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Bob Lindmeier, WKOW-TV's longtime chief meteorologist, talks straight on climate change

Bob Lindmeier, WKOW-TV's longtime chief meteorologist, talks straight on climate change

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The newsroom at WKOW-TV was flooded with phone calls and emails when Bob Lindmeier first discussed climate change during a broadcast about five years ago. Many comments were supportive, but others were from irate viewers who held opposing beliefs.

Though the information was scientifically sound, Lindmeier — the station’s longtime chief meteorologist — knew climate change was a lightning-rod subject. In fact, he had previously assumed station management wanted him to avoid talking about it on air.

“They were sticking their necks out, because there’s always the risk that an advertiser doesn’t like what you’re saying or we could lose viewership,” he said. “But it turns out that they feel as strongly as I do about communicating the science of climate change.”

Since that first time, Lindmeier’s comments about climate change have been “remarkably well received,” according to Ed Reams, the station’s news director. His efforts to “illuminate the science” have the full support of WKOW’s management, Reams said.

“We don’t believe there’s anything controversial about the science,” he said. “He doesn’t use his platform to preach or sway someone’s opinion. He realizes and accepts that people have different beliefs, and he’s not here to change them. As a scientist, his job is to present the facts.”

Now in his 40th year as a local broadcast meteorologist, Lindmeier, 64, said he has a “unique podium” from which to reach people with peer-reviewed climate science. He’s using his roles as a TV weatherman, man of faith and traveling speaker to expose audiences to straight talk on climate change.

His main approach is using short-term weather patterns to explain long-term trends. For example, he put early November’s record-setting cold snap in historical context with a bar graph demonstrating how record-low temperatures have become less frequent over the past several decades. He stresses local consequences “to let people know it’s happening here,” he said.

After back-to-back years of record-setting precipitation and decades of steadily rising average temperatures, we can expect more extreme rainfall events and flooding in the immediate future, Lindmeier said. But that’s just a preview of the changes climate scientists are projecting for Madison by the end of the century if greenhouse gas emissions aren’t curbed.

“If we continue business as usual, in 80 years, we will have the same summers that Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has right now,” he said. “Just think of everything that would go along with that. Our children and grandchildren are going to have to live through these huge changes if we don’t do something. So, the urgency that climate scientists feel, I want everyone else to feel that, too.”

Telling a story

The cliche origin story among TV meteorologists is developing a fascination with the weather during childhood. But that wasn’t Lindmeier’s experience. He had an early interest in science while growing up in St. Cloud, Minnesota, and imagined becoming an aeronautical engineer.

That career path seemed unrealistic by the time he graduated from high school, however, because his math skills weren’t strong. While attending St. Cloud State University, he took a 100-level meteorology course that sparked an interest in forecasting the weather. He transferred to UW-Madison for his junior and senior years and earned an undergraduate degree in meteorology.

After graduating in 1979, he had no plans for a career in television; he wanted to work as a behind-the-scenes meteorologist for the National Weather Service or the U.S. Air Force, but there were no open positions at the time, he said.

So, despite having no broadcasting experience, he took a job as a weatherman at WSAW-TV in Wausau — and found himself intensely uncomfortable in front of the camera.

“Some people are more nervous than others, and I was super nervous,” he said. “It didn’t go so well; I was bad. After six months, they said, ‘Bob, this ain’t working,’ and they let me go.’”

Despite the setback, he moved to Madison in January 1980 and started working for private forecasting company Weather Central, where he transitioned to radio. It was a pivotal time for his development as an on-air personality.

“That gave me the comfort to talk about the weather in a conversational way, which I didn’t have in Wausau,” he said. “You can’t talk to the public the way you do to other meteorologists. I had been struggling with talking about the weather in a way that people understand.”

He eased back into TV by working mornings and weekends, incorporating the storytelling style he had developed on the radio.

“I learned how to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end, which I’ve used all these years,” he said. “The way I learned to talk on the radio is the way I talk on TV.”

In 1989, Lindmeier became chief meteorologist at WKOW-TV. Though he’d gotten used to talking about the weather, climate science didn’t resonate with him for “many, many years,” he said. After all, his expertise was predicting the local weather a few days out, not examining long-term trends in regional and global climate.

