Walking down the street with James Spann, the star weather forecaster and tornado expert for Birmingham’s ABC 33/40, is quite the experience. Despite changing TV watching patterns fueled by Netflix and YouTube, the meteorologist continues to get recognized left and right, by people young and old. And that makes sense. Alabama is known for its tornadoes, and James Spann’s coverage is widely thought to be some of the best tornado coverage in the U.S.
Spann also makes a point of visiting local schools to give talks to students about the weather. So, for some Alabamians, Spann fandom started in the first grade — and never stopped.
Still, despite Spann’s love of science and science communication, there’s one thing that he won’t talk about on the air: climate change.
“They hire me here to forecast the weather. They didn't hire me as a climatologist to discuss these things,” Spann told VICE News Tonight during a conversation in the ABC 33/40 studio. But his refusal to talk about climate change goes beyond what he perceives as the limits of his job. “Natural variability in my opinion is still the primary driver — and all of a sudden you become a sinner.” In other words, Spann doesn’t think humans are the main cause of climate change.
He isn’t alone. A survey of around 2,000 American Meteorological Society members released last year revealed that 38 percent of meteorologists aren’t convinced that humans are the main cause of climate change. That statistic may explain why in some parts of the country, it’s still novel to hear a TV meteorologist discuss climate change during a daily forecast — or even when talking about extreme weather events.
VICE News spent a day with James Spann, and interviewed Paul Gross, a TV meteorologist for NBC’s WDIV News 4 in Detroit who mentions global warming on the air regularly — and who doesn’t think local weather forecasters should shy away from the subject.
This segment originally aired January 4, 2018, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.