WRAL-TV’s chief meteorologist Greg Fishel has built up a lot of goodwill in more than 34 years forecasting the weather in the Triangle.
And for most of those years, as he became a household name in the region, Fishel held a contrarian view about climate change. He just didn’t believe that humans had much to do with warming the Earth’s atmosphere and would say as much when the topic came up on the air.
“For most of my adult life, I was a hard-core skeptic, and felt like it was my duty to counteract the liberal media who was only giving one side of the story,” Fishel told a group of journalists and scientists at a climate change conference in Beaufort earlier this fall.
Fishel’s talk in Beaufort had the confessional tone of a man who has reformed. Several years ago, he says, he decided he wasn’t being open-minded about the issue and began to study what climate scientists were saying about it.
Fishel’s understanding of climate change now – that it’s likely humans are changing the chemistry of the atmosphere in ways that increase temperatures – and his willingness to talk about his transformation on the subject have thrust him into a new light. This is apparent not only on television, where he has done several special reports on climate change, but also online, where the issue is the subject of a neverending and often hostile debate.
Fishel, 58, is an active blogger, and a post he wrote two days after the Beaufort talk got picked up by the Washington Post. It won him praise for being courageous and thoughtful, as well as harsh criticism that he had joined a conspiracy to perpetuate a scientific hoax and impose socialist or Marxist measures on the use of fossil fuels.
“Why have we chosen to turn our back on science when it comes to basic chemistry and physics?” Fishel wrote. “It is time to stop listening to the disingenuous cherry-pickers and start taking responsibility for learning the truth about climate change.”
The opinions of TV meteorologists such as Fishel matter because they are scientists who are known and respected in their communities, says Michael Mann, a leading climatologist and director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, one of the country’s premier meteorology schools where Fishel earned his bachelor’s in 1979.
“They are the only scientists that most members of the public are familiar with in their daily lives, and many people feel a close personal connection with their local broadcast meteorologists,” says Mann, who was in the audience in Beaufort. “That makes them excellent potential communicators to the public when it comes to the issue of climate change.”
But significant numbers of TV meteorologists have harbored doubts on the issue of climate change. A poll of 571 TV forecasters in 2010 by researchers at George Mason University and the University of Texas at Austin found that fewer than a third believed climate change was “caused mostly by human activities,” and that more than a quarter agreed with the statement “Global warming is a scam.”
More recent polls show those attitudes are changing. Another George Mason poll of 464 broadcast meteorologists released this year found that more than 90 percent agree climate change is happening and that of those, nearly 74 percent think humans are at least half responsible for it.
Ryan Boyles, a professor at N.C. State University and director of the State Climate Office, says there’s been a concerted effort to educate TV meteorologists about climate change in recent years, particularly from professional groups such as the American Meteorological Society and the National Weather Association. Climate Central, an independent organization of scientists and journalists that reports on climate issues, provides programming on the basic science of climate change that meteorologists can use in their newscasts.
The tools and knowledge meteorologists use to predict the weather in the coming week aren’t the same as ones used by scientists to forecast weather trends 50 years from now. Climate science is complex, Boyles said, and keeping up with it can be overwhelming.
“You have to be such a specialist,” he said. “That puts a broadcast meteorologist in a tough position, but it also puts the public in a tough position.”
Still, TV meteorologists such as Fishel have the public’s attention and the skills to put climate science into everyday language for people who might not otherwise hear anything about it, Boyles said.
“In some ways, it’s a wonderful opportunity to be the voice of a scientific field,” he said. “At the same time, it puts a huge burden on them. Hopefully, it’s a burden they welcome.”
‘More than a farce’
Fishel says much of his early understanding of climate change came from Pat Michaels, the longtime state climatologist of Virginia whose book “Sound and Fury” argued that the notion that global warming would cause devastating problems had no scientific foundation. It was published in 1992, the same year that Al Gore’s “Earth in the Balance” brought global warming to a wide audience.
