Metro

Mish Michaels isn’t alone: Many meteorologists question climate change science

Colleagues raised concerns about meteorologist Mish Michaels’s views on vaccines and climate change.

Globe Staff/File 2005

Colleagues raised concerns about meteorologist Mish Michaels’s views on vaccines and climate change.

They observe changes in the atmosphere like astronomers study the stars, analyzing everything from air pressure to water vapor and poring over computer models to arrive at a forecast.

But for all their scrutiny of weather data, many meteorologists part ways with their colleagues — climate scientists who study longer atmospheric trends — in one crucial respect: whether human activity is causing climate change.

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Meteorologists are more skeptical than climate scientists, and that division was underscored by the recent departure of Mish Michaels from WGBH News.

Michaels, a former meteorologist at WBZ-TV, lost her job as a science reporter at WGBH’s show “Greater Boston” last week after colleagues raised concerns about her views on vaccines and climate change. She had previously questioned the safety of vaccines and the evidence that human activity was causing global warming, both widely held views in the scientific community.

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A national survey last year by researchers at George Mason University in Virginia found that just 46 percent of broadcast meteorologists said they believed that climate change over the past 50 years has been “primarily or entirely” the result of human activity. By contrast, surveys of climate scientists have found that 97 percent attribute warming to human activity.

“Weather forecasters are people, too, and their political ideology plays a role in their views,” said Ed Maibach, who directs the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason and oversaw the study. “So conservative forecasters tend to be more skeptical than liberal forecasters.”

Among those skeptics is Tim Kelley, who has issued weather forecasts on New England Cable News since 1992. He describes himself as a “student of climate change,” but says his experience with the variability of computer models has made him skeptical that anyone can predict how greenhouse gases will change the environment in the coming decades.

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“How can their computer models be better than ours?” he said. “We look at computer projections all the time, and we know how off they can be.”

Kelley acknowledges the climate is changing, but like many skeptics he questions whether rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are the reason. He believes most of the changes are natural, not man-made.

“I’m much less alarmed by global warming than most people,” he said. “I’d rather it be warmer.”

Kelley said he was deeply concerned by what he sees as Michaels’s firing.

“It’s alarming that you can be scapegoated or branded as a denier,” he said.

Officials at WGBH did not return messages seeking comment, and earlier said simply that Michaels’s departure was a personnel matter.

In a statement last week, Michaels said her “personal beliefs as a private citizen have been positioned inaccurately,” and maintained that she never claimed not to believe in vaccines.

“Scientific consensus does not equal complacency. It is a challenge to scientists to verify the science or push it forward,” she said.

In a second statement, Michaels said she was “not a climate change denier.”

“I never stated that humans do not have an influence on our climate,” she wrote. “Scientists are trying to determine the human impact and how to mitigate or adapt to shifts in our complex climate puzzle. I have deep respect for climate scientists and their challenging mission.”

Maibach, whose study was funded by the National Science Foundation, said that while broadcast meteorologists are generally more skeptical of human activity causing climate change, nearly all — 99 percent of the 646 broadcast meteorologists he surveyed — acknowledged that the earth’s climate is changing, whatever the reason.

Meteorologists have grown more accepting of the scientific consensus on climate change, surveys show. A study he just completed, though not yet published, found an increase in the percentage of meteorologists who attributed climate change to human activity.

In a separate survey of members of the American Meteorological Society, Maibach found that 67 percent said they thought climate change is entirely, largely, or mostly caused by human activity. About 20 percent of the group’s members work for broadcast stations.

Despite the shift, environmental advocates are disturbed about the sizable ranks of broadcast meteorologists who remain skeptics, particularly given their public influence.

“It’s definitely concerning,” said Bernadette Woods Placky, director of Climate Matters, a New Jersey program that seeks to help meteorologists reflect climate change in their reports. The group provides broadcast-ready graphics and educational materials to 375 of the nation’s 2,200 TV meteorologists.

Placky said she tells skeptics that there’s a vast difference in the data that weather forecasters and climate scientists use in their computer models. Unlike weather forecasts, climate models are far broader in scope, she said.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out in the public, and meteorologists have a lot going on,” she said. “But they should know that climate models take into account the entire climate system.”

Paul Gross, a meteorologist with WDIV-TV in Detroit for the past 34 years, said he tries to help viewers understand that while weather is a reflection of day-to-day changes, climate change is caused by the slow accumulation of those changes over time.

“Weather is the little picture; climate is the big picture,” he said.

“This shouldn’t be a politically motivated conversation that seeks to confuse the public.”

Rob Eicher, a former weekend meteorologist at WHDH-TV in Boston, said viewers shouldn’t put too much stock in weather forecasters’ views on climate change.

“It’s like asking a podiatrist for help when you have chest pains,” he said. “It’s a different specialty.”

He also pointed to politics as the cause of many skeptical forecasters, especially those who work at stations run by right-leaning owners.

“What people need to understand is that there’s a completely different set of physics in understanding weather and climate changes,” he said.

“We can predict tides years and years in advance, but I can’t tell you what the wave heights will be in a few days from now. Climate deals with much larger issues.”

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.
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