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Chris Gloninger, meteorologist
Chris Gloninger is a broadcast meteorologist. Photo credit: Courtesy of Chris Gloninger

When did weather forecasting become life-threatening? Meet Chris Gloninger, the TV meteorologist who faced death threats for reporting on climate change. A tale of science vs. politics.

When did giving the weather report become a political act worthy of death threats? For years, we got mad at TV weather forecasters if it rained on our picnic when they predicted a clear day. Today, just explaining the “why” behind the weather can get you fired — or even murdered. 

Chris Gloninger, former chief meteorologist at KCCI-TV in Iowa, faced this chilling reality when his climate change coverage sparked harassment and death threats. His story exposes a troubling trend: the erosion of respect for expertise and facts, even in realms as fundamental as weather reporting. 

As the world grapples with unprecedented climate events, why is anyone still debating whether there’s a problem at all? Gloninger forces us to confront uncomfortable questions about scientific literacy, the dangers of politicizing facts, and the urgent need to find common ground in addressing climate change.

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Full Text Transcript:

(As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.)

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. In an era where expertise is increasingly under fire, and facts are treated as malleable commodities, even the weather report has become a battleground. My guest today, Chris Gloninger, former chief meteorologist at KCCI TV in Des Moines, Iowa, stands at the intersection of many of the issues of our time. Chris’s story is a microcosm of the erosion of respect for expertise and facts in our public discourse.

When a meteorologist can’t report on climate change without facing death threats, we’ve crossed a dangerous line. The polarization isn’t just affecting our political debates anymore. It’s seeping into the most fundamental aspects of our daily lives, including how we understand and prepare for the weather. But here’s the rub, while we’re arguing about whether we can talk about climate change, the world is literally burning up. Record-breaking heat waves, unprecedented wildfires, and extreme weather events are becoming the new normal.

Yet instead of focusing on solutions, we’re still debating whether there’s a problem. Let’s be clear. We can disagree about solutions. We can debate the severity of the crisis and the best approaches to mitigate it, but we cannot disagree about facts. Every day we wake up to the truth. It’s right outside our doors affecting our lives in real tangible ways.

Chris Gloninger’s experience forces us to confront some uncomfortable questions. How did we get to a point where reporting the weather is seen as a political act? How can we bridge this divide in return to a shared understanding of reality? And most importantly, how can we move forward to address the very real challenges of climate change when we can’t even agree on the basics? We’ll look at some of these questions today with Chris Gloninger.

His story is not just about a weatherman facing threats. It’s about the critical importance of scientific literacy, the dangers of politicizing facts, and the urgent need to find common ground in addressing one of the most pressing issues of our time. This isn’t just about the weather, it’s about the very fabric of our society and the future of the planet. It is my pleasure to welcome Chris Gloninger here to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. Chris, thanks so much for joining us.

Chris Gloninger: Thanks, Jeff. Thanks for having me.

Jeff Schechtman: Well, it is a delight to have you here. First of all, tell us a little bit about how you became a meteorologist, how you became a television weatherman.

Chris Gloninger: The first question stems back to second grade when I was hit by Hurricane Bob, in my hometown on eastern Long Island, and I was fascinated by weather. Wasn’t sure if I was going to go into TV, but I definitely wanted to study it as a meteorologist, and it wasn’t until college, when I did an internship at WABC in New York that helped me seal the deal on my TV career. And back in 2006, that’s when I got my first job at WHEC in Rochester, New York.

So now I’m back in my roots looking more at the science than doing on-air work, but I certainly enjoyed my time as a broadcast meteorologist.

Jeff Schechtman: And you made the rounds to different TV stations as is the norm in that business. You were in Boston and then you went to Iowa. Talk about that move and why.

Chris Gloninger: Yes. When I was in Boston, I started the country’s first weekly series on climate change. I grew a passion for it. I’d argue that I was more inspired to talk about climate change, and connect the dots between extreme weather and climate change, than I was just forecasting day-to-day weather. And I received an email after launching again, the country’s first weekly series on climate change, I received an email from a news director in Iowa asking if I would be interested in being chief meteorologist. And they wanted somebody to talk about climate change.

And honestly, Jeff, I wouldn’t have taken the opportunity if it didn’t allow me to do more around climate change. And after meetings and flying out there, it seemed like a great fit. It’s what they wanted. They saw the need with the agricultural industry. They saw that the weather was getting more extreme and they needed somebody to connect the dots. And later on, I found that another meteorologist who interviewed for that position reached out and said exactly, he had the same experience that I had. They were heavy on climate change, and that was what they were looking for.

