Greg Fishel was once a Limbaugh-loving climate skeptic. Now he’s fighting global warming. | News Feature | Indy Week
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Greg Fishel was once a Limbaugh-loving climate skeptic. Now he’s fighting global warming. 

You might assume that your local meteorologist believes in climate change.

Certainly if he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Penn State in 1979 and began working at WRAL-TV as the station's first meteorologist in 1981. Especially if he was promoted to chief meteorologist in 1989, a post he has held ever since. And without a doubt, if your local weatherman was the first American Meteorological Society-certified broadcast meteorologist in the United States, who then chaired the board that developed the 100-question exam used for broadcast certifications, he'd have to embrace the overwhelming scientific consensus. Right?

For Greg Fishel, accepting that reality took time. An avid churchgoer and Rush subscriber (that's Limbaugh, not the band), Fishel has been slower than most scientists to recognize the fact that the planet is warming and we're to blame. Last week, the meteorologist penned a blog post titled, "Choose science, stewardship in understanding climate change," a public admission of his previous ignorance and a plea for people like him—Republicans, churchgoers, Fox News fanatics—to approach the topic scientifically rather than ideologically.

Fishel's essay, which derides blind party and religious loyalty as "unadulterated bunk," was inspired by a climate workshop he attended in Beaufort this month, plus research from his trip to Alaska's Barrow Observatory in March. The post originally appeared on the WRAL Weathercenter blog on Oct. 12, but when The Washington Post picked it up that same day, our snow-loving weatherman was catapulted to the front lines of a national debate.

The essay might be the first time people outside of North Carolina are hearing of Fishel, but back home, a list of local celebrities could easily begin with college basketball coaches and then progress to the lovable, nerdy meteorologist. Fishel has seen both the coldest (-9 degrees on Jan. 21, 1985) and hottest (110 degrees on Aug. 21, 1983) days on record at RDU, covered Hurricane Fran in 1996 and the tornadoes that ripped through downtown Raleigh in 2011, and is always on deck for a good snowstorm. He plays the tuba, sometimes at local football games, and has won an Emmy for his hurricane coverage. In times of trouble and uncertainty, people turn to Fishel to tell them where to go, what to wear and how it might feel outside.

This week, as though working on premonition, attendants in the WRAL booth at the N.C. State Fair punched holes through the eyes of thousands of Greg Fishel masks, a strangely progressive attempt at "viral marketing" by the TV station. The masks proliferated throughout the fairgrounds, with people of all stripes happy to play Greg. And now, with national attention on his public admission and call for change, our local weatherman has the chance to become the face of something even greater.

The INDY spoke with Greg Fishel last week about climate change, politics and how humbling—and liberating—it can be to admit you're wrong.

INDY Week: For you to become a face and a representative for what I think is a really important thing to talk about—climate change—it's great. It's very brave.

Greg Fishel: I gotta be honest with you. We've done a lot of stuff on climate this year, going back to when I went to Alaska back in March. So I've been posting a lot of stuff that has gotten a decent reaction. But when the former head of the American Meteorological Society contacted me and said I think we gotta have this be a guest commentary for the Capital Weather Gang on The Washington Post, I was stunned.

And when it hit up there, it just went crazy. I started hearing from people all over the country. The day the pope released his encyclical about climate change, I posted something that day that reached about 50,000 people. And I was like, That's going to be the best one. That's the most people I'll ever reach. And this one, on Sunday when last I checked, is now up over 200,000.

There's a pastor that I really like a lot down at First Presbyterian Church back in the 1980s. He had a sermon one time that I've never forgotten, and the title was, "If Not Me, Who? If Not Now, When?" And I figured, you know, if I'd only come to work here six months ago, doing something like this would have been suicide. But if there's ever a time when I could be honest with people and hope that they would at least consider it, after being here 34-plus years, this was probably the time to try.

And time will tell whether it has any positive effect, but there was something inside of me that was saying, This is the time to try, and if you don't try now, 10 years from now, you might look back and wonder, why didn't I?

How has the reaction been?

Well, it's funny. The initial stuff I saw, the comments, were pretty positive. But as it started reaching more and more people, the missiles started coming down. In fact, this issue has made me worry about this country way beyond just climate. The vitriol, the binary nature on a number of issues.

I have a little theory. I don't know if it's right or not, but between talk radio, social media, Internet blogs and 24-hour news channels, we've basically divided the country. We provide a support group for whatever one believes, that they can run to and hear whatever they want to hear and see whatever they want to see.

It's like we're picking and choosing what science we want to accept based on whether it helps us or not. I mean, all of us benefit from science every day, with all the conveniences we enjoy—technology—and yet in this one area, because people have decided that it's going to hurt developing countries or it's going to destroy our economy or whatever it is, all of a sudden, basic chemistry and physics don't work anymore. Which is just, I'll be honest with you, it's stupid. Maybe ignorant would be the better word. I always like to draw a distinction between those two words, because there are a lot of smart people who aren't aware of the truth, who are ignorant. We're all ignorant in certain ways.

