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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Global Warming: Too Hot to Handle

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After beginning my reporting career under an editor I considered unnaturally obsessed with the day's weather, I swore when I was free to write about anything I wanted, I would never again write about the weather.

I wanted to write about important things happening in our world that people could actually do something about. Things that people could—and should—get upset about and try to change through social action.

But even someone who considers the Weather Channel a form of torture has to admit when thousands of heat records shatter across America, much of the West goes up in flames, Dust Bowl droughts spread from Texas and Oklahoma into Wisconsin and cyclones and torrential floods destroy communities regularly instead of rarely, something pretty dramatic is going on.

This is when we need experts in the media to tell us what is happening. Fortunately, we have quite a few experts around today. Unfortunately, most of them aren't talking.

We have real experts on climatology in the media today because weather reporting has become an extremely lucrative form of broadcasting, evolving from its early amateur hour.

Many of us still remember when the most popular weather report in the Milwaukee market was presented by a TV pitchman paired with a hand puppet named Albert the Alley Cat.

But weather reporting developed into a legitimate profession. They're still required to participate in inane happy talk, but most TV weathermen hold a bachelor or master of science degree. They're meteorologists.

Angry About the Facts

So if they know so much, why have we heard so little from them about the extreme weather developments locally and around the world?

That's easy. In 2012, the science behind extreme weather—the actual facts—is politically controversial.

Isn't that bizarre? Scientific facts used to settle arguments among the uninformed. Today, presenting facts that don't conform to someone's political point of view makes ignorant people really mad.

Duane Dudek, television columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, recently asked meteorologists at Milwaukee's major TV stations why none of them even mentioned global warming—pro or con—during hours of bake-off coverage.

Every one of them said the subject was too hot to handle. Mark Baden, chief meteorologist for WISN-TV, called it a political hornets' nest, while admitting "that is doing a disservice to hornets."

A couple of years ago, WITI-TV meteorologist Vince Condella criticized State Rep. Jim Ott (R-Mequon), a former Milwaukee weatherman, for "leaving science behind" after Ott pandered to his right-wing constituents by publicly denying global warming.

Although the item appeared in a little-read blog, some angry viewers threatened to boycott the station.

Of the meteorologists interviewed, only John Malan of WTMJ-TV had the courage to say what all of them know—that global warming exists and that heat waves and other forms of extreme weather will continue to increase.

Most of the others hid behind another scientific fact: It's inaccurate to base statements about global warming on a single event.

That's absolutely true. But what about an increasing number of extreme events happening closer and closer together? What about 20-year storms that now happen every few years?

How in the world did a mundane subject like weather ever become political? Easy. If human activity, especially by industry, is drastically threatening life on Earth, then if we claim to be intelligent beings, we're going to have to start doing something about it.

Republicans have always seen doing something to reduce damage to the Earth as a threat to industrial profits. They're wrong about that. Embracing clean industry and new technologies to reduce pollution will create booming new industries.

It's frightening that angry ignorance has succeeded in intimidating the media, including experts who know better, away from even discussing one of the most important issues affecting all our futures.

Right-wing extremists have achieved that result with their usual tactics—demonizing education and science, paying for phony studies to refute agreed-upon scientific conclusions and spreading simple-minded clichés.

The latest is: If modern human activity causes global warming, how do you explain the Dust Bowl of the 1930s?

There's a pretty simple answer, really: human activity of the 1930s.

Yes, an unusually severe drought occurred. Back then, rare climatic events happened rarely, instead of regularly as they do now, but they happened. However, it was the widespread catastrophic dust storms that drove people from the land.

Those were the result of poor farming practices that failed to hold water in the soil and hold the soil itself in place.

It was solved by—guess what—the government under President Franklin Roosevelt teaching scientific farming methods of soil conservation, including crop rotation and contour plowing.

Weather has become a pretty exciting battleground for social action, after all. It's a fight to end ignorance and regain respect for education and science. People didn't use to object so violently to learning things and getting smarter.