Jeff Schechtman: And once you got out there, talk about how it began to unfold. What you began to uncover as the reality as opposed to what was promised.

Chris Gloninger: The pushback was pretty instant, I would say. And it was what I expected because in TV, I’m used to getting pushback from people, especially meteorologists when the forecast goes off the rails. A lot of people let you know when they’re not happy about it. But in this case, I was proud of the work that I was doing because I found a way in a very conservative part of the country to connect with a broader audience.

I wasn’t catering to a more progressive crowd as I was in Boston, but in this case, I used terms and phrases and talking points that really are the roots of conservative philosophy and made it work. And unfortunately, at the end of the day, my station really only listened to that small but loud minority of people that didn’t like it. There were others that were appreciative of my work.

So for example, Jeff, in Iowa, they’re one of the largest wind-power producers when it comes to energy. Our energy bills were half of what they were in Boston, yet our house was twice the size of the home that we moved from in Metro West in eastern Massachusetts. And that’s because of wind power. It’s true energy independence, and that’s a conservative term, energy independence. It was also a source of income for farmers. They would get anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 in land leases, and that could offset a bad season if we were in drought or seeing floods.

The other issue that I brought up was the fact that we were having these billion-dollar disasters that we weren’t adapting to, that we weren’t mitigating. We were just letting them go. We were giving communities blank checks to rebuild without taking adaptation into account. And I said, “That is fiscally irresponsible.” I said, “We’re having a disaster costing at least a billion dollars every two and a half weeks. And if we keep letting that happen, that’s irresponsible. It’s fiscal irresponsibility.” And for every dollar spent on mitigation and adaptation, you save $7 in recovery costs.

Again, both of those ways that I found to connect had to do at the end of the day with money. And at the end of the day, with the conservative philosophy, that is one of their key pillars in their beliefs: smart economic decisions.

Jeff Schechtman: You knew clearly what the dangers were, what you were getting into in doing this when you went to Iowa in spite of what management at the station told you they wanted to do. What trepidations did you have? What concerns did you have about how this might play out early on?

Chris Gloninger: I was concerned that the pushback would be even harsher. And really that first year, it was what I expected. I expected it to be worse. I expected the pushback to be greater in numbers and volume, and that really didn’t happen. I would get frequent emails, but it wasn’t like if I walked out in public, people were criticizing me. And when you’re a chief meteorologist in Des Moines, Iowa, in a “weather market,” people see you and know you and come up to you frequently. So that wasn’t happening.

After I received the death threat is when it went from 0 to 60 in such a short amount of time, because I wasn’t expecting death threats. And when I got that death threat, it was followed up by a series of harassing emails. And then that same person, who eventually was arrested for third-degree harassment, would write and say that his “friends were talking about me.” So I didn’t know how big of a network he had who clearly were unhappy with what I was doing. And that is when it really hit home and was a safety concern. Not just for me, but for my wife and our families.

My wife’s family in Wisconsin, my family in New York were very concerned for our safety. And instead of getting support— and there was short-term support for my safety, but they didn’t support my mission, which was to help people better understand the impacts of climate change. They told me to stop mentioning it or not mention it as much, and to try to avoid using the phrase climate change because it was so polarized in their eyes.

Jeff Schechtman: And yet that was what was promised to you when you went there, that you would be able to do this?

Chris Gloninger: Job descriptions changed. There’s no question of that, and I don’t intend this to sound egocentric or— Look, I’ll just say it. You don’t go from a top-10 television market to a market at 68 or 70, and I don’t know what it is right now, without basically going on your terms. I mean, you just wouldn’t make that step back in a career. In TV, in journalism, in media, you climb the ladder and go to higher and higher and higher markets. I did this because I thought it was a great opportunity to help my mission and try to improve climate literacy across a wider audience. And for me, that’s what was difficult.

Like they wanted me to mold into their desires. And when you’re talking to a veteran in the industry, that’s not an expectation that you should have for that person. It’s fine if it’s a person that’s just getting their first experience in a TV station; we had plenty of students right out of college that this was their first job. That I get, but you don’t expect that for somebody that you brought in to do a job and then expect them to conform and then change the way they’re doing things. That’s not how it works.

Jeff Schechtman: Is it your sense that management was sincere initially, that they really had this idea that they thought this would work, and even they were surprised by the degree of backlash?

