Of Meteorologists and Climate Science

It has been a much beloved talking point among doubters of climate change: Meteorologists don’t buy the science. That notion has been derived chiefly from surveys conducted by researchers at George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication. And it has enjoyed some traction among members of the public, for whom meteorologists are the scientists they encounter most frequently in their everyday lives — and, well, they ought to know, right?

Not exactly. For starters, meteorology — which focuses on atmospheric predictability over relatively short timescales — is very different from climatology, which is concerned with long-term trends. Some meteorologists have climate science expertise and publish frequently on the matter. Others, not so much. So conducting surveys of the membership of the American Meteorological Society — the basis for the meteorologist-as-skeptic meme — was always a more nuanced affair than the headlines and talking points usually suggested.


Meteorologists have earned and unfair reputation for being climate skeptics. They’re not — though they do have some doubts compared to climatologists. Visual by AdrianHancu/iStock

As a whole, for example, only about half of meteorologists polled between December 2011 and January 2012 said they supported the scientific consensus that the planet is warming and that human activity is the primary driver. But among AMS members with self-identified climate science expertise — and some sort of publishing pedigree in the climate science literature —  support for the science was always much higher: Roughly 78 percent of those surveyed considered climate change mostly human-caused, and 88 percent viewed it as being at least half human-caused (whatever that means).

Now, a new survey of AMS members by the same researchers is generating headlines because it seems the skeptics are losing ground among the organization’s full membership — though just how much is, again, a nuanced affair.

The language of the poll has been tweaked a bit, so precise comparisons between the old survey and the new one are difficult — and the researchers have not yet made public their parsing of results by discipline or expertise. What’s clear, though, is that acceptance of the basic science and dynamics of climate change is up among meteorologists in general, with 67 percent now agreeing that recent climate change is mostly or entirely human-caused — a 15-point increase — and 81 percent saying it was at least half human-caused, a 20-point rise over previous results.

Those numbers, of course, lag behind the consensus long ago reached by the world’s top climate researchers. A 2010 study, for example, found that between 97 and 98 percent of actively publishing climatologists had concluded that the activity of human beings was the primary driver behind our warming planet.

A number of the headlines heralding the new survey trumpeted that “96 percent” of meteorologists are now onboard with the basic science, although it’s important to note that this figure captures all respondents who said climate change was happening “regardless of the cause.” That’s a cohort that naturally includes those who believe the old skeptic’s saw: That the climate is always changing, and that the burning of fossil fuels, which is wrapping the planet in an increasingly dense blanket of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, nothing to do with it.

So AMS members, writ large, still don’t fully embrace the clear science, but that’s not all that surprising, given that only 37 percent of the organization’s membership identify themselves as climate experts. And it’s important to note that the percentage of meteorologists overall who do understand and accept the basic physics of climate change — something that’s become more or less become axiomatic among climatologists — is encouraging, said Edward Maibach, one of the George Mason researchers behind the latest poll.

“This is the way science works,” he said.