TV weathercasters hear about climate change — The Mountain Town News #ActOnClimate

Atmospheric scientist Scott Denning of Colorado State University, left, and Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Photo/Allen Best

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

Slipping in climate change amid the daily weather on TV in Colorado

Television meteorologist Mike Nelson has two-and-a-half minutes each night to recap the day’s weather and inform viewers of Denver’s KMGH-TV what to expect in the hours and days ahead. Rarely does he have time to mention the changing climate.

Nelson, though, does speak up when he can. “It’s not just about polar bears. It’s about our children and our grandchildren,” he said on a recent Saturday morning in downtown Denver as he showed a picture of his own grandchildren. “This is really important stuff.”

A handful of representatives from TV stations in Denver, Colorado Springs and Grand Junction were at the session held on the Auraria campus. Nelson, chief meteorologist at Channel 7, had helped organize the program with the National Weather Service, bringing in two climate scientists to talk about how greenhouse gases are warming the planet and changing the climate.

It was a low-key affair in an ordinary classroom in the Science building. There was coffee in the back and pink-glazed donuts, but also carrots and dip. Few of the faces were familiar to casual TV watchers. Other than Nelson, only Danielle Grant, a relatively recent addition to the prime-time slots at Channel 9, stood out. Nelson has been reciting the temperatures and dishing out predictions of rain, snow, and sunshine in Denver with his signature voice, smooth and calmly authoritative, since 1991.

The scientists talked about weather and climate, physics and politics, despair and optimism.

Greenhouse gas emissions have actually accelerated in the last three years, said Kevin Trenberth, distinguished senior scientist with the Climate and Global Dynamics Laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder. “We’re not making a dent in the problem so far,” he said. Half of all modern emissions have occurred since 1985.

Trenberth, whose accent betrays his New Zealand roots, has been consulted frequently by reporters for national news organizations such as when Hurricane Sandy flooded Manhattan. While temperatures have clearly been rising, Trenberth was among the first to proclaim the increased energy could also be detected in extreme weather.

About 90 percent of the increased heat goes into the ocean, causing expansion of the water and rising sea levels. Trenberth said he believes that hurricanes are a way that oceans use to shed heat, much as a body sheds heat perspiration. The warming climate may not result in more hurricanes, he said, but it is already increasing their severity by 5 to 15 percent. The effect of warming produced by accumulated greenhouse emissions can be found in the deeper droughts and more ferocious storms.

Dealing with detractors

In 2009, hijacked e-mails from Trenberth and others were cited by climate contrarians as proof that climate change, as President Donald Trump has said more recently, is nothing more than a giant hoax.

One of the quotes cited as evidence had been sent by Trenberth to climate scientists in Great Britain. “We cannot show any warming, and it is a travesty that we cannot,” he had written. His detractors had conveniently neglected to provide the context. He was referring to the lack of an adequate monitoring system to show the warming in the deeper waters of the ocean.

Nelson said that he, too, often gets angry e-mails and phone calls when he mentions climate change. “Spare me,” was in the subject line of one e-mail he got last October.

“Stick to making erroneous forecasts like you always do and let the real scientists discuss climate change,” said the viewer. “BTW, we’ve had climate change for 4.5 billion years, always have always will. This is just a minor blip.”

Detractors don’t stop Nelson. He speaks to about 50 schools per year, 15,000 students altogether. Youngsters want to hear about tornadoes, he said, but it’s important to also explain the basics of climate change. He also challenges the students to come up with inventions and innovations to solve the problem.

“I tell students the problems are real, but the solutions can be found,” he said. “I thank them for the solutions they will find in the next 25 to 30 years.”

Nelson also uses social media to occasionally push climate change education. He recently interviewed both Trenberth and another climate scientist, Scott Denning, of Colorado State University, for 20 minutes each on Facebook. Those interviews have had 25,000 views.

Denning also spoke to the weathercasters, at first in deference. His audiences usually consist of maybe a couple dozen students. “Every day you talk to hundreds of thousands of people. It’s amazing.”

Then he laid out Climate Science 101 to people with bachelor’s and master’s degrees. The basic mechanism of the greenhouse effect, he said, is really no more difficult to understand than the science taught in grade schools.

