Midwest weather experts want to talk about climate change, but they face pushback and threats

Nov. 27, 2023, 9 a.m. ·

Martha Durr.JPG
Martha Durr poses for a portrait at her house in Lincoln, Nebraska. Earlier this month, she stepped away as the state's principal communicator of climate information. "It gets draining over time," she said. "Part of me thought 'I'm saying the same message, and things aren't happening at the rate they should be.'" (Elizabeth Rembert / Harvest Public Media)

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 and climate change trends. Gloninger knew it might elicit some grumbling from Iowan viewers.

“I expected push back,” he said. “I just didn’t expect the magnitude and how quickly it went off the rails.”

At first the negative feedback was fairly standard – Gloninger came to Iowa with more than 15 years of experience in TV meteorology and had launched a weekly series on climate change which ran in Boston and won a regional Emmy.

“It was, stuff like ‘I don’t need to hear your liberal conspiracy theories on our air. Take the politics out of your forecast,’” Gloninger recalled. “‘You’re politicizing the weather, you’re a puppet to the left.’”

But 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.”

That message referenced an incident that targeted U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanuagh, where police arrested a man carrying a gun, a knife and zipties near Kavanaugh’s house.

Gloninger installed a security system at his house and KCCI arranged for security to look after him when he came to and from work and when he worked at the state fair. But the threats ate at his mental health and well-being.

“You never know what hill someone’s willing to die on,” Gloninger said. “I didn’t know if this person thought risking his future to shut me up was worth it. And that plays in your mind.”

Danny Hancock, an Iowan in his 60s, eventually pled guilty to a third-degree harassment charge and was fined $150.

But the threats – on top of family health issues and shifting priorities from KCCI’s management – eventually became too much for Gloninger.

“You can kick somebody when they're down only so many times before they just have to give up,” he said. “And I felt like it had just gone too far.”

After two years in Iowa, Gloninger moved back to Massachusetts to be closer to his family and take a consulting job focused on climate solutions.

Most appreciate climate change reporting

While resistant voices can be loud, 90% of Americans are still open to learning about climate change, according to Ed Maibach with the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University.

Maibach said surveys suggest people appreciate hearing about climate change from trusted sources like meteorologists and climatologists, even in conservative communities.

“The whole notion 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 signals that this is difficult, if not impossible, to do in red states. But that's just not true.”

Jim Gandy proved that in 2010 when he became the first TV meteorologist to participate in Climate Matters, a climate change reporting program.

The program adviser asked him to explain local climate change impacts to viewers in Columbia, South Carolina.

“I said ‘I’d love to be the test case,’” Gandy, now retired, said. “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.”

Gandy’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 didn’t have anything left to give’

But skepticism and hostility from the minority can be a challenge for people on the front lines of climate communication, especially in conservative states. Climatologists and meteorologists in seven states shared stories with Harvest Public Media of encountering strong resistance.

In Nebraska, that became too exhausting for Martha Durr, who stepped away from the state climatologist position earlier this month. She said she didn’t feel she had “anything left to give” the job.

“I went to school to become a scientist,” Durr said. “And what I found myself doing most of the time in this role is almost being a therapist and helping people through climate change.”

For nearly eight years, she tried to be empathetic and meet people where they were. She pointed out local impacts and worked around pre-existing opinions that kept people from grasping the issue.

It was discouraging when her careful consideration ran into a wall of resistance, or when 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 progress.

“It gets tiring trying to convince people that science is real,” Durr said. “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. I would rather be helping people work through solutions to solve the problem.”

Navigating pushback

Others working in the Midwest and Great Plains have also encountered skeptical audiences.

Like Melissa Widhalm, who spent years presenting the science to communities in Indiana and is now the associate director and regional climatologist at the Midwestern Regional Climate Center.

She said most people are willing to have a conversation about climate change and are eager to learn from a credible scientist. But she still had some strange encounters during her trips to Indiana communities.

“Every time you went out, you just weren't sure what you were going to get,” Widhalm said. “You always went in having to mentally prepare yourself that somebody could be there to cause trouble or not engage in a civilized way.”

Meteorologists and climatologists in the Midwest and Great Plains said they try to focus on local impacts of climate change that people can see in their own backyards. Widhalm said she didn’t shy away from what that means for 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 somebody in your household has allergies, you understand what that means to suffer for more weeks out of every year.”

Comments on social media posts are where Devan Masciulli – a meteorologist at WEEK 25 News in Peoria, Illinois – sees the most pushback.

She focuses on the science and writes with a skeptical audience in mind.

“But you’re still met with people saying you’re lying or that you have ulterior motives,” Masciulli said. “I could see it wearing on you to where you think ‘I'm not even going to post it because it feels like nobody's listening.’”

Also in Illinois, state climatologist Trent Ford adjusts his framing when he speaks to different groups. He said it’s more than just switching out words – it’s about dialing in on the most relevant information and explaining workable climate solutions.

“The message is the same if I’m talking to an environmental nonprofit or a farm bureau in a conservative county,” he said. “But the way the message is delivered may differ.”

Even in a blue state, Ford received a threat earlier this year after he talked about climate change while explaining some gloomy Chicago weather on a radio show.

Ford’s employer, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, quickly mobilized and determined there wasn’t an immediate threat.

“Somebody just decided to blow off some steam in a pretty unproductive fashion,” Ford said. “Everything was handled very professionally. It was a little surprising, but I never felt unsupported or unsafe.”

Staying motivated

Widhalm said she’s not easily disappointed – she knows explaining climate change in Indiana is a challenge.

“I never went in expecting that I would move the hearts and minds of the masses,” she said. “Even just a small connection and conversation feels like we've way overshot what we’re trying to do.”

On days when her job feels like an uphill battle, she wonders if it might be easier elsewhere, like in a blue state. But then she tells herself:

“There's nowhere else that is more important to do this work than right here in Indiana,” Widhalm said. “Because otherwise it would not be talked about at all. And that’s very centering. It keeps me going when I’m thinking, ‘What’s the point?’”

In Iowa, Chris Gloninger saw how much people appreciated his work. After he talked about the harassment on air, he received hundreds of messages from grateful viewers, which he printed out into a thick manuscript.

In Nebraska, Durr said she hopes her work helped more Nebraskans reach a better understanding of climate change.

“Now it’s time for somebody 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 on a different angle.”

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.