If you start throwing around personal insults, it makes it a lot harder to listen to a different point of view. So I respect that nuance.

I'll give you [a name]: Congressman—former congressman—Bob Inglis [who represented South Carolina's 4th District from 1993–99 and 2005–11]. He has been quoted as saying that until 2008, the only thing that he knew about climate change was that, if Al Gore supported it, he was against it. And then he went to Antarctica and interviewed a bunch of scientists and came back with a changed mind. When he made that public, the tea party went after him. He didn't even get to the general election, and we're talking about a six-term congressman here. He got annihilated in the primary.

And the thing about it is, if you talk to him, he is still as conservative as he's ever been. His faith is still as important to him as it's ever been. But he is of the attitude that this is something that he can no longer deny. The interesting thing is that some of us have the answer to this. We're all about free market and free enterprise. If we take the lead on developing new technologies for alternative and renewable energy, then there are entrepreneurial opportunities, which then create jobs, which stimulate the economy. We have the answer, and why our party doesn't realize it is beyond me.

Especially with climate change, it seems that people always talk in extremes, that it's very black and white. What are some reasonable ways we could approach this?

The development of the technology is not my area of expertise, of course, but from what I understand, China, even though they're still emitting a lot of bad stuff, is moving aggressively forward in the area of solar. Way further than the United States.

I think it's reframing the issue, in the sense that, Let's not look at this as restriction and regulation, let's think about this as something that's enterprising, that's freeing. In 20 years, this is something that the rest of the world would be coming to the United States to say thanks for taking the lead. We would not only be respected, but we could economically benefit from that. As opposed to, Are we going to look back in 20 years and say, darn it, we did it again? We're dependent on other foreign countries for a different type of energy, and we missed our chance?

How would you say that climate forecasting and weather forecasting are related? There's the common refrain that "you can't even predict whether it will rain tomorrow, so how do you know climate change is real?"

That's a very valid question. The simplest way to explain it is that when it comes to day-to-day weather forecasts, we're trying to see all of the minute details, some of which we still don't completely understand or aren't able to measure. That's simply an impossible task. But when you look at things that dictate climate, a lot of those things are easier to measure, because they're operating on a much larger scale. There's a guy named Kerry Emanuel at MIT, a world-renowned scientist, and I love the way he framed this. He was in a debate in Huntsville, Alabama, with one of the few remaining science skeptics. And he turned to the moderator in the middle of the debate, and he said, "Is there a chance that John's right and I'm wrong? Yes, there is. But I look at this as risk assessment, just like you would with insurance. If there's a 20 percent chance that your 2-year-old daughter will get run over if you don't walk with her across the street, would you let her do it?" Let's suppose that a bunch of stuff comes along to cancel all [the climate-related dangers] out. What are we left with? A cleaner atmosphere, cheaper energy. What are the downsides to that?

There are a lot of good questions from people who are skeptical. I guess the big question after that is, are they willing to accept the answer? Or are they so deep in their ideological trench that they're not willing to listen to the answer after they ask a question?

The thing about it is it's hard to admit that you're wrong. I had to do that. I've never really felt ashamed about it, because I just grew as a person. That's a good thing. If none of us ever made mistakes, we'd never learn anything.

That's being a human being, isn't it?

Right! It took me a long time. I changed my registration from Democrat to Republican in '84, and I think every president except the last one that I voted for since then was Republican. I listened to Rush [Limbaugh] every day and I believed everything he said. Then, one day, it hit me that I have a four-year science degree through an institution of higher learning, but I'm approaching this issue from an ideological standpoint instead of a scientific standpoint. And that's wrong.

That had to be foundation-shaking.

Yes. I have people in my own family, my extended family, who have accused me of caving. They believe everything that Fox News says, and that's all they want. And I told them, look, I was willing to be wrong once, of course, and I've got to be willing to be wrong a second time, third time and a fourth time. I'm not saying that this is the end of the road on learning. But this is the best science that we have available to us right now, and what else can you base it on? The thing about the higher power in control, if you believe in a superior being and the whole idea of stewardship, is that he gave us the knowledge to learn from our mistakes. Why wouldn't we want to put that knowledge to use?

I never thought there would be anything that would replace the awesomeness of trying to forecast the weather every day. But this has been a new passion that's come along in my life, and it's really consumed me in a way that I did not anticipate. Who knows? Maybe [climate change] will be the focus of my life from here on, as opposed to what I've been doing for all these years. You just never know what's around the next corner.

  • The longtime WRAL meteorologist on his newfound advocacy, and what it’s like to realize you’re wrong

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