When it comes to the science behind the climate-change debate, most climatologists (and by most, I mean somewhere around 98 percent of them) are in agreement. It's real. But if you ask the general public, for some reason, the issue isn't settled.
Climate change has become so politicized in this country that sound scientific evidence doesn't seem to have any impact on those who don't buy into it. That makes the issue doubly problematic for environmentalists because there won't be any agreement on what to do about the situation until people can agree there's actually a situation.
The idea that there are questions surrounding climate science can, to some degree, be blamed on the media, which for years has offered up he-said-she-said coverage giving equal weight to both sides of the issue. But that tendency has declined in recent years and most news reports now acknowledge that evidence for climate change is substantial.
What people think about climate change depends on where they get their information. Studies have described what's known as the messenger effect: that people tend to believe information that comes from sources that reflect their own opinions.
In a recent survey, 66 percent of respondents said they trusted television weather reporters for information about climate change. Astoundingly, most TV weathermen don't agree with climatologists. In a 2009 survey, three-fourths of the 121 responding TV meteorologists said they don't believe the science. Twenty-nine percent didn't just disagree; they said they think it's a “scam.”
So I guess it wasn't much of a surprise when Fox 16 chief meteorologist Jeff Baskin used his Twitter account last week to put his own personal spin on the issue. Linking to a NASA website showing images of heat waves, melting permafrost, dried-up lakes and retreating glaciers, Baskin tweeted: “So called ‘evidence' of made made [sic] global warming. Cool images though.”
He uses quotes around the word “evidence,” as if the images amounted to nothing more than pretty pictures to look at (not think about). But I think Baskin was confusing “evidence” for “proof.” The images might not prove climate change but they are evidence of it.
A brief item I posted on the Arkansas Blog about the tweet generated more than 50 comments, most of which were lengthy and passionate.
“I'm fascinated with the responses,” says FOX 16's news director Ed Trauschke. “People are very passionate about this particular issue, although I'm not sure any of us have all the facts.”
This month, the Columbia Journalism Review's cover story was about the meteorologists' disbelief. “Hot Air: Why don't TV weathermen believe in climate change?” is an interesting read, breaking down the differences between meteorology, which deals with short-term weather patterns, and climatology, the study of the larger system in which weather happens.
More and more, meteorologists are weighing in on climate change. But in such a highly-politicized environment, that kind of chatter is likely to be discouraged. The next day, I checked Baskin's Twitter feed to see if he had posted any follow-up information or related items. The original tweet had been deleted.
“We don't want any of our folks weighing in on political issues,” Trauschke says. “I think it's no different than in a political campaign. We wouldn't want someone tweeting ‘I hope so-and-so wins.' It's part of the world we live in as journalists. We didn't ask him to delete it. I just said to him, ‘Hey, I want to make sure you're not weighing in on any issues that might be considered political or controversial.' ”
Trauschke says Fox's parent company, Newport Television, does have a social media policy, albeit a loose one.
“Our company does not discourage blogging or social networking, but they've reminded employees to be mindful of posting anything that would cast the station in a negative or unfavorable light,” he says.
As for why weathermen tend to be skeptical of climate science, Trauschke says he doesn't really know exactly why. That makes two of us.