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Hearty applause dies down in the hotel ballroom, and the Rotary members swarm John Coleman, the KUSI weatherman. Camera phones come out. A man in a blazer: “John, you’re my hero.” Another: “Thanks for the good news.” A flash pops.
They surround him. Businessmen and women dressed formally: Suits, ties, matching outfits. They fall asleep at night listening to him. They love him, that animation, that deep baritone, that honesty.
Global warming, he’s just finished telling them, is a scam, a hoax, all frenzy and no fact. And they couldn’t be happier. “That was a great presentation,” one says.
Coleman is a climate change skeptic, and many television meteorologists agree with him. Only a few, though, have taken such a vocal stand. Coleman has hosted two television specials, given hundreds of speeches and traveled across the country.
“The Earth is not in crisis,” Coleman tells the Rotary, and adds emphasis: “The. Climate. Is. Just. Fine.”
Al Gore, he says, has warned that millions will die, that disease will sweep the nation, “and all because of fossil fuels.” Juxtaposed against a PowerPoint slide showing Homer Simpson screaming, Coleman slips into a mocking falsetto: “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”
Coleman attacks with slides and statistics. But his narrative is distorted, riddled with holes, falsehoods and slivers of data that skew reality. These are the same errors he accuses climate scientists of making.
John Coleman is 75, a Rancho Bernardo resident who’s been the face of weather at KUSI since 1994. He was the first weathercaster on Good Morning America and co-founded The Weather Channel. He calls himself a blue-collar meteorologist. “I’m not a big damn scientist,” he says. His college major was journalism; his meteorology training came from a Penn State University correspondence course. He’s no longer accredited by the American Meteorological Society. Too much politics, he says.
Listen to Coleman give a speech, and you’d come away thinking that climate change amounts to a conspiracy by some wacko environmentalists and a few scientists tied to Gore who support a United Nations effort to create a one-world government. His arguments come straight from the climate change-denier playbook, a sophisticated campaign with origins tracing to tobacco industry-funded scientists who’d previously questioned whether smoking causes cancer.
Listen to Coleman, and you’d learn that the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change funds billions in climate research. Coleman tends to shriek this point: Billions!
But it’s not true. The IPCC doesn’t fund research; its annual budget is typically less than $10 million.
You’d learn that a solar cycle ended in 2002, sunspots have quieted down and the world is getting cooler.
But that’s not true either. The last decade was the warmest in 130 years, government data shows. An Associated Press examination independently confirmed the trend.
You’d learn that rapid Arctic sea ice decline that scientists have clamored about has stopped; that ice cover has increased since 2007 and is back to normal.
That’s also false. Last year’s Arctic ice cover was among the smallest ever documented. Despite increasing since 2007 — that sliver is correct — it’s still in a a long-term decline.
Sea levels are rising (seven inches in the last century in San Diego), glaciers worldwide are retreating, the Earth is warming and the world’s climate scientists, science associations and academies are in consensus that mankind is responsible. By burning fossil fuels that produce carbon dioxide, mankind is trapping the sun’s heat through what’s commonly called the greenhouse effect.
That widely accepted point is where climate scientists, trained to predict what the Earth’s climate will look like in coming decades, have slammed headfirst into people trained to predict what the local weather will look like in the next 10 days.
People like John Coleman.
It’s a Monday night, and Coleman sits next to a wall of computers and television monitors in KUSI’s Murphy Canyon studio. The sky outside is nearly black, and Coleman is between broadcasts, eating dinner out of a Styrofoam container. He’s in pinstriped pants, his tie is loose, beneath a light beige sweater.
He’s playing Texas hold ’em online for a few bucks a hand and keeps drawing bad cards. “I need something helpful,” he says. He answers questions while he plays. The sound of poker chips rattle as he talks about the criticisms lobbed at climate skeptics.
“There are websites run by the Gestapo of the environmental movement who think everybody who opposes them is taking money from the fossil fuel industry, think this whole thing is a setup by the fossil fuel industry,” he is saying. “They’re ugly and mean about it and call us names and so be it. Screw ’em. I’m talking science, I’m not talking about that.”
Coleman’s argument about why climate change isn’t happening, why carbon dioxide isn’t warming the planet, amounts to this: “If you really watch the weather and you really watch the climate of Earth, you’re well aware of the cooling trend. I don’t think there’s any question about it.”
The opposite is true. The Earth isn’t cooling. It’s 0.8 degrees Celsius warmer than it was in 1880 (1.5 degrees Fahrenheit). Coleman acknowledges that, but blames it on natural variability.
