West News Wire: It was a bold, if perhaps scientifically obvious, experiment to use the regular local TV weather forecasts viewed by people in Iowa’s traditionally conservative heartland to spread messages about the escalating global disaster. The engaged meteorologist ultimately left the state after getting death threats.
Chris Gloninger, 38, developed a weather obsession as a child after Hurricane Bob ploughed through his hometown in New York state. He turned this obsession into a travelling career as a TV meteorologist in places like Milwaukee and Boston, where he pioneered what he believes was the country’s first regular broadcast segment on climate change in 2010.
As he got soaked while reporting Hurricane Harvey in 2017, which caused 9 trillion gallons of rain to fall on Texas in less than a day due to the overheated air and seas, Gloninger claimed he had “a holy shit moment” with climate change. Like many broadcasters, he claimed that in order to handle casual mockery regarding his appearance or voice, he always needed a thick skin.
The KCCI experience in Des Moines, Iowa, a CBS affiliate, was more intense. When it was appropriate, Gloninger noted the science, telling viewers that a warming atmosphere stores more moisture during a flood event or of the rise in global temperature during a heatwave. Gloninger was hired by the station two years ago to help integrate the realities of global warming into his forecasts.
But this soon provoked angst from some viewers, who grumbled that he should “stick to the weather”. Then, last July, he started getting a string of emails that included threats against his life.
“It was ‘I am going to kill you’ written in a very deliberate way in a long letter and followed by obsessive emails,” said Gloninger. His critic demanded that he “go the hell back to where you came from DOUCHEBAG!!!” and demanded “what’s your home address, we conservative Iowans would like to give you an Iowan welcome you will never forget.” The emails attacked Gloninger for pushing a “liberal conspiracy theory on the weather”, calling climate change a “Biden hoax”.
What followed was a painful, fraught year in which Gloninger and his wife, Cathy Danko, struggled to deal with what they felt was an overt threat to their safety. The meteorologist started to suffer from stress-induced acid reflux and a chronic cough. He felt his zest for work was diminishing. He ended up in therapy for a year.
“I would go to work until 11pm at night and my wife was alone, we’d worry when a car drove past at night, your heart races a bit,” he said. “I was a first responder for several years and so I’ve seen things that left me upset but this is something I’d never experienced before. We were frightened, we had no idea what a man in rural Iowa would take a stand over. We were awake at all hours.”
KCCI assigned a security detail to Gloninger but also, he said, “told me to dial down the climate stuff a bit”. Ultimately the toll of the threats, combined with family health issues, pushed him to quit the station (the author of the emails was eventually tracked down and handed a small fine). “The death threat was concerning enough to be the catalyst to us leaving,” said Gloninger. “You can only be kicked so many times before you throw in the towel.”
On 21 June, Gloninger, wearing a warming stripes tie, told viewers that he thought he had his “forever home” in Iowa but that the threat had left him “shaken” and that he wanted to move away from TV to work full time on helping tackle the climate crisis. On his final broadcast, on 7 July, Gloninger choked back tears as he recounted the “mostly happy memories” of Iowa, including the deluge of emails from viewers decrying the threats and praising his focus on climate.
Gloninger, who started a new position as chief scientist at the Woods Hole Group in Massachusetts last week, said: “The management of the station wanted me to avoid the term climate change, maybe talk about changing climate or a warming world, to give people less of a stick to beat them with. I get that, but I also don’t agree with it.” The fact that they had the guts to do this in the first place is what gets lost in the confusion, though.
The incident serves as a sharp reminder that even if polls indicates that more Americans are becoming concerned about the type of climate impacts that have been prominently displayed this summer, including the record-breaking heat, disastrous floods, and deadly wildfires and more meteorologists feel compelled to mention this worsening emergency in their forecasts, there is a significant chunk of the population that sees the crisis as just another part of an all-encompassing culture war.
Many meteorologists who do talk about global heating still have to deal with abusive emails, even if death threats are rare, Sorensen added. “A lot of my former colleagues are afraid and I’m worried what happened to Chris will make more of them afraid to talk about this,” said Sorensen, who has invited Gloninger, whom he has known for several years, to speak to members of Congress about his ordeal.