You Don’t Need a Weatherman
Posted by: David Puner : on February 16, 2009 at 10:56 am
If the debate over climate change is closed, why is John Coleman, the founder of the Weather Channel, still trying to prove it’s all a scam?
a quarter-million weathercasts—that’s the ballpark figure the 74-year-old founding father of the Weather Channel guesses he’s probably performed in his 55 years in the business. Today, as for the past 15 years, he’s chalked up another weathercast like it’s his job, because it is. This, he tells me, is the best time of his career.
Which seems odd, because in the past few years, he’s admittedly become mad as hell. Coleman is angry because he believes we have been brainwashed into thinking we’re ruining our own planet. He wants to let us off the hook, and give us some good news for a change, because, you see, John Coleman says that climate change is a scam.
If you consume mainstream media, odds are you’re not hearing much debate about climate change these days. We’re told the debate is effectively over. Scientists say so, too. It’s our consumption that continues to ruin our planet’s environmental health, so there’s no longer time to debate—it’s time to act. Every time we do anything, like flip on a light switch or charge an iPod or turn on the A/C, we’re contributing to the release of greenhouse gases, and so the oceans rise and that’s a problem for the polar bears and, well, you know—something like that. It may be difficult to explain, but we know the state of the environment is bad. Most recently, in fact, we were told that the effects of man-made climate change are all but irreversible.
John Coleman has dedicated his life to studying weather and the science that creates it—so shouldn’t we at least hear him out?
So, yes, the debate is over. And yet for some reason, somewhere outside the fray, the weather sage John Coleman decided it shouldn’t be. That we’d been hoodwinked. That it was still worth talking about. So a year and a half ago, determined he’d heard enough of the noise and the Al Gore and the polar bears, he threw his voice into the conversation.
When Coleman posted his first climate change brief online, he was surprised by the attention it got. “I thought I was the only one,” he says. “I started finding that there were plenty of people out there, it’s just that the media was ignoring them and the place to find them was on these little corners of the internet.” In May, 2008, an organization called the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine released a petition at the National Press Club, with the signatures of 31,000 scientists rejecting the U.N. consensus of man-made climate change. Nine thousand of the names reportedly belong to Ph.Ds.
Encouraged, he delivered a speech last March at the International Conference on Climate Change in New York where he said that Al Gore and others selling carbon credits should be sued for fraud. His hope, he said, was that the publicity from such a suit would potentially debunk climate change in a court room instead of waiting for the media to do its supposed due diligence.
So is he a crank—Willard Scott with an agenda that goes beyond hooky old-school weatherman shtick? Coleman’s life has been dedicated to studying and presenting weather and the science that creates it—so shouldn’t we at least hear him out? He thinks we should, and he has supporters. He says the science we’ve digested is erroneous.
Coleman’s still got a steady gig, and he doesn’t feel he personally has much to lose in allowing himself to be one of the most prominent climate-change naysayers. He’s already lost his baby—the Weather Channel—and, he says, TWC is a perpetrator of the scam along with all the other mainstream media organizations. Coleman doesn’t like what his baby has grown into. When I ask him about the current product, he doesn’t skip a beat. “Everything. The Weather Channel is terrible. Pathetic.”
Long estranged from the Weather Channel, Coleman has been living out his golden years and serving up sunny local weather for KUSI in San Diego, California, what he refers to as his “retirement job,” since 1994. San Diego wasn’t on Coleman’s radar after his ousting from TWC. First, he tried New York for about a year, then back to Chicago for a few years. Then, when things dried up in Chicago, in 1993, he looked around and, he says, nobody wanted him, so he wound up in the desert–Palm Springs. “No station in the world wants an old, has-been weatherman in his fifties,” he says. Coleman was 56 at the time. “Old’s a curse.” Coleman spent less than a year in Palm Springs–he’s been getting older in San Diego ever since.
Coleman says being in San Diego is “like living in heaven without dying.” In San Diego you’ve got your occasional Santa Anas, a little El Niño and La Niña, some night and morning low cloud patterns, but most of the time you’ve just got sunshine and the breeze. The weather in San Diego itself is why Coleman’s KUSI website bio begins with the quote: “Being a TV weatherman in San Diego is an outrageous scam.” The bio, incidentally, was written well before John Coleman made a few headlines, calling climate change warming a scam.
