Chaos and Confusion on Weather and Climate

April 18, 2010
A business school perspective on the forces that shape perspectives on climate change

By David L. Levy

Progress toward building a coalition supportive of aggressive action on climate change seems to have become mired in spring mud. In an earlier posting, I discussed the sudden change in climate in the wake of “climategate”, the cold winter in Europe and the US, the defection of BP and other companies from the US Climate Action Partnership, Scott Brown’s upset senate victory in Massachusetts senate, and rise in climate skepticism. Recently the mass media have begun to look at the reasons for the rise in skepticism. Ever aware of their own importance, they have turned the spotlight on the gulf between weather forecasters, who are mostly meteorologists, and climatologists. Even the Colbert Report joined the fun with a “weather forecaster vs. climatologist” confrontation.

weatherA Columbia Journalism Review article on this topic cites an Emory University survey of  TV meteorologists in which 29% of respondents said that global warming was a scam, and only 24% percent believed that humans were responsible for most of the change in climate over the past half century. A more recent piece in the New York Times pointed to a study in the January 2009 newsletter of the American Geophysical Union, which found that while nearly 90% of some 3,000 climatologists who responded agreed that there was evidence of human-driven climate change, only 64% of meteorologists agreed with the statement.

In trying to explain this gap, most of the blame has been placed on the lack of expertise and scientific training of weather forecasters, few of whom have a graduate degree. Joe Romm commented that: “Asking a meteorologist to opine on the climate is like asking your family doctor what the chances are for an avian flu pandemic in the next few years or asking a mid-West sheriff the prospects for nuclear terrorism.” My business school background, however, leads me to ponder explanations that are rooted in some of the more subtle mechanisms of organizations and institutions.   

This divide matters because weather forecasters have far greater media access and influence over the public than climatologists, due to the nature of their professions. Joe Bastardi is an influential meteorologist with AccuWeather who frequently editorializes against climate change on the television channel. Anthony Watts, a retired California weather forecaster, runs the popular climate-skeptic blog Watts up with That?, though he also claims to drive an electric car and have solar panels on his roof. Climatologists, by contrast, are mostly based in universities and research centers, and their highly technical publications in academic journals are difficult for non-specialists to comprehend and receive little press coverage. Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change and an author of a June 2008 on public opinion, argued that “Most people are not interested in digging through the scientific literature, and in that situation trust becomes an enormous factor.” And the study showed 66% of people trusted television weather reporters on climate change, but very few knew any climate scientists personally.

My research on the oil and auto industries’ responses to climate change in Europe and the U.S. sparked my interest in the role of scientists in shaping corporate attitudes and strategies (see my academic papers on the oil industry with Prof. Ans Kolk  and the auto industry with Prof. Sandra Rothenberg). We found that American companies, who had been subject to stringent clean air regulation for years, tended to rely on their internal corporate scientists as their primary source of information on climate change. Indeed, they sometimes served as corporate filters for external information, selectively disseminating and commenting on climate science reports. These corporate scientists were frequently experts in atmospheric pollution and smog formation, not climate change, but were seen as the most accessible and reliable sources of information. In Europe, by contrast, the oil and auto companies didn’t have strong internal expertise, so the companies would rely on independent university-affiliated scientists, who usually hewed closely to the mainstream IPCC view.

Almost all the atmospheric scientists with major American companies were climate skeptics, with the notable exception of Ruth Reck at General Motors, who worked tirelessly in the mid-1980s, and against considerable internal resistance, to put climate on the agenda. The tendency for corporate scientists to be climate skeptics is a complex phenomenon. As with the TV weather forecasters, they have expertise in a closely related fields, but not specifically in climatology, perhaps lending them more trust and credence than warranted.  Unlike TV forecasters, many corporate scientists do have doctorates. After many conversations, my impression is that the key issue is not competence but the subtle socialization processes that affect a scientist’s views and very identity. As air quality scientists, part of their job is to interpret the evidence in a way that minimizes impacts on the environment and human health. They are colleagues with business managers who have traditionally seen environmental regulation as a threat to profits, even to the American way of life.

