“What’s your home address, we conservative Iowans would like to give you an Iowan welcome you will never forget.”
It was a summer morning when the e-mail arrived. Standing in the living room, I read and reread the words. An ominous threat on one’s life, I was learning, has a profound effect on the body: Physically, I was frozen in place, but mentally, my mind was spinning faster than it ever had.
I’d just returned from a haircut, and my wife, Cathy, was running errands. This wasn’t the first message I’d received from this person, but it was the most threatening. As if sensing something was wrong, Cathy picked up right away when I called — uncharacteristic for someone who often has her phone on silent mode. I told her to get home as soon as possible.
One thing I knew: This was a direct result of my decision to talk about climate change on television. As chief meteorologist at KCCI-TV in Des Moines, I saw it as my responsibility to our audience to connect the dots between climate change and extreme weather events in the region. I’d moved to the Midwest from Boston precisely for the opportunity to do so.
At the outset, I was full of hope. Iowa is a state, after all, where livelihoods are at the mercy of Mother Nature. Agriculture-related industries accounted for nearly 11 percent of the state’s total economy in 2021. And in 2022, 64 percent of its electric grid was powered by wind; turbines are a source of income for farmers.
I had known it would be an uphill battle, but this was different. The e-mail was part of an obsessive diatribe; he’d write several a week, at one point saying he was talking about me with his friends. He said others shared his views — leaving me wondering how many felt the way he did.
“Science like FAUCI, you dumb [expletive], go east and drown from the ice cap melting [expletive],” he wrote. And: “Go the hell back to where you came from.”
The police responded with kindness and professionalism. My managers took the threat seriously as well, putting my wife and I up in a hotel. We were minutes from where we lived, but hiding for our safety. We bought security cameras for our home, but the stress continued to grow.
Journalists are expected to grow thick skin, but with each new e-mail, it became more difficult to recover. Something had to change, but one thing was certain: I would not be deterred from addressing an issue I saw as an existential global crisis.
I’ll let you in on a secret: Most meteorologists enjoy wild weather. It’s our foremost duty, of course, to keep the public informed and safe during extreme events such as tornadoes and hurricanes. But many of us retain a childlike awe of nature’s awesome power — and were drawn to the profession by it.
For me, that happened in 1991, the summer before second grade, when Hurricane Bob cut through Southern New England and eastern Long Island, New York. My home, on the Twin Forks of Long Island, was buffeted by a howling, wind-driven rain. I was mesmerized by the waving trees and the patter of rain on the windows. Trees were down. Sailboats washed up onto the beach. Power was out for days. And, at the age of 7, I was hooked.
Two decades passed before another hurricane affected the northeastern part of the country that way. But between 2011 and 2012, while I was broadcasting the weather in Albany, three powerful storms slammed the region. Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee flooded upstate New York with torrential rain, and Sandy inundated parts of New York City with its historic storm surge.
By then, more meteorologists were talking about climate change during their weathercasts. An organization called Climate Matters had formed to provide climate content to broadcast meteorologists so they could share it with their audiences. I knew weather in the Northeast is extreme, so, after digging into the data, I began talking about climate change on air, as well.
In 2017, my station at the time, NBC10 Boston, sent me to Houston to cover Hurricane Harvey — a trip that would change the way I viewed the role of meteorologists.
After flying into Dallas, the photographer I was traveling with suggested we drive through the night to get to Houston. Well, close to Houston. Flooding rains caused streams and rivers to swell and overflow their banks. We drove as far south as we could and made it to Spring, Texas.
Our headlights lit up a shiny object in the road. When we got closer, we found it was a pickup that had washed away. The driver sat on the roof of the truck, yelling for help. Eventually, a sheriff deputy’s boat came to assist him. The boat continued rescuing storm victims, dropping off a load of survivors, heading back out and returning later with even more people.
Parts of the Houston metro area received more than 50 inches of rain while we were there. The flood waters submerged the tops of street signs in filthy, murky waters; in some parts, they reached the gutters of homes.
It wasn’t hard to link climate change to what we were seeing: As the atmosphere warms, it holds more moisture; this increased moisture content manifests in the form of torrential rain. We were witnessing the devastating results.