Fishel says he realized at some point that his only sources on the subject were Michaels and people who agreed with him, including Rush Limbaugh. He began to look more deeply.
“The more I talked to people who knew way more about climate science than I did, and when I thought back to the things I had learned at Penn State, it became very difficult for me to make the argument anymore that this was a farce and a hoax,” he said. “So I had to admit that I was wrong.”
Fishel’s change in thinking has showed him how divided Americans are on this subject and others. It started with friends who accused him of caving in on the issue but continued with comments online and at public speaking engagements. Some got personal.
“Fishel – you are the biggest phony I’ve yet to see,” a poster with the name SICKOFHOLLYWOOD wrote on the WRAL website in late October. You “might want to consult someone who has the science and not some phony spreadsheet that impresses the trailer trash that is most (of) your viewers.”
There’s a tribalism surrounding climate change, Fishel says, where people choose sides based on their political party or ideology. If Al Gore thinks it’s true, it must be false.
Fishel changed his voter registration from Republican to independent and says he wants to keep politics out of his reports on climate change and stick to the science. He was discouraged when the headline on the Washington Post article identified him as an “Ex-Republican meteorologist,” which he thinks many people would read to mean that he’d become a Democrat.
Climate change aside, Fishel hasn’t given up the basic beliefs that once made him a Republican, including his Christian faith. He says he looks at science as being the discovery of God’s creation.
He finds kinship with another Republican who changed his mind about climate change: former U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina. After his children urged him to take a closer look at the issue, Inglis decided the science and his Christian faith compelled him to push for measures in Congress to combat climate change, including a tax on carbon. In 2010, the tea party backed another Republican, and Inglis lost in a landslide after 12 years in office.
Inglis has since founded the Energy & Enterprise Initiative and a website called republicEn.org that urges his fellow conservatives to get behind market-based solutions to climate change. These include a carbon tax offset by tax cuts elsewhere and an end to subsidies on all energy sources, including fossil fuels.
“His argument is, ‘I’m still a conservative. Conservatives have the answer to this,’ ” Fishel said. “And I’m thinking, ‘Now there’s somebody who’s thinking outside the box.’ ”
On the air
Aside from his blog and other online writing, Fishel launched “O’Fishel Quest,” a series of TV segments about climate change that included a 22-minute documentary last spring called “Exploring Climate Change” that featured a trip to Barrow, Alaska, to chronicle the effects of warming temperatures there. And on those occasions when climate change does come up on the nightly news, he will emphasize that the science supports the notion that humans are warming the planet, instead of casting doubt as he used to do.
A high school classmate of Fishel’s, former Minnesota TV meteorologist Paul Douglas, said this fall that talking about climate change on the air probably wasn’t good for his career because you’re almost certain to alienate a sizable chunk of your audience. Fishel acknowledges that it would be easier to just keep quiet on the subject, and if he were just starting out as a young meteorologist he probably would.
But he cites a sermon he heard at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Raleigh in the 1980s titled, “If not me, who? And if not now, when?” His longevity on the air in the Triangle gives him the security to tell the truth, even if it upsets some people.
“I’m under no illusion about what my role is in this nationally or internationally or whatever. I sort of feel like if I can have a little bit of an effect on this on a grass-roots level in one part of one state, then that’s probably all I can hope for,” he said. “And if there are other people that do similar things in other places, then maybe that can make a difference.”
More from Greg Fishel
To read “Choose science, stewardship in understanding climate change,” Greg Fishel’s blog post of Oct. 12, go to nando.com/choosescience. To read the Washington Post article about the blog post, go to nando.com/washpost. And to see Fishel’s documentary, “Exploring Climate Change,” go to nando.com/exploring.
Fishel will host a town hall meeting on climate change at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences on Jan. 14, starting at 7 p.m. “Forging a Sustainable Future” will highlight the United Nations sustainable development goals and include Ramu Damodaran, chief of the U.N. Academic Impact in New York; Lori Foster, professor of psychology at N.C. State University and fellow with the White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team; and Emlyn Koster, director of the museum.