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The Cullen Conundrum

Andrew Freedman @ 2:00 PM

The global climate change disinformation machine was in full battle mode last week as Weather Channel climate expert Heidi Cullen was served up, filleted and consumed by a ravenous pack of right wing media outlets and hate-filled online agitators.

Her crime? Advocating that television meteorologists be required to "speak to the fundamental science of climate change" in order to get their Seal of Approval from the American Meteorological Society.

Editor's Note:
PM Update is off today. Scroll down to Jason's post for the week-ahead forecast.
For this she has been excoriated by Rush Limbaugh, the National Review, Fox News and upwards of 3,000 comically inarticulate and vengeful commenters on The Weather Channel's climate change web site, One Degree.

Frequent Undercast readers should recognize her argument, as it stemmed in part from a Dec. 17 post on this site.

Cullen has been misinterpreted as saying that TV meteorologists should be stripped of their qualifications if they don't hew to some sort of party line on man made global climate change. This is a regrettable interpretation, and dead wrong.

For the record, neither Undercast nor Cullen are or have advocated censorship of any scientist. That goes against central tenets of science and democracy that are based on freedom of expression and the free exchange of ideas.

The issue with TV meteorologists is whether the scientific society that accredits them to represent the science of meteorology to the public should certify that those science communicators have knowledge of climate science and are able to communicate this science. It would be up to the AMS to determine what climate science knowledge would be required.

There is a huge difference between personal beliefs and scientific research which is getting blurred in this debate. For example, someone might believe that smoking won't increase their risk of lung cancer, but there isn't scientific evidence to back that up. It's an opinion. Same thing with climate change: the science doesn't support those who argue that the Earth is not warming, or that if it is warming, humans are not a factor in that warming.

With the designation as an AMS certified TV meteorologist comes a responsibility to understand and communicate scientific information, not politically-motivated pseudo scientific viewpoints. And that's exactly what many TV meteorologists adhere to concerning climate change.

The conundrum in this situation is that many TV meteorologists actually view mainstream climate science as pseudo scientific, political and unproven. This latest maelstrom unfortunately may be entrenching TV meteorologists in their lonely corner.

During this debate some TV meteorologists have been demonstrating their lack of understanding of what climate scientists know and don't know about climate change.

For example, in a widely circulated blog post last week, Alabama TV meteorologist James Spann wrote that he doesn't believe that human activity is contributing to global warming. He blamed the frenzy around the issue on the need for scientists to report alarming findings in order to continue to get funding for their research. This is one of the favorite arguments in the climate change contrarian tool belt, and it's nonsense. It's nothing but a hollow conspiracy theory, and it's insulting to Spann's weather and climate colleagues.

Jerry Tracey, another Alabama TV meteorologist, told The Birmingham News that "We do not yet know enough to say definitely that there is a significant impact toward global warming occurring because of man-made activities." That's a correct statement in the sense that there always will be uncertainty in any science. But the scientific literature is rife with findings that humans are, in fact, influencing the climate and are most likely the dominant factor involved in recent climate change. The forthcoming report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change due out Feb. 2 is rumored to include a more strongly worded statement to that effect.

The attack on Cullen, who holds a PhD in oceanography/climate from Columbia University, is chilling for many reasons. Firstly, it showed that many of the people motivated by the need to see their names in comment fields of blogs are idiots. One person called Cullen the "Pol Pot of global warming," which if I were to understand it correctly, means that Cullen murdered countless individuals on her blog. Does that make Undercast part of the Khmer Rouge?

Another labeled her a "clueless twit" which is funny because "twit" is a funny word. It's also sexist. My favorite so far is one citizen researcher who predicted that the temperature in Detroit on Jan. 19 of next year will be -701 degrees Farenheit.

Secondly, and more importantly, the reaction against Cullen is an attack on the press in general, and is part of a concerted effort by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and friends to smear the media for reporting on climate change.

Inhofe has spent years trying to discredit scientists who have found that human activities are now the dominant factor in causing climate change, with little success. Now he's desperately and fruitlessly trying to cut the information off one step away from the scientific source by squelching reporters. This tactic was detailed in a Greenwire [subscription required] story last summer by Darren Samuelsohn.

Discrediting Cullen could result in The Weather Channel backing away from its increasing focus on global climate change, to the significant detriment of the viewing public.

The response to Cullen's blog post as well as to the Undercast column also illustrates the perils of continuing to confront the dwindling number of climate change contrarians head on. The scientific case for man made climate change is well-established at this point, and according to recent polling most Americans have been convinced of this. So what's to gain from engaging in these online and marginal slugfests?

The way forward lies with a different paradigm in which solutions to the problem are the focus.

As Texas A&M Professor Andrew Dessler wrote on Gristmill, "The skeptics generally hang themselves with their own rope anyway."

Andrew Freedman has contributed articles to The Weather Channel on a freelance basis. The views expressed in this column are his own and do not represent the views of The Weather Channel.

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