Coleman saw An Inconvenient Truth on DVD and he says he made it all the way through, but “not without screaming.”
Among other things, it took drowning polar bears and the internet to get John Coleman firing on all cylinders. “Gradually there’s this build-up, this hysteria about global warming,” he says. “The Al Gore book comes out. The Al Gore movie comes out and starts winning awards. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gets headline news status and starts issuing its predictions. The media is clamoring aboard and the next thing I know, it’s headline news every day, everywhere. And I’ve been studying it, reading stuff, and looking at it, and can’t figure out what the heck they’re talking about.”
What “they” are talking about, and we have heard much about is that climate change is one of greatest challenges we face in our lifetime and that humankind is generally ****ing up everything imaginable involving air, water, and land. John Coleman says it’s perpetrated by the media who loves it some Gore. “You’ve got Al Gore. You’ve got the environmentalists. And then all the networks come aboard, because they love gloom and doom, the-end-is-near,” he says. “From Y2K to killer bees—God, give us something to tell people their lives are coming to an end—cancer scare, HIV, whatever we’ve got—let’s go, Man, scare the hell out of people,” he says. “This is awful. Shame on them, scaring people. That’s deplorable.”
According to Coleman, the media is biased and sloppy and perpetuates the climate change myth. “Has Larry King called me? Oh no. Has 60 Minutes been interested in our side of the story? Oh no. 20/20? Oh no.” Coleman continues: “I’ve been totally ignored by ABC, NBC, CBS—put down by CNN.” He has been interviewed by FOX News and also by Glenn Beck, who, he says, “used me as part of his rant.”
Coleman saw An Inconvenient Truth on DVD and he says he made it all the way through, but “not without screaming.” Gore’s film won two Oscars—one for best documentary—and in October, 2007, Gore and the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change won the Nobel Peace Prize. (”I have a friend who calls the Nobel Peace Prize the Liberal of the Year Award,” Coleman tells me.) Coleman seethed. Soon thereafter, he posted a missive on KUSI.com’s “Coleman’s Corner.”
“So I get indignant and I write that blog and throw it on the website,” he says. “That’s kind of totally absorbed my life since.”
Sitting at our table overlooking Montgomery Field, a regional airport, just a few miles north of downtown San Diego late last spring. With the distant whir of single-engine props in the background, John Coleman tells me that all anyone really needs to know about the climate change scam is carbon dioxide.
“Environmentalists, they think CO2 is a pollutant,” he says, and then makes an act of exhaling. “There’s a little pollution for you,” he says, and then points in the general vicinity of vegetation that isn’t looking all that vibrant (unless brown is vibrant). “See that bush beside you there? It’d be dead without CO2.” Without CO2, he says, “We wouldn’t have any food. Humans couldn’t exist. CO2 is vital to life.” He pauses for a moment and then raises his voice an octave. “My God! Calling that a pollutant? Ridiculous.”
Coleman acknowledges that carbon dioxide continues to build up in the atmosphere. In 1958, he says, the CO2 atmospheric level was 315 parts per million. Today CO2 is 385 parts per million—more than a 20 percent increase. If you’re making a case for a direct correlation between increased atmospheric CO2 levels and climate change, you’re saying the increased CO2 is causing changes in ocean chemistry, which in turn is changing the entire climate equation.
“It’s a trace. How does that destroy the planet?” says Coleman. “And they publish their papers and scream and the media says, Oh God, the end is near! And it’s all baloney; there isn’t anything to it. It turns out to be sheer folly. But it all comes back to CO2—they haven’t got anything else.”
“Have temperatures gone up? No. Is global warming sweeping the planet? No. Is the ice melting at the poles? No. Is there any proof that it’s creating significant impact? No. Can you produce a computer model that predicts that it will? Oh yeah, anyone can manipulate a computer model, and they have.”
Of course, the prevailing wisdom is that yes, temperatures have gone up, that ice is melting, and that the scientists assessing climate data aren’t doing so with malicious intent. Attempting to debunk those who are attempting to debunk climate change, as it turns out, is complicated.
