A meteorologist got threats for his climate coverage. His new job is about solutions
Updated June 27, 2023 at 11:03 AM ET
This story contains offensive language.
TV meteorologist Chris Gloninger didn't just want to warn people about the latest record-breaking storm — he wanted to talk about the changing climate behind it.
Scientists have been able to draw ever-clearer connections between climate change and extreme weather events, and Gloninger believes weather forecasts should explain that to viewers.
"I truly believe it is the existential crisis of our lifetime," he says. "And that's why I think it's so important to do it."
Gloninger — the chief meteorologist for CBS affiliate KCCI-TV in Des Moines, Iowa — has brought that mindset to seven television stations across five states during his 18-year career, earning him both praise and pushback.
And now, he's pivoting.
Gloninger announced on Wednesday that he is "bidding farewell to TV to embark on a new journey dedicated to helping solve the climate crisis."
The reasons, he said, were "a death threat stemming from my climate coverage last year and resulting PTSD, in addition to family health issues."
Gloninger received a steady stream of threatening and harassing emails from one individual starting last summer, as he shared on Twitter at the time. A 63-year-old Iowa man pleaded guilty to third-degree harassment several months later.
My #climate coverage has garnered negative feedback. But last month I received the first threat, followed by a flow of harassing emails. Police are investigating. It’s mentally exhausting & at times I have NOT been ok. If you’re facing this & need someone to talk to, I’m here. 1/ pic.twitter.com/SGbZfEr1uT— Chris Gloninger (@ChrisGloninger) July 16, 2022
The vast majority of Americans accept climate change as fact — a national study by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication released earlier this month found that 74% agree global warming is happening.
It's just that those dismissive of climate change, Gloninger says, can be the loudest.
"It wasn't so much necessarily just the threat, but in this case, this person sent obsessive emails after that threat over and over and over and over again," he adds. "And it just kind of wears on you, it beats you down."
Gloninger told NPR over Zoom that he'd long planned to find a more "hands-on approach" to tackling the climate crisis full-time, beyond weaving it into weathercasts. Coping with the threats, on top of caring for aging parents, just sped up that process.
Next month he'll start a new job at the Woods Hole Group, an environmental consulting organization in Massachusetts. Gloninger says he's excited to use his scientific background and communication skills to help communities deal with climate change, like he's aimed to do all along.
"I'm not giving up," he says. "I'm just switching roles to do even more of it."
More meteorologists are sounding the alarm on climate change
Gloninger believes it's the job of meteorologists to keep people safe, and that interrupting regularly scheduled programming with a breaking weather alert is just one way they can do that.
"I've always advocated that that responsibility continues when we're outside of severe weather, because climate change is affecting all aspects of life, and it is a risk to human health and safety," he adds.
He says it's not about mentioning climate change in every weathercast, but making the connection clear when there is one.
For instance, when Canadian wildfires brought dangerous smoke to parts of the U.S., he saw an opportunity to address why such blazes are becoming more intense in the first place.
"There are also other creative ways to talk about it and talk about the solutions side of it," Gloninger says, adding that Iowa's status as a national leader in wind energy could open the door to a discussion about fossil fuel alternatives.
Gloninger isn't the only meteorologist who thinks so. He's quick to give credit to retired South Carolina meteorologist Jim Gandy, whom he says "got the ball rolling" by launching the "Climate Matters" program in 2010.
And he's noticed more and more meteorologists starting to connect the dots over the last decade, even as climate change has become increasingly politicized.
"I'd say there are more that talk about it than don't, which is quite remarkable," Gloninger says. "And I'm just so proud of my colleagues that have really embraced it and continued to work through the pushback."
Climate coverage can be divisive anywhere
Gloninger had dreamed of being a meteorologist since elementary school, when he saw the damage that Hurricane Bob wrought on his native Long Island and became "amazed by the power of Mother Nature."
As his career progressed, so did his concerns about the climate crisis. He started mentioning it on air, as he covered record-breaking storms from Albany and, later, Boston. Hurricane Harvey, in 2017, made him want to do even more.
"When a region gets 60 inches of rain, I think you have to step back and be like, 'Well, we broke these records that have been in place for decades, by such a wide margin. What is going on?'" he says.
Gloninger launched Boston's first weekly climate change series, which ran for two years and won a regional Emmy in 2019. And he got plenty of criticism during that time, even in what many people assume is liberal-leaning Massachusetts.
The pushback, he explains, wasn't new to Iowa — but that's where it reached a breaking point.
Gloninger started getting troubling emails in June 2022. He responded to the first one to try to engage the sender in a productive discussion, but says things "kind of went off the rails" after that.
The sender, whom authorities have since identified as Danny Hancock, sent more emails, including one referring to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh: "What's your address, we conservative Iowans would like to give you an Iowan welcome you will never forget, kinda like the libtards gave JUDGE KAVANAUGH!!!!!!!"
Earlier that same month, a California man who had made threats against Kavanaugh was arrested near the justice's home with a gun, zip ties and other gear.
Gloninger reported the email to police, who investigated as more threats continued to flood his inbox (Hancock admitted to sending them when he was contacted by police in August). He says the whole ordeal was "mentally exhausting" and resulted in post-traumatic stress disorder.
He has also been caring for his parents and in-laws, who are dealing with health issues. All of that, he says, pushed him to take a step back and reevaluate his journey.
"It's just like there are so many punches you can take," Gloninger says. "Let's just try to hit a reset button."
You don't have to quit to make a difference
Gloninger wants to make clear that the issue was a specific string of threats by one person — and as his story picks up national attention, he doesn't want Iowans in general to get a bad rap.
"I think in all of this, what hurts me the most is when I see people making disparaging comments about where I currently am located," he says.
In fact, Gloninger says, the vast majority of people he's met there over the last two years have been exceptionally kind and encouraging.
One example: He received hundreds of supportive emails in the days after announcing his departure, and printed them out into a manuscript-sized stack.
"I've never heard back from that many people, people that like the job that journalists are doing, telling important stories, meteorologists connecting the dots between climate change and extreme weather," he says.
As Gloninger prepares to leave the industry, he says it's more important than ever for journalists to cover climate change deeply and push for accountability, "because that's what people deserve."
And he says people don't have to change careers like he did in order to make the world a better place — they just need to practice being a bit kinder.
"Climate change isn't an opinion, it's fact-based science. But at the same point, if your ideas differ from somebody else's, just be kind. Don't go on the offensive and attack," he says. "We can live life with more love, kindness and compassion ... and we can all become better in that."
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