Don't talk about the weather

Jul 20 2018 | 10:10:36
Even trusting your local weather announcer is political these days. Take the battle in Congress over the renewal of a grant to help television meteorologists incorporate climate change into their weather reporting. Four Republican senators have called for an investigation, calling it indoctrination. Democrats last week moved to protect the funding, which is administered through the National Science Foundation. “Research designed to sway individuals of a various group, be they meteorologists or engineers, to a politically contentious viewpoint is not science — it’s propagandizing,” the senators wrote to the foundation’s inspector general. The four Republicans — James Inhofe and James Lankford of Oklahoma, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky — requested an investigation into whether the grants, which have been in place for almost ten years, violated federal law. Scientists who work with meteorologists on climate change dispute the accusations. Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, whose research center helps distribute the grants, noted that climate change is established science and that most Americans acknowledge that. Early studies by Mr. Maibach’s group found that the public trusts TV weathercasters more than they trust national news figures. Encouraging forecasters to discuss climate change, he said, helps show Americans that rising temperatures are not a distant threat, but affect them today. The amount of funding at stake, $4 million, is tiny by government standards. But the results, according to Mr. Maibach, have been dramatic: In 2012 there were only 55 on-air mentions of climate change in weather reports across the country. Last year, there were 879. Robert Margett, a spokesman for the National Science Foundation, noted that all awards the agency approves are evaluated by at least three independent reviewers. A spokeswoman for the inspector general said the investigation request was under consideration. Ultimately, there is more than a little political posturing. There may not be an investigation at all. Meanwhile, the resolution offered by 18 Democrats to protect the grants, which notes that scientists “agree that climate change is real,” is unlikely to get a vote in the Republican-led Senate. But one result climate scientists say they do expect to see is more highly politicized rancor about their work, despite the facts. “Climate science is really well established, like gravity,” said Benjamin Strauss, president of Climate Central, a nonprofit science and news organization that has received National Science Foundation funding.