To get some sort of definitive explanation, I talked to Kerry Emmanuel, who is a professor of Atmospheric Science at M.I.T. He agrees with Al Gore that the debate is over (although he does think the movie has some “scientific flaws”). “I would not take anything that John Coleman says too seriously,” Emmanuel tells me. Emmanuel says he could relatively quickly give me a “good feeling for the evidence.” But, he says, to bring me up to speed on the physics behind the greenhouse effect, “you’d have to take a semester class.” On top of that, he says, “The models are even difficult for the professionals to understand.” So the problem, as Emmanuel presents it, is that scientists often expect the general public to accept conclusion “as an article of faith” because the explanation can be so intricate and difficult to communicate. “Therein lies a problem,” says Emmanuel. “You have to take my word for that.”
John Coleman has had a thing about being heard for a long time. “I was the fifth of five children,” he tells me. He grew up in south Texas during the Depression and says, “My parents hardly had any time for me, or any interest. Life was busy and hard. Who needed another kid?”
Coleman observed that his parents did pay attention to the radio. “So I decided I better get on the radio,” he says. As an eighth grader, he spent a lot of time reading in front of the mirror, developing The Voice. He started hanging around WCIL radio in Carbondale, Illinois, and even as a high school freshman, was pretty close to being a full-time employee—on-air from the beginning. “Sure enough, my parents listened,” he recalls. “Pretty cool.”
Coleman’s father was a college professor who had a habit of going on evening walks. On these walks Claude Coleman would look at the sky and predict the next day’s weather. Sometimes John tagged along. “So I learned something about predicting the weather by looking at the sky with my dad.” In college, John parlayed his radio experience into doing weather on TV, a new medium he was determined to conquer.
At 18, John Coleman was a local celebrity. “I was brash and pretty much a jerk,” Coleman recalls, with a deep laugh.
The ride to the top for Coleman had some stops. Bloomington to Peoria. Then to Omaha, where he once worked through 30 days straight of tornado warnings. Then came Milwaukee. When Coleman arrived in Chicago, he became a member of the first-ever local Eyewitness News team. He’d hit the weather big time. “Chicago is the Broadway of weather,” he says.
Forecasting Chicago weather with Eyewitness news led to a big-time national gig in 1975. Being the first-ever weatherman on Good Morning America was certainly a big darn deal—national weather on a national stage. “I was getting up at 3:30 in the morning, busting my tail to predict all 50 states.”
“I would not take anything that John Coleman says too seriously,” says Kerry Emmanuel, professor of Atmospheric Science at M.I.T.
Coleman says his GMA job was ultimately made untenable by conflict with co-host David Hartman. “So now what am I gonna do?” he recalls thinking. “I wanted to do weather on television and I wanted to do it right.” John Coleman wanted more weather and less teasing segments. Coleman figured his viewers might want more weather too. Coleman had a big idea.
While hanging in at GMA, Coleman began his push in 1977 to get financial backing for the first-ever 24-hour weather cable channel. HBO was newly minted and Ted Turner had recently launched 24-hour news with CNN. Coleman figured his network would be so good that local stations would give up doing weather. “I assumed it would be a huge success,” he tells me. “So I made a business plan and went out to find $14 million to start it up,” he says, then pauses for a moment. “And I got laughed at coast-to-coast.”
Joe D’Aleo, a prominent climate change dissenter who Coleman calls “the greatest meteorologist alive” and who was the first Director of Meteorology for the Weather Channel, can attest to Coleman’s fire in the early days. While working under him as a forecaster at GMA, D’Aleo says, “John, often after the show, would fly from Chicago to New York or Denver to talk to venture capitalists or potential financial backers about the Weather Channel. He would fly back in the evening, go home, grab a different suit and drive back in at midnight and then work with us overnight getting ready for the morning,” he says.
Coleman’s tirelessness finally paid off when he convinced media and newspaper giant Landmark Communications to come on as an investor. The deal was, they’d put up the money and Coleman would get almost complete control of the network. He’d receive no salary, but he’d get a 20 percent stake in the company.
While he was in Atlanta starting the Weather Channel, Coleman continued to appear on GMA via satellite feed. Hartman and the expense of the satellite hookup apparently sealed the end for Coleman at GMA in January, 1983, when his contract with ABC expired. This, Coleman tells me, is when things began to go wrong. Six months later, he got bounced from the Weather Channel.
