Broadcast meteorologists on local television have one job. It’s simple to express but difficult to do well. Predict the future, a few days at a time.
To be an effective forecaster, a broadcast meteorologist has to be a scientist. And because it’s TV, she or he also has to be likable and trustworthy.
Greg Fishel of WRAL is all of those things. He also used to be a global warming denier. Now, he admits he was wrong.
“I don’t see being wrong as being a scarlet letter,” Fishel says. “I think all of us have experiences in our life where we are wrong and we realize it was a good thing and we learn something from it.”
Fishel changed his mind about climate change after putting aside his politics and examining the science. Now, he’s an equally passionate convert, and recently expressed it again on Facebook.
Fishel is in a unique position among his colleagues in the weather forecasting business. He was one of the first broadcast meteorologists to push for certification in his profession. He’s also wildly popular and has worked for arguably the most successful family-owned local TV station in the country since 1981.
And that matters in the so-called climate change “debate.”
“Any time you have someone of high stature, high standing in the market, with a lot of credibility, it does speak volumes and it shows how important that the topic is,” says Sean Sublette, a former TV meteorologist in Roanoke who currently works for Climate Central in Princeton, New Jersey.
Not all broadcast meteorologists are in the same position—or think the same way.
WUNC Radio surveyed TV meteorologists in North Carolina. About three-quarters of those who responded agree or strongly agree that the planet is warming due to human activity. But fewer than half agreed it was part of their job to inform viewers about climate change.
Several expressed that the political debate was too heated or that corporate ownership of stations didn’t want to deal with the controversy.
Sublette says those results are not surprising.
“I know some that are very interested in the science, and I know some that are just not,” says Sublette. “They are just not as interested in talking about it, for whatever reason they may have.”
One of Climate Central’s missions is to provide research and graphics that local TV meteorologists can use in broadcasts.
Even with the help, it can be very difficult to get climate information into a forecast. Lee Ringer at Time Warner Cable News does “Weather On The Ones,” so, six weathercasts an hour.
“And even though it seems like a lot of time, it’s limited what we can talk about,” Ringer says. “So our traditional weathercasts are really just going to be limited to the forecast for today and up through the next week.”
Ringer does do climate change stories online. And he says he has another important, if unseen role.
“I’m the scientist here at the station, along with our other team of meteorologists,” he says. “So we’re the folks a lot of our news reporters come to when there’s some type of science story, whether it’s directly related to the weather, whether it’s related to the environment, or related to meteorology.”
At WRAL, Fishel has taken that role as station scientist to a higher level. Earlier this year, he traveled to Alaska and Colorado to produce special climate change reports and has brought leading scientists to town for discussions.
The other night, he says he got a call from a longtime friend and die-hard conservative. That friend said he is re-thinking his position on climate change because of Fishel’s reporting and social media outreach.
“If I had done this six months after I moved here and I was 22 years old and wet behind the ears, then people would have said ‘get that liberal out of here’,” says Fishel, laughing. “So it gets back to the whole thing, if there was ever a time when I could engage in this discussion, I feel like this is it.”
Fishel says he’ll keep engaging in that discussion—on-air and online—in the hope he can lead the conversation for viewers and fellow weather professionals.