“This really isn’t complicated.” The absorption spectrum of carbon dioxide, he said, was first measured by Irish scientist John Tyndall in 1863, when Abraham Lincoln was president. “This is not something we discovered 20 or 30 years ago.”

Denver can expect the heat of Albuquerque, located almost 500 miles to the south, in coming decades, and Estes Park, at 7,500 feet in elevation, the heat now of Denver, 2,300 feet lower in elevation. Trail Ridge Road will be as warm as Estes Park.

“This is huge, and it’s here,” he said. The warming now underway is the most rapid that has occurred on the Earth since the end of the last Ice Age. The post-glacial warming that took 100 centuries is now expected in just 100 years—some of it inevitably, even if rapid progress can be made in abating emissions.

Denning calls his presentation “Simple. Serious. Solvable.” He brings a performer’s intensity to each theme. “This is so depressing I don’t even want to talk about it,” he said, flipping past one no-doubt serious slide.

Then came the solvable, which he suggested is simple enough. Converting to 100 percent non-carbon energy will only cost about 1 percent of the gross domestic product. “That’s what it cost to retrofit the world’s cities with indoor plumbing a century ago,” he added. “It was so worth it.”

Our future well-being need not be based on “stuff we extract from the ground,” he concluded. Changing our technologies will not require us to go back to shivering in the dark. “That is a grim, awful view of human progress.”

What the survey results found

Ten or 15 years ago, many TV meteorologist were deeply skeptical of the conclusions being reached by climate scientists. Some still are. At the Colorado Water Congress several years ago, Brian Bledsoe, chief meteorologist at KKTV in Colorado Springs, argued strongly that the vast majority of climate scientists had it all wrong. Bledsoe, who grew up in a ranching and farming area of eastern Colorado, retains a core audience in the agriculture community for his forecasting service, Weather5280.com.

Even now, broadcast meteorologists altogether remain notably skeptical about the conclusions being drawn by climate scientists. A 2017 survey of 486 participating broadcast meteorologists by the American Meteorological Society found that 95 percent thought climate change is happening. However, only 49 percent of broadcast meteorologists said they were convinced that the changed climate observed during the past 50 years has been mostly or entirely due to human activity.

Another 21 percent attributed the changes equally to human activity and natural forces, and the final 21 percent said the changes were entirely natural.

Members of the American Meteorological Society altogether are far more accepting of the human role in the changing climate. So are Americans altogether. Gallup has asked Americans since 2001 whether they believe global warming is caused by human activities. The percentage has increased from 57 early in the century to a high of 68 percent last year. In the March poll, it fell back to 64 percent.

Opinions differ sharply based on political affiliation. The Gallup poll in March found that 69 percent of Republicans think the seriousness of global warming is generally exaggerated, and 33 percent of independents agreed, compared to just 4 percent of Democrats.

Democrats and Republicans even disagree in what they think they hear scientists saying. Some 86 percent of Democrats say most scientists believe warming is occurring, compared to 65 percent for independents and 42 percent of Republicans.

Nelson likes to say that TV meteorologists like himself are as close as most people get to a scientist on a daily basis. He first encountered climate science as a student in the 1970s at the University of Wisconsin. “The talk was of global cooling due to dust, but even then, the majority of scientists thought the CO2 would eventually win out,” he says. By the 1990s, he began thinking about greenhouse gas emissions again and, eventually, his responsibility to insert climate change into his public conversations.

“When we have a climate-related news story in the newscast, I try to have it positioned to lead into my report, so I can comment, perhaps have a supporting graphic or have something posted on social media that I can have the viewer check,” he says.

Nelson had said he hoped the session at Auraria would embolden younger weathercasters to talk about climate change, despite the risk of what he calls “nasty-grams.”

“The fact is we need to talk about it,” he told his younger colleagues while describing climate change as the “most existential threat” to civilization. But, he added, it’s a simple matter of physics—and solutions can be found.

Afterward, Nezette Rydell, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service office in Boulder, defended the turnout to the session, despite the shortage of marquee faces. Like Nelson, she tilted forward with a glimmer of a smile. “Climate scientists used to be so depressing,” she said. “It’s not the end of the world anymore.”

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