I returned to Boston with a mission: to bring about change, connecting the dots during weathercasts wouldn’t be enough — I had to change how we covered the issue. I helped launch a weekly NBC10 Boston news report, Adjusting to Climate Change. There were hundreds of stories worth telling — all of them relevant to life in New England. Stories about problems, solutions, mitigation, and adaptation. Stories of loss, resilience, and, ultimately, hope for the future.
Becoming a chief meteorologist is a notable career accomplishment in my field, so when I was approached about a job in Iowa — because, I was told, of my climate reporting — Cathy and I took a leap of faith and relocated, despite having no personal connections in the area. I wanted to make a difference. In Boston, covering climate change felt like preaching to the choir. In Des Moines, I’d be filling a void in a place where it was not regularly discussed.
Meteorologists, as the scientists of the newsroom, are well placed to talk about climate change. Viewers welcome us into their homes each night, and, over time, come to trust us. But it remains a divisive issue.
Researchers at Yale and George Mason universities have been tracking public perceptions about climate change since 2008. They divide Americans into six categories ranging from “alarmed” to “dismissive.” In a positive sign, the number of alarmed Americans has increased from 12 percent a decade ago to 26 percent today. Unfortunately, this group is not writing to news organizations, applauding our coverage.
Rather, it’s the 11 percent who are dismissive who seem to be the loudest, based on viewer e-mails I’ve seen. On some level, this makes sense: If you eat at your favorite restaurant and you enjoyed your meal and the service, how often do you write in about your appreciation and accolades? It’s the unhappy customers who complain to the manager.
The e-mail threat I received was followed by more nasty e-mails — and I felt the optimism I’d arrived with eroding. It felt as if now, more than ever, some believe it is OK to berate and antagonize others if they don’t share the same views. I am far from alone: Over 40 percent of journalists surveyed by Pew Research Center in 2022 reported being threatened or harassed by someone outside of the workplace in the previous year.
After a cyber-investigation by the West Des Moines Police Department, police tracked down the man responsible for the e-mails. He was issued a summons and pled guilty to harassment.
Still, my wife and I were rattled. Meanwhile, my parents and in-laws were dealing with health problems, and the stress was creating health issues of my own. As this weatherman can confirm, when it rains, it pours.
I found a great therapist who diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder. As I weighed my future in broadcasting, and in Iowa, my therapist helped me hone in on the things most important to me. I realized I wanted to continue to do my part to solve the climate crisis — and I wanted to do it full time, with a hands-on role.
Soon enough, we knew what we had to do.
When I announced my resignation from KCCI-TV a few weeks ago, I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support. I received hundreds of e-mails and messages. Messages from Iowans who wanted to hear about how climate change was affecting the weather. I had questioned if people appreciated the information I was sharing, if my work had made an impact — and I had my answer.
It’s not easy to say goodbye to a profession you’ve dedicated 18 years of your life to, and one that’s taken you to five states and seven television stations. As a broadcast journalist, you make countless professional connections, but it’s those you make with the audience — people you might never meet — that motivate you. It’s a relationship that’s difficult to replace.
But, as they say, when one door closes, another opens. Our journey has brought us back to Massachusetts, where, as of this month, I am a senior scientist in climate and risk communication at Woods Hole Group in Bourne. It’s a role I’m proud of, a natural progression for the kid who sat at the window, fascinated by the storm outside. I’ll help communities mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change, allowing me to use my background in communications as well as science. I’ll work to build climate literacy, help first responders integrate climate change into their emergency operation plans, and help ensure environmental justice is part of conversations about building resilient communities.
There are plenty of urgent climate-related issues in New England we should be paying attention to. Rising sea levels, rapid fluctuations between floods and extreme drought, and warmer ocean waters that can support stronger hurricanes are things we need to prepare for.
While thoughts about the impacts of climate change — as well as the sometimes toxic discussions about it — might seem paralyzing, we should not lose hope. As I learned from the positive messages I received, one person can make a difference.
With change comes opportunity — even when it comes to climate change. In the face of environmental challenges, we can embrace green jobs, true energy independence, and new ways to coexist with the sea, to name a few examples.
We are resilient and adaptable — and, hopefully, difficult times can bring out the best in each of us.
Chris Gloninger is a senior scientist in climate and risk communication at the Woods Hole Group. He can be found on Twitter @ChrisGloninger. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.