Should be another hot summer in North Texas.

Television

Why Won’t Dallas’ TV Meteorologists Talk About Climate Change?

Do Pete Delkus and David Finfrock believe global warming is caused by human activity? We asked them.

The scientific consensus is overwhelming and unambiguous: The planet is getting hotter, faster, and it’s mostly our fault. While scientists are often reluctant to editorialize, the consensus also leans toward this being very bad news for life on Earth.

Public opinion is more divided, with only about half of American adults saying they believe climate change is caused by human activity. The other 50 percent are presumably either unfamiliar with climate scientists’ findings, or otherwise disdainful of the research. Certainly very few people are digging through the 169 pages of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2014 Synthesis Report, even if details on the “likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems” do make for juicy reading.

Almost all of us, however, are regularly getting weather forecasts. For many people, the television weather forecaster may be their primary, if not their only, source of news on the climate. That news will be scarce. Dallas television meteorologists often seem tight-lipped or playfully evasive about the subject, to the extent that, a few weeks ago, I couldn’t have told you whether any of them had ever actually heard of climate change.

With that in mind, I emailed the chief meteorologists at the big four Dallas-Fort Worth news stations a set of questions. The informal survey, loosely based on a 2016 George Mason University survey of American Meteorological Society members, asked for each recipient’s thoughts on climate change, as well as their willingness to address the subject on air, among other things.

Channel 8’s Pete Delkus refused to wade into the “public quagmire of Climate Change/Global Warming.” Scott Padgett, of Channel 11, respectfully declined to participate, and declined to say why he was respectfully declining to participate. David Finfrock, chief meteorologist at Channel 5, answered the questions, as did Channel 4’s Dan Henry, after getting the OK from parent company executives in New York. (Their responses are below.)

Clockwise, from top left: Pete Delkus, David Finfrock, Scott Padgett, Dan Henry. Photos courtesy of their respective networks.

Most of us would be hard-pressed to pick the world’s most famous climate scientist out of a lineup, but we can all ID the local TV weatherperson—smiling self-assuredly with gleaming teeth, gesturing prophetically toward the green screen, rolling up shirtsleeves in times of crisis and severe weather. Meteorologists will be quick to say that they are not climate scientists, and that their expertise is not in the long-term forecasts of climate study. They are nevertheless bigger climate authorities than the vast majority of us, and in a unique position to shape public perception of an issue that, if you side with the experts, poses a near-existential threat to a sizable portion of humanity. (The American Meteorological Society, for the record, is in agreement that the “dominant cause” of global warming in the last century is human activity.)

The format of a local TV news station’s weather forecast isn’t particularly well-suited to educational programming on climate change, but surely there is time to connect, for example, news of the latest hottest year on record with global warming. If there’s no time to discuss it on air, a popular television meteorologist could easily share a link to a story on the same subject with their hundreds of thousands of social media followers. If, on the other hand, a meteorologist is a climate change skeptic or outright denier, putting them in the company of several top members of the current presidential administration, wouldn’t they still want that known? 

Are television meteorologists, or their employers, so worried about the potential for controversy? Do television viewers have a right to know what their trusted weather forecaster believes about climate change? Don’t broadcast meteorologists owe it to their viewers—and, at the risk of sounding too corny, to the future of the planet—to talk about the single biggest story in long-term weather trends?

Channel 5’s David Finfrock and Channel 4’s Dan Henry, to their credit, were willing to talk about it on the record. Here are their responses to the survey, lightly edited for grammar and clarity:

______________________________________________

Do you think climate change is happening?

David Finfrock, chief meteorologist for NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth: Climate change has happened ever since the earth was formed.  We have been through very hot spells, ice ages, and even meteor impacts that have affected the climate.  And yes, I believe the climate is changing now.

Do you believe that human activity is primarily responsible for recent global warming and global climate change? Why or why not?

D.F.: “Primarily” is a tough word to choose. As mentioned above, I believe that the earth’s climate will change, with or without a human population. But in recent centuries, I do believe that human activity has accelerated any natural warming that may have already been occurring. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere has increased  considerably. It was 280 parts per million in the 18th century, but has now risen to over 400 parts per million. From the study of ice cores in glaciers, it is estimated that this is the highest level of CO2 in 650,000 years. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and is known to trap heat from the sun, and raise the earth’s temperature. There are other greenhouse gasses, including methane and even water vapor. But CO2 is the only one that has been increasing so dramatically in recent centuries.

Has your position on climate change changed in the last 20 years?

D.F.: Not really. It has simply been affirmed by more data. Every year that is warmer than the previous one just increases my confidence that the climate is changing.

Do you talk about climate change on the air or using your station’s online platform? Why or why not?

D.F.: I don’t often talk specifically about climate change on the air. But I do mention whenever we set records for another warmest-ever month or year, and showcase how much warmer recent years have been. But our TV broadcasts are mostly designed to give forecasts rather than look back at the climate, and with the limited time I have (generally 2 ½ minutes or less) I can’t go into detail very often. I do have more flexibility on social media, and will more often post climate change data there, rather than on TV.

Has the local climate in North Texas changed in the last 50 years? Do you think the local climate in North Texas will change in the next 50 years? How so?

D.F.: Definitely. North Texas has kept official climate records since 1898. Over that 118 year span, the seven warmest years have all occurred since 1998. The four warmest years have all occurred since 2006. But what many people don’t realize is that not only the temperature is changing. Rainfall has been increasing, but it has also become more variable. As I recall, the average rainfall when I started working back in 1975 was 32 or 33 inches. That “ normal” rainfall is based on the most recent three decades of rainfall data. And now, our average has increased to 36.14 inches. In 2015, DFW recorded 62.61 inches of rain, smashing the previous record by nine inches. But we have also experienced frequent dry spells: 2005 and 2014 were among the driest on record. So climate change is about more than “warming.” And yes, the climate will continue to change in the future.

How should policymakers respond to the problems posed by climate change? How should we?

D.F.: I believe that as a society we should do our best to keep our atmosphere and environment clean and wholesome for our children and grandchildren. But I can’t presume to tell policy-makers the best course of action. That is not my area of expertise.

Do you consider yourself a climate expert?

D.F.: No, my education and experience have primarily been in forecasting. I took only one climatology class at Texas A&M, and that was in 1974. I feel I certainly have more knowledge than the average layman. But I defer to the statements and publications of the American Meteorological Society, and to the expertise of actual climate scientists who are experts in the field.   

______________________________________________

Note: Henry, who was pressed for time, did not respond to the last several questions of the survey.

Do you think climate change is happening?

Dan Henry, chief meteorologist for KDFW FOX 4: I do believe our climate is changing.

Do you believe that human activity is primarily responsible for recent global warming and global climate change? Why or why not?

D.H.: I believe human activity has played a significant role, but to what degree I think is open for debate.

Has your position on climate change changed in the last 20 years?

D.H.: My position has changed based on the overwhelming amount of scientific evidence that points to climate change. Carbon dioxide levels had fluctuated between 200 and 300 parts per million for thousands of years, but since 1950 have risen dramatically to 400+ ppm. That can really only be attributed to human activity.

Do you talk about climate change on the air or using your station’s online platform? Why or why not?

D.H.: I really don’t talk about it much on the air because it is such a complex topic that I couldn’t even begin to scratch the surface. I have occasionally discussed it on social media, but honestly, the discussion it spurs almost always gets very ugly and very political. And any hope for meaningful dialogue is quickly lost.

Comments