Coleman argues that climate scientists are motivated by a desire for more research funding — the U.N.’s billions! — and attention and trips to conferences in far off places like Bali and Copenhagen. “It’s the big trap,” he says.
Coleman declared in 2007 that global warming was “the greatest scam in history.” He says he was fed up by its media glamour and political correctness. Since then, he’s been on a national speaking tour himself. There he is on Fox News. There he is in New York, Chicago, Seattle, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City. And here, talking to Rotary clubs.
“If you’re saying I’m in the big trap, too” — he pauses and laughs slow, heh, hehheh — “go ahead and say it. I’ve put a lot more hassle into those trips than I’ve been paid to go on them. Boy, that’s the truth.”
He’s spoken at universities, to groups like the Heartland Institute, a free-market nonprofit that questions the link between secondhand smoke and cancer.
Coleman isn’t the only weathercaster with such opinions. Jodi Kodesh, a certified meteorologist at NBC 7/39, a voiceofsandiego.org media partner, said she’s studied Coleman’s statements and agrees.
“The idea that we as humans should feel guilty that we’re causing global warming and it’s alarming is a scam,” she says. “I think it’s egotistical for humans to believe that we’re hurting planet Earth. The Earth lives on.”
Kris Wilson, a senior lecturer in the journalism program at the University of Texas, Austin, surveyed about half of the country’s weathercasters and found a quarter agreed with Coleman. They aren’t just skeptical. They think global warming is a scam.
“To agree that it’s a scam — wow,” Wilson says. “That’s what’s caught the national media attention. It’s sent a shockwave through the scientific community, too.”
Richard Somerville, a Scripps Institution of Oceanography professor emeritus who’s contributed to the U.N.’s Nobel Prize-winning climate report, has engaged Coleman, who’s consistently attacked the school and its scientists. In a written response to Coleman’s first TV global warming special, Somerville said: “Science has its own high standards. It does not work by unqualified people making claims on television or the Internet.”
Somerville told San Diego CityBeat he wouldn’t debate Coleman. Doing so, he said, would be like a biologist debating a creationist. Contacted by e-mail in France, Somerville said he had nothing new to add about Coleman.
“It is clear,” Somerville wrote, “that a highly professional and well-funded climate change disinformation campaign has been effective in confusing the public and undermining confidence in climate science.”
Coleman identifies with the members of that campaign. Though he refers to himself as a journalist, as an independent, non-political voice, he often talks about “we” and “us,” referring to his allies, a group of skeptics long led by two prominent Cold War-era physicists: S. Fred Singer and Fred Seitz, who died in 2008.
In her forthcoming book, Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes, a University of California, San Diego science historian, traces back to them much of the climate skeptic movement that Coleman champions.
Oreskes notes that Singer and Seitz, who’d both worked for the tobacco industry questioning whether smoking caused cancer, sowed doubt about whether chlorofluorocarbons caused the ozone hole, whether pollution caused acid rain and, most recently, whether carbon dioxide fueled climate change. They deliberately sought to undermine other scientists’ work, she says, using the same strategy for climate change that they had for smoking. Their assertions were based on a misinformation campaign, she says, not on scientific critiques.
“Over the course of more than 20 years,” she writes, “these men did almost no original scientific research on any of the issues on which they weighed in. … Yet, for years the press quoted these men as experts, and politicians listened to them, using their claims as justification for inaction.”
Weathercasters are trusted community figures — think about whom you turn to when bad weather strikes. And since most people don’t read scientific journals, they can often be the most prominent people who ever engage mass audiences on science topics, Wilson’s research shows. They’re also frequently out in their communities. Wilson has created a training course for TV meteorologists who want to learn more about climate change.
“If they did understand the science and were good to the science, think how productive that could be,” Wilson says. “But he goes out and does that — it has such a deleterious effect.”
Surrounded by Rotary club members, Coleman radiates energy. He spins, tosses his arms wide, shouts and grins. In the studio, days later, he’s more placid. He says he’s close to retirement. That lunchtime speech may’ve been his last.
“It’s hard,” he says. “When you’re my age, it’s a hassle, it’s hard. I’m 75. Going places and doing things is not easy. I don’t find a lot of pleasure in the pressure of doing it.”
But he’s not going quietly. He bristles at questions pointing out inaccuracies in some of his claims.
“I am a damn good meteorologist with a lot of experience, a lot of practice, a lot of study, a lot of knowledge, a lot of skill,” he says. “I have studied this topic and I know the topic and I reached a scientific conclusion. That is more than you have done. I am accepted by scientists.
“And I don’t feel anything but very good about it.”