This doesn’t mean that the scientists deliberately distort the science – atmospheric and climate science does have areas of uncertainty and conflicting opinion. People working in fossil-fuel dependent sectors (and not just the scientists) shape their interpretations to fit organizational interests and norms, and to gain acceptance from colleagues. Psychologists have long observed that people are averse to “cognitive dissonance”, holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. Similarly, conflict between our behavior and ideas is uncomfortable. So people who work for a car or oil company can reduce their internal conflict, or dissonance, by embracing climate skepticism. In fact, in our research on the auto industry we found that the scientists and engineers working on advanced energy efficient or all electric vehicles were quick to embrace climate science – they could believe that climate change was a problem because they were working on a solution, and they were part of team who shared these views.

Weather forecasters and climate scientists cannot escape the institutional and social pressures we all face as workers in organizations and participants in wider professions. One doesn’t have to be a climate skeptic to appreciate that there are subtle pressures for conformity, as well as some financial carrots, within the global climate science community. Climategate has not undone the consensus on climate change, but it has cast some interesting light on the politics of science. While climate scientists are mostly employed in universities and research institutes, weather forecasters work in private media corporations, many of which are part of larger news and entertainment conglomerates.

Media companies don’t share the same interests as oil and coal companies, of course, but writers such as Robert McChesney and Ben Bagdikian have argued persuasively that the major media corporations tend to see their interests aligned with business in general, due to their dependency on advertising, ownership links, or directors’ ties, and we know where the US Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers stand on climate change, despite a few high profile defections from the former last year. This perception of interests in media firms tends to percolate down to the editorial level. Indeed, weather forecasters are more akin to journalists in their professional orientation than climate scientists, and Max Boykoff has written extensively about journalistic bias and media portrayals of climate change.

Weather forecasters are also predisposed to mistrust climate science because their understanding is rooted in meteorology rather than climatology. As the New York Times article notes, meteorologists know that weather is a chaotic system subject to the proverbial butterfly effect: its evolution is highly dependent on initial conditions. Weather forecasts rely on computer simulations that inherently have limitations on spatial resolution and starting conditions, so that their accuracy rapidly diminishes after five or six days. Meteorologists frequently express skepticism that climate models, which are based on very similar principles, can provide accurate information for the coming century. Yet meteorologists, with their short term orientation, also tend to assume that longer-term climate patterns are stable. These are not just individual biases, however – as meteorology has evolved as an organized profession, these views have become more institutionalized as a shared perspective.

Climatologists are working with phenomena that operate on a different scale, and are more concerned with the prediction of long-term patterns and mean temperatures than whether it will rain in Boston on a particular date in 2090. Climate scientists are quick to acknowledge that the climate system itself is chaotic over millennia, as greenhouse gases interact with longer term shifts in ocean circulation, precipitation, ice and forest cover. But the next few decades for climate scientists are like the next few days for weather forecasters – the short term for which models are useful, if not always accurate.

2 Responses to “Chaos and Confusion on Weather and Climate”

  1. Prof Levy,
    You write:
    “After many conversations, my impression is that the key issue is not competence but the subtle socialization processes that affect a scientist’s views and very identity.”

    But is it possible that your own views and identity have also been highly influenced by”subtle socialization processes”?

  2. A good point, and one that social scientists struggle with all the time. We are all influenced by our institutional location, so the ideal of pure, objective science remains out of reach. Yet at the same time, we have to avoid the extreme postmodern position that all is discourse, and no real “truth” exists. At best, we can try to be reflective of these processes and our own position.
    And though I know that climate science cannot completely escape the politics of grant money and the review process, and I’m not a climate scientist myself, I’ve immersed myself sufficiently in the literature and have had enough conversations with them to make a reasonable judgment. And as the article suggests, I think I have a handle on why meteorologists have some systematic bias.