Degree of Scientific Consensus Underestimated

Five ‘Potentially Distinct Groups’ Seen in Survey of TV Meteorologists

A new national survey of broadcast meteorologists provides a more refined and nuanced portrait than the broad-brush image of their generally being steadfastly resistant to much of the established climate science.



A new nationwide survey of some of the country’s 1,300-plus broadcast meteorologists suggests that the simple-minded lock-step caricature portrayed by some in the mass news media is pretty misleading. That caricature to some extent portrays broadcast meteorologists as having largely rejected much of the so-called “consensus science” on climate change.

Not so fast, the new survey by researchers at George Mason University suggest.

The survey by George Mason researchers and their partners provides important details that in some cases undercut the one-size-fits-all impression some may have: It paints a portrait of “five potentially distinct groups”:

  • Three groups appear convinced that the climate is changing, but they differ on the reasons behind those changes: about 19 percent attribute the changes over the past 150 years primarily to human causes, the view reflected by most climatologists;
  • Another 29 percent indicate they think climate changes over that time are mostly the result of natural causes;
  • And 34 percent think human and natural causes are about equal in contributing to climate change.
  • About 9 percent of the 430 survey respondents answered “Don’t know” when asked if climate is changing;
  • About 8 percent said they do not think climate is changing.

“A large majority (82 percent) of weathercasters are convinced that the climate is changing,” according to the survey results, a view held also by “the great majority of climate scientists.” But the two largest groups of weathercasters responding reject the views of most climatologists that human activities are a primary cause of climate change over the past 150 years.*

The survey headed up by George Mason’s Edward Maibach, head of the Climate Change Communication Center, stems from an understanding that TV meteorologists stand to be among the most trusted and “optimally positioned” to help the general public understand climate change. The survey work done in January and February 2011 builds on an earlier national survey they conducted in January 2010.

Certainty Prevails at Both ‘Ends of Spectrum’

Perhaps not surprisingly — but nonetheless important — the new survey results point to weathercasters “at the two ends of the spectrum” as being most certain of their convictions about climate change. That is, those convinced climate change is happening primarily as a result of human activities, and those not thinking the climate is changing appear most unflappable in their positions. About 90 percent of the “convinced-human” respondents said they are “very” or “extremely” sure in their convictions; about 61 percent of the “unconvinced” respondents (those thinking warming is not happening) took the “very” and “extremely” positions.

In addition to providing some important nuances and caveats when it comes to understanding broadcast meteorologists’ views on climate change, the 2011 survey results fill in some details not explored in the earlier survey. For instance, it shows only 10 percent of the respondents are very satisfied with continuing education opportunities available to them on climate change.

Like the earlier survey results, the most recent round reports that only a small minority — about 18 percent — “recognizes that there is widespread agreement among the world’s climate scientists that human-caused global warming is occurring.”

“Most weathercasters significantly underestimate the degree of consensus about anthropogenic climate change among climate scientists,” the survey report says, adding that even among the “convinced-human” respondents, fewer than two-thirds understand the strength of that consensus.

In responses to other survey questions:

  • About half of the respondents expressed interest in doing more on-air (44 percent) and off-air (57 percent) communication on climate change. The “convinced-human” segment is most interested (73 percent on-air and 84 percent off-air).
  • A common impediment to more on-air coverage? Lack of time in the newscasts, according to 87 percent of those “convinced,” with lack of field reporting opportunities also cited.
  • 70 percent of “unconvinced” weathercasters and nearly two in five “undecided” weathercasters “have concluded that claims of human-caused climate change are a politically motivated conspiracy,” the survey report says. “A majority of both groups have concluded that climate scientists are dishonest.” Most of the respondents in both of those categories indicated they think climate uncertainties are “too great at present” to justify any action beyond additional research.

Despite all the attention rightly focused on broadcast meteorologists as potentially key climate educators, the 2011 survey shows that even those most convinced that the climate is changing primarily because of human activities may only occasionally share climate information with their on-air audiences.

Sixty-one percent of those respondents indicated they “never” or only “once or twice per year” report on climate change on-air. Another 19 percent said they do so once or twice per quarter, another 11 percent once or twice per month, and 9 percent more than twice per month.

In addition to sampling the broadcast meteorologists’ views on climate change, the survey also explored their preferred sources of information on climate, reasons they cite for not reporting on-air more often about climate change, and their desires for additional continuing education resources.

The new survey results are part of an effort lead by George Mason’s Maibach and partners funded by the National Science Foundation to work with broadcast meteorologists on climate change issues.* The results were drawn from a sampling of 1,321 broadcast meteorologist members of the American Meteorological Society, AMS, and the National Weather Association, NWS, partners in that NSF project. Of the 1,321 surveyed, 819 did not respond, and 430 responded to at least some of the questions posed, and those responses yield an adjusted response rate of 48.9 percent, using American Association of Public Opinion Research standards.

*The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, publisher of The Yale Forum, is a partner in the effort, and the Editor of The Yale Forum and author of this posting also is involved in the overall effort.

*Correction deleting the word “not” made Sep. 19, 2011.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of The Yale Forum (E-mail: bud@yaleclimatemediaforum.org).
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One Response to Five ‘Potentially Distinct Groups’ Seen in Survey of TV Meteorologists

  1. John N-G says:

    The claim that most climate scientists believe that climate changes over the past 150 years are primarily due to human activities, and therefore that the majority of broadcast meteorologists are rejecting the view of most climate scientists, is unsupported by the evidence. The one study cited on the views of climate scientists found that most of them agreed that human activity was “a significant contributing factor”, a view surely embraced by those broadcast meteorologists who think that human and natural causes are equally responsible.

    It’s vitally important that when we tell people what it is that most climate scientists believe, we get it right. Otherwise, the public will eventually conclude that nobody knows what climate scientists believe.

    For a more extensive writeup, see my blog (follow the link above).