had no influence on level of certainty (n=238) 42.80%
Somewhat more certain global warming is not happening (n=111) 20.00%
Much more certain global warming is not happening (n=68) 12.20%

The overview of responses from the survey of US weathercasters about how the “Climategate” scandal affected their opinion on global warming. Figures in brackets are the number in each group.

Compared to those who previously thought global warming was happening, weathercasters who were uncertain were almost twice as likely to become less certain as a result of Climategate. Those who already did not believe that global warming was happening were four and a half times more likely than those who did to become less convinced that global warming is happening. Female weathercasters, independent of politics and prior opinion, were less than half as likely as their male counterparts to say that Climategate eroded their certainty of global warming’s existence.

Maibach and his co-workers point out that research has already shown that opinions about climate change in the US have become increasingly aligned with political outlooks. “Democrats’ belief in climate change as real and human caused have risen steadily throughout the past decade, while Republicans’ beliefs have declined,” they write. “From this perspective, it is not surprising that TV weathercasters’ political ideology – and their belief in global warming – would influence their response to Climategate.”

However, given weathercasters’ high profile, the scientists say that the similarity between the responses from more highly and less highly certified participants is surprising. “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,” they write.

Aware of Story (n=556) Proportion of Full Sample
Yes (n=458) 82.40%
DK (n=24) 4.30%
No (n=74) 13.30%
Attended to Story (n=455)
Very closely (n=139) 25.00%
Somewhat closely (n=171) 30.80%
A little (n=116) 20.90%
Not at all (n=29) 5.20%
Influenced by Story (n=428)
Much more certain global warming is happening (n=4) 0.70%
Somewhat more certain global warming is happening (n=7) 1.20%
It had no influence on level of certainty (n=238) 42.80%
Somewhat more certain global warming is not happening (n=111) 20.00%
Much more certain global warming is not happening (n=68) 12.20%
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