Chris Gloninger: I think that they had good intentions in doing it, I don’t know. The cynical part of me sees that the same ownership group had a station in Boston. And I was doing this groundbreaking coverage of climate change in Boston at the time, something that their sister station was not doing at the time. So, again, the cynical side of my brain is saying, “Maybe there was some insincerity in hiring me for that position.” But on paper, it seemed like they were sincere, that they wanted to do it, they allowed me to do it, but then when it hit that fever pitch, they asked me to pull back and not use the phrase.

What I think shocked them, and shocked me, was when I was leaving, the volume of emails that I received from all across Iowa that were wanting to hear about the science, that were appreciative of connecting the dots between what was happening with extreme weather and climate change. And what I did was I printed them out, I put them in a binder, and I put Post-It notes from viewers that were from conservative markets. And these were cities and towns where the Republican majority was probably 80 percent to 20 percent, if not higher. And yet those people were happy that I was doing that.

And that is the issue when you just tailor and bow down your newscast to that small, but vocal minority. And if you look at some of the research, Jeff, from George Mason University and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, their numbers fit with the outpouring of support that I received. And I tried to bring those numbers to my manager, saying, “Look, more than 72 percent of the state wants to hear about it in the news headlines.” I mean, where do you have that support? That goes well beyond party lines. That is bipartisan support, except for that extremist side of society that doesn’t want to hear about it, that’s anti-science.

So I think at the end of the day, they really missed out, and I think that they pulled the plug way too soon. It was very premature.

Jeff Schechtman: Talk about the extent to which they pulled the plug versus you realizing this wasn’t going to work out, it was too dangerous, and you wanted to leave.

Chris Gloninger: I went to therapy. Look, the threat came a year into my job there. I was two years in when I ultimately left early, had to pay out of my contract to leave early. It was a year of therapy that guided me into that decision, and long talks with my wife. You don’t intend to move after buying a house in a community, and you pour your money into the local economy by buying furniture from local stores and by eating out. You try to do this for your job, but also to belong, a sense of belonging in this new area.

So it wasn’t an easy decision, and it snowballed where I tried to negotiate to the best that I could, knowing that I wasn’t going to allow them to take that voice away from me, but I would move the connections between extreme weather and climate change towards the end of the weather cast. If you have a three-minute weather cast, it would be the last 20 or 30 seconds of it before you hit the extended forecast.

And I tried to do that but — knowing that I didn’t have support from station management in the end, knowing that I got a death threat, and at times we felt unsafe, and both my parents and my in-laws have health issues and are aging — it just didn’t seem like it was worth the fight. I tried. I found a formula that worked. I tried my hardest to find a way and a path forward, and it just didn’t feel right. And I think the media coverage at first was just the idea that I got a death threat, got scared, quit. I walked away, ran away from the job.

And I tried to tell people that, “Look, there was more to that.” And I give major props to Cara Buckley at The New York Times, who took my story after she reached out, and confirmed everything, confirmed my accusations. People just didn’t want to hear it out of my mouth, and they were going to report it. Either they were too lazy or were working on too tight of a deadline to publish the story. But that was an important part of it, because I didn’t quit because I just got a death threat. There was a lot more to it than that, including the lack of “their,” meaning the station’s, support.

Jeff Schechtman: Could you have ever imagined when you got into this business that doing the weather would become a political exercise that would result in death threats?

Chris Gloninger: [chuckles] No, I don’t. And really, up until 2016, it wasn’t. I never received this kind of pushback. I talked about climate change pretty much starting after Hurricane Sandy in New York City when I decided personally I should be doing more by showing trends and the data, the facts and the science. But really, it was that moment when Trump was elected and there was what seemed like a war on science. And it wasn’t just climate science, the medical community faced the brunt of it through COVID, doctors being questioned.

And what blows my mind, Jeff, is when you have people that are criticizing you and writing to you, and it seems like their ideology, they feel, holds more weight than any academic background that you have in the subject matter. What is the world? What are we doing, if we really think that ideology outweighs science data and facts? It’s sad, it’s scary, it’s frustrating. Never in a million years getting into this did I think I’d be having to deal with that.

I literally showed carbon dioxide levels, at a recent climate talk that I was giving, over 800,000 years. And we know that through ice core data. That’s how big of a data set we have. So it shows the natural variation over the better part of 799,000 years, even more. And then that graph shows, starting right at 1900, CO2 levels just go vertical. And somebody in the audience said, “Well, something must have happened then. We just need to figure out what.” And I said, “This isn’t science as much as it is history. It was the industrial revolution. It’s when CO2 levels started to go up.” And he’s like, “Yes, but it’s got to be something else.”

