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Meteorologists face pushback in regions that are more skeptical of climate science

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Talking about climate change can be a tough job, especially where audiences may be more skeptical. Climatologists and meteorologists across the Midwest and Great Plains say they're facing stress, burnout and sometimes even death threats. Here is Harvest Public Media's Elizabeth Rembert.

ELIZABETH REMBERT, BYLINE: Back in 2021, Chris Gloninger was excited to start his new job as chief meteorologist at a TV station in Iowa. He was moving from Boston to connect the dots between daily weather and climate change - something he'd honed over more than 15 years, including covering flooding in New Hampshire.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRIS GLONINGER: What's causing it? It's a combination of rising sea level and astronomically high tide.

REMBERT: In Iowa, it got some viewers grumbling.

GLONINGER: It was, you know, I don't need to hear your liberal conspiracy theories on our air. Take the politics out of your forecast.

REMBERT: He says, that wasn't surprising. He expected pushback.

GLONINGER: I just didn't expect the magnitude and how quickly it went off the rails.

REMBERT: In summer 2022, Gloninger started receiving a steady flow of harassing emails. In one, the sender asked for his address and said, we conservative Iowans would like to give you an Iowan welcome you will never forget. His bosses provided security to trail him to and from work, but Gloninger says he still felt unsafe.

GLONINGER: You know, you never know what hill somebody is willing to die on.

REMBERT: Eventually, it became too much. After two years, Gloninger moved back to Massachusetts to be closer to his family and took a job focused on climate solutions. His experience echoes the treatment other officials, like election workers, educators and public health experts, have faced in recent years. While resistant voices can be loud, 90% of Americans are still open to learning about climate change from experts, according to Ed Maibach with the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University.

ED MAIBACH: Even in very conservative communities across America, their audiences have responded with overwhelming appreciation for the effort they're making.

REMBERT: But skepticism and hostility from the minority can be a challenge, especially in conservative states. I talked to climatologists and meteorologists in seven states who have encountered strong resistance, including Melissa Widhalm, who spent years presenting the science to communities in Indiana.

MELISSA WIDHALM: Every time you went out, you just weren't sure what you were going to get. You know, you always went in having to mentally prepare yourself that somebody could be there to cause trouble.

REMBERT: Sometimes she thinks her job might be easier in a liberal state, but then she tells herself...

WIDHALM: There's nowhere else that is more important to do this work than right here in Indiana because otherwise it would not be talked about at all.

REMBERT: In Nebraska, the uphill battle became too exhausting for Martha Durr, who recently resigned as the state's climatologist. She says she didn't feel she had anything left to give the job.

MARTHA DURR: I went to school to become a scientist, and what I found myself doing the most of in this role is almost being a therapist and helping people through climate change.

REMBERT: For nearly eight years, she said she tried to be empathetic and patient. She pointed out local impacts that people could see in their own backyards.

DURR: It gets tiring trying to convince people that science is real. If you want to do that, you can go talk to somebody else, but I'm not at a place where I want to keep doing this.

REMBERT: Before he left his job in Iowa, Gloninger talked on-air about the harassment he faced. Afterward, he received hundreds of messages from grateful viewers, which he printed out.

GLONINGER: (Reading) You were very honest in discussing climate change, which I appreciated - so sorry that you were harassed by the extremists out there - Fort Dodge, Iowa.

REMBERT: He hopes someone will help Iowans understand climate change, but it won't be him.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Rembert in Lincoln, Neb. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elizabeth Rembert