“Sure enough, I got screwed,” he says. “They kicked me out and that was the end of that.” The network had been on-air for just over a year and was reportedly running $7 million in the red. Landmark exercised a contract option that allowed them to oust Coleman—the chairman, president, and founder of the network—after a year on-air. Coleman had a month to scramble to find investors, this time for $4 million, and he couldn’t find any takers.
Turns out, it would have been a good investment. The Weather Channel began turning profit in 1985 and was sold in 2008 to a consortium, headlined by NBC Universal, for $3.5 billion. Twenty percent of $3.5 billion, even after taxes, would be enough for Coleman to trade his Mercury Grand Marquis in for a pimped-out brand new Grand Marquis (miles per gallon: 16 city/24 highway).
Rolling in the Coleman Grand Marquis back to KUSI, A/C on, the Weather Grand Marquis himself turns up the volume on a CD he’s got in the player. It’s the artistry of fellow KUSI weather colleague, who moonlights as a jazz composer. In the backseat there are small plastic bottles of red Gatorade and a case of Diet Coke. A box of Kleenex was riding shotgun before I displaced it.
Back in the heart of KUSI, a warehouse-like facility north of downtown San Diego, Coleman introduces me to Dave Scott, jazz musician. Scott is having a difficult time getting a temperature reading for Tijuana up onto his computer weather map.
“Working with John is like working with the Walter Cronkite of weather,” Scott says to me, in front of Coleman.
“He’s alive, isn’t he?” Coleman asks.
The on-air John Coleman is different from off-air John Coleman. “You have to be a personality that people want to tune into,” he explains. “You gotta have pizzazz. People laugh at my shtick, but it gets noticed. And it works and it grows on people.”
Coleman is green screening like it’s 1981, but he’s doing it backed by the latest weather forecasting technology, because he’s determined to do the weather right. And, he doesn’t want to freak his audience out.
“I got screwed. The Weather Channel kicked me out and that was the end of that,” says Coleman.
“The newscast producers and news directors love to put me on at the beginning of the broadcast when a storm is coming, to tell people that we’re going to flood and have mudslides and we’re all going to lose our homes and we’re all going to die,” he says. “And I come on and say, ‘We’ll have a pretty decent storm, but we’ve had storms like this before and nobody died and I suspect nobody will die this time. But you should know it’s going to rain an inch-and-a-half and the wind’s going to blow 60 miles-an-hour, there’s going to be some trees coming down, there’ll be a few mudslides. So be careful out there. That’s it.”
Climate change hysteria, from Coleman’s perspective, is an extension of today’s amped-up weathercasts—it gets ratings, but does it in the end deliver?
John Coleman lives in a 55-plus community with Linda, his wife of nine years. Life is good. He spends time with friends—plays poker, goes out to dinner—and goes to plays, concerts, and some movies. At the time we met, Coleman was about halfway through Michael Crichton’s State of Fear (which takes on climate change). Coleman doesn’t watch much television, he says. “I get all my news online.” He says he spends time everyday online doing climate change research.
Coleman gives speaking engagements he says are well received, but won’t accept invitations from the petroleum industry. “They all invite me, because they are so tired of being the bad boys of global warming. So they want to have me come tell them they’re not bad boys,” he says. “And they want to give me money.” Coleman says he’s pro-alternative energy, because it’s a natural progression—not because of climate change, he says.
When I ask him whether he talks climate change with his grandkids (he has five), who are college-aged, he says, “They don’t care about the topic one way or another, seems like. Their lives are off doing other stuff.” And what about his two children? “I’ve talked to them about it, but they kind of glaze over,” he says.
Being a climate change dissenter isn’t sexy. Climate change has Hollywood, says Coleman. Climate change has Al Gore and Barack Obama and most of the other politicians. This is a star-driven society, Coleman says. “I can’t be a star, I’m too old,” he says. “We need somebody young, dynamic. Where are they? Hello, I’m looking for you. I wish I could be the star, but I see all the guys who could be the star climbing aboard the bus with Al Gore.”
For now, John Coleman is the guy who started the Weather Channel who says climate change is a scam. “I want to have the last laugh. Which means I’ll have lived another twenty years,” he says—a deep laugh pushing a bit more CO2 into the atmosphere.
Photos by Brian Paumier