Even with the data and in an unphotoshopped graphic [laughs] that was right from NASA, they still could not get beyond that. What their eyes were showing them, their brain was not believing, and that really, I think, defines the bigger issue that we have right now, and why this next election is so critical for science. And I don’t mean to sound dramatic in that, but the fact that somebody can look at a graph like that, see it, and still be doubtful and wondering why is mind-blowing to me.

Jeff Schechtman: I guess the broader question is whether we can turn the clock back, that regardless of the results of the next election or the election after that, that we have given rise to a whole cadre of people that deny science, as you’re talking about.

Chris Gloninger: When I sat in those meetings with station management and they said I was being difficult, I said, “You’re giving editorial control to an extreme right-wing organization, essentially.” This goes beyond politics. This is allowing these people that have these conspiracy-theory, fascist viewpoints, they’re holding weight and that scares me. To your point, we need to hit the reset. We need to get back where I know advertising and I know viewership is important to local news, but telling the truth and not omitting facts is even more important than that. And at the end of the day, if you’re not focused on that, then you’re not doing true journalism.

Jeff Schechtman: What did this experience teach you that was surprising about local news and local stations?

Chris Gloninger: You were watching the news and you heard about a car crash or a house fire, and you heard there were five people injured, or the house was a total loss and they didn’t tell you the why, even if they knew it, what do you think as the viewer? I think at the end of the day that is a failure. It’s a failure of the journalist covering that story. It’s the failure of the news anchor that’s reading the news. It’s a failure of the producer for not including the why.

And I think that we are in scary times if we are editorializing based on the local politics of an area without going— I mean, I would sit through newscasts where at the time Governor [Kim] Reynolds [R] would just be talking about things that were misinformation, disinformation, and she had this pulpit where she could say whatever she wanted to the entire viewing population without being fact-checked. Very rarely did they take time to fact-check, and that is the bigger issue.

It was funny, I got an email and an inquiry from a manager in a conservative state, but a liberal city. They were looking for a climate reporter at the end. And the guy, I give him a lot of credit for thinking outside the box, but he said, “Oh, yes, it’s a conservative state, but this is a liberal audience. That’s how we’re able to do this.”

[laughter]

Like, “Okay, but if it was a conservative market, you wouldn’t be doing that because you’re afraid they’d rock the boat and upset your audience.” We have to get away from that.

Jeff Schechtman: You’ve, after all of this, moved away from television, you’ve had enough of that?

Chris Gloninger: Yes. [chuckles] I am a senior climate scientist at Woods Hole Group, which is an environmental consulting company. We do a lot of work in climate mitigation and adaptation, helping communities build resilience. The work is rewarding. I’m back in my science roots, but I’m also helping communicate why these projects are important. And it’s rewarding. I love it. It’s been a bit of a learning curve over the last year, but it is rewarding and gets back to my mission, which is to improve climate literacy and make a difference.

At the end of the day, climate change is the existential crisis of our lifetime. It affects everything, and people really need to be aware and know that.

Jeff Schechtman: And can you see yourself back on television getting back in that part of the business?

Chris Gloninger: Hmmm. My wife says, “If you ever go back, it has to be on your terms.” And that’s right, and I would never say no, but it would have to be a platform where I could show the data, the science and the facts, and not be silenced. That would be the only way.

Jeff Schechtman: And finally, what does this experience tell you about the ability to get the message out there about climate change? You’re doing it now from a different perspective, but it’s still important for that message to get out there and reach people. Are there just people that are never going to get the message?

Chris Gloninger: I don’t think so. I think we need to self-reflect, and I think we shouldn’t avoid talking about it. Even if you have someone that is in your life who may not have the same political views as you, you need to talk about it and stay engaged about it. Because when it’s top of mind and the people are having dialogues about it, that’s important. And I can’t undersell the fact that that is probably the most important thing that we can all do.

Unfortunately, I think at my station, my very good friend who’s there said he still watches the station I was at, and confirmed that he does not think that they’re doing any climate-related coverage anymore. So it’s sad, in that we were the only ones really doing it in that market and now that voice is no longer there. And that’s what concerns me.

Jeff Schechtman: Chris Gloninger, I thank you so much for spending time with us today here on The WhoWhatWhy Podcast.

Chris Gloninger: Jeff, thanks for having me.

Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes.

You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.


Author

  • Jeff Schechtman

    Jeff Schechtman’s career spans movies, radio stations and podcasts. After spending twenty-five years in the motion picture industry as a producer and executive, he immersed himself in journalism, radio, and more recently the world of podcasts. To date he has conducted over ten-thousand interviews with authors, journalists, and thought leaders. Since March of 2015, he has conducted over 315 podcasts for WhoWhatWhy.org

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