Midwest weather forecasters face resistance over climate change | KCUR
Chris Gloninger was excited to start his new job as chief meteorologist at KCCI, a TV station in Des Moines, when he moved to Iowa in 2021.
He was coming from Boston to connect the dots between weather trends and climate change. Gloninger knew that might spark some grumbling from Iowa viewers.
“I was expecting a decline,” he said. “I was not anticipating the scale and speed at which it went off the rails.”
At first, the negative feedback was fairly mundane — Gloninger came to Iowa with more than 15 years of TV meteorology experience and launched a weekly series on climate change that ran in Boston and won a regional Emmy Award.
“It was things like: ‘I don’t need to hear your liberal conspiracy theories on the air.’ ‘Take the politics out of your projections,’” Gloninger recalls. “You’re politicizing the weather, and you’re a puppet of the left.”
But in the summer of 2022, Gloninger began receiving a steady stream of annoying emails.
In one letter, the sender asked for his address and said, “We conservative Iowans would like to welcome you to Iowa and you will never forget it.”
That letter refers to an incident targeting US Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, in which police arrested a man carrying a gun, a knife, and pants near Kavanaugh’s home.
Gloninger installed a security system at his home and KCCI arranged security to take care of him when he came to and from work and when he worked at the state fair. But the threats ate away at his mental health and well-being.
“You never know what hill someone wants to die on,” Gloninger said. “I didn’t know if this person thought it was worth it to risk their future to silence me. And that plays into your mind.
Danny Hancock, an Iowan in his 60s, eventually pleaded guilty to third-degree harassment and was fined $150.
But the threats — plus family health issues and changing priorities from KCCI management — eventually became too much for Gloninger.
“You can only kick someone when they’re down so many times before they have to give up,” he said. “And I felt like it had gone too far.”
After two years in Iowa, Gloninger returned to Massachusetts to be closer to his family and take a consulting job focused on climate solutions.
Most of them appreciate reports on climate change
While dissenting voices can be loud, 90% of Americans are still open to learning about climate change, according to Ed Maibach of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication.
Maibach said surveys indicate that people value hearing about climate change from reliable sources such as meteorologists and climatologists, even in conservative communities.
“The whole idea of ‘red and blue states’ actually creates a disservice when it comes to thinking about how to educate the public about climate change,” Maibach said. “It suggests that this is difficult, if not impossible, in red states. But that is not true.”
Jim Gandy proved that in 2010 when he became the first television meteorologist to participate in “Climate Matters,” a climate change reporting program.
The show’s consultant asked him to explain the effects of local climate change to viewers in Columbia, South Carolina.
“I said, ‘I’d like to be a test case,'” said Gandhi, now retired. “Because I don’t live in a red state, I live in a dark red state. And if you can talk about climate change here, you can talk about it anywhere.”
Gandhi’s audience embraced his reporting, and Climate Matters now provides climate science resources to meteorologists and journalists in 95% of U.S. media markets.
“I have nothing left to give”
But skepticism and hostility from the minority can pose a challenge for people on the front lines of climate communications, especially in conservative states. Climatologists and meteorologists in seven states shared stories with Harvest Public Media of encountering strong resistance.
And in Nebraska, it’s getting too stressful for Martha Doerr, who quit her position as state climatologist earlier this month. She said she didn’t feel like she had “anything left to give” the job.
“I went to school to become a scientist,” Dorr said. “And what I found myself doing most of the time in this role is almost being a healer and helping people overcome climate change.”
For nearly eight years she has tried to be empathetic and meet people where they are. She pointed to local influences and worked to overcome pre-existing opinions that prevented people from understanding the issue.
It was frustrating when her careful thinking hit a wall of resistance, or when the question-and-answer sessions became combative and argumentative.
Eventually she realized she didn’t have the energy to keep repeating the same message without seeing any progress.
“It’s tiring trying to convince people that science is real,” Dorr said. “If you want to do it, you can go and talk to someone else. But I’m not in a place where I want to keep doing that. I’d rather help people find solutions to the problem.”
Navigate the retreat
Others working in the Midwest and Great Plains have also faced skeptical audiences.
Like Melissa Widhalm, who spent years bringing science to communities in Indiana and is now associate director and regional climate scientist at the Midwest Regional Climate Center.
Most people want to have a conversation about climate change and are eager to learn from a credible scientist, she said. But she still has some strange encounters during her travels to Indiana communities.
“Every time you went out, you weren’t sure what you were going to get,” Widlem said. “You’ve always had to mentally prepare yourself for the possibility that someone might be there to make trouble or not participate in a civilized way.”
Meteorologists and climatologists in the Midwest and Great Plains said they are trying to focus on the local impacts of climate change that people can see in their own backyards. Widlam said she’s not ashamed of what it means to people’s lives.
For example, higher temperatures mean a longer growing season, causing a longer allergy season.
“I really tried to humanize what we were talking about,” she said. “If you or anyone in your family suffers from allergies, you understand what it means to suffer for additional weeks every year.”
Comments on social media posts are where Devan Mascioli — a meteorologist at WEEK 25 News in Peoria, Illinois — sees the most opposition.
She focuses on science and writes with a skeptical audience in mind.
“But you still run into people who say you’re lying or you have ulterior motives,” Mascioli said. “I can see it wearing on you to the point where you think I won’t even post it because it’s like no one is listening.”
Also in Illinois, climate scientist Trent Ford adjusts his framework when he speaks to different groups. He said it’s not just about swapping words, it’s about communicating the most relevant information and explaining practical climate solutions.
“The message is the same if I were talking to an environmental nonprofit or a conservative county agricultural office,” he said. “But the way the message is delivered may vary.”
Even in the blue state, Ford received a threat earlier this year after he talked about climate change while explaining some of Chicago’s dismal weather on a radio show.
Ford’s employer, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, quickly mobilized and determined there was no immediate threat.
“Someone decided to let off some steam in a largely unproductive way,” Ford said. “Everything was handled very professionally. It was a bit surprising, but I never felt unsupported or unsafe.
Widhalem said she’s not easily disappointed — she knows that explaining climate change in Indiana is a challenge.
“I never expected that I would touch the hearts and minds of audiences,” she said. “Even just a call and a little conversation feels like we’ve gone beyond what we’re trying to do.”
On days when her job seems like an uphill battle, she wonders if it might be easier somewhere else, like in the blue state. But then she says to herself:
“There is no other place more important to do this work than here in Indiana,” Widhalem said. “Because otherwise it wouldn’t be talked about at all. And that’s very focused. It keeps me going when I think: What’s the point?
In Iowa, Chris Gloninger saw how much people appreciated his work. After speaking out about the harassment on air, he received hundreds of letters from grateful viewers, which he typed in thick manuscript.
In Nebraska, Dorr said she hopes her work will help more Nebraskans better understand climate change.
“Now it’s time for someone else to take the lead and keep the momentum going,” she said. “I don’t think that impact and effort will be lost, it will just take it from a different angle.”
This story was produced in partnership with public media harvest, A collaboration between public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.
(Tags for translation)Climate change