But about 10 years ago, he started becoming alarmed by what the world’s climate scientists were saying.

“I wasn’t seeing the same level of concern in the general public; there was this disconnect,” he said. “Scientists were saying, ‘This is looking really bad,’ but most of the general public was going about its way like nothing was happening.”

‘Stewards of this Earth’

As a member of the American Meteorological Society and Citizens Climate Lobby, Lindmeier has given about 60 climate talks across Wisconsin over the past five years, often in predominantly conservative communities. He’s found evangelical and Lutheran audiences to be generally receptive, though many individuals remain on the fence.

He first made a faith-based case for acting on climate change at his church, St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oregon, where many of his fellow congregants “see past the political side of it and let their faith guide them,” he said. “We all have the same idea that we are stewards of this Earth, that God has mandated us to be good stewards. Right now, what we’re doing to this Earth is ruining and spoiling it.”

His talks at St. John’s have gone over well, said Pastor Paul Markquart. Most recently, Lindmeier pitched the congregation on installing a solar array on the roof of the church. The project was approved by a near-unanimous vote in September and will be completed in the spring.

“It’s not controversial in our congregation,” Markquart said. “Some people have political views that allow them to question whether or not this is a worthwhile effort, being motivated from a climate-change perspective. However, they do like dollars and cents.”

Madeleine Para, founder of the Madison chapter of the Citizens Climate Lobby, called Lindmeier a “tireless presenter” whose efforts to educate the public about climate change are “extraordinarily helpful.”

“For all that we like to complain about weathermen, they’re trusted voices,” Para said. “If somebody like Bob makes the connection between the weather and climate, that’s more persuasive because he’s in people’s living rooms every night.”

She also lauded Lindmeier for not focusing only on the doom-and-gloom aspects of climate change but advancing potential solutions like carbon pricing.

Specifically, he supports a “carbon dividend,” or imposing a fee on fossil fuels and paying a dividend to households to offset increased energy costs for consumers. A CCL-backed bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives early this year, HR 763, would do just that.

Lindmeier admitted that he has deeply personal reasons for championing climate science in the twilight of his career as a TV weatherman. The first slide in his presentation is a picture of his granddaughter, Julianna, who was born on New Year’s Day 2019.

“When I’m on my death bed,” he said, “I want to be able to look her in the eye and say, ‘I did everything I could to make this a livable world for you.’”

Fave 5: Reporter Howard Hardee picks his favorite stories of 2019

We are sharing Wisconsin State Journal staffers' favorite work from 2019. From reporter Howard Hardee: I've been a general assignment reporter with the Wisconsin State Journal for just a couple of months, but I've already researched and written a handful of pieces centered on memorable characters.

The exuberant sense of humor of organist Greg Zelek, for example, was on full display during a community carol sing at Overture Center for the Arts. UW-Madison music student Samantha Carter's $10,000 violin was stolen, exposing emotional wounds related to her years of practice and sacrifice. Andrew Wilke, a local engineer-turned ukulele teacher, got philosophical about his motivations for leading mass sing-alongs. Timothy Condon is still infamous for streaking from end zone to end zone during a Badgers football game 20 years ago. And in my favorite story this year, Scott Steel of Kappel's Clock Shop in Madison meditated on the passing of time

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Principal organist Greg Zelek added a humorous touch to the Madison Symphony Orchestra's Free Community Carol Sing on Saturday. 

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Six instruments, including a flute, piccolo, and cello, plus accessories  valued at a total of about $28,000  were stolen over Thanksgiving break. Student violinist Samantha Carter has been "walking around like a zombie" in the week after her instrument went missing. 

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"There are certain songs that just take off. They're almost transcendent," said one player. "You have a moment of bliss, this joy when everybody is strumming and singing, and you just get lifted up."

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Timothy Condon arrived to the game on Nov. 13, 1999, wearing a trench coat and shorts. When the big moment came, he removed everything but a red bandana and a pair of sneakers -- and ran. 

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As the years have ticked away, Scott Steel has spent countless hours in the presence of antique time machines, tinkering with fine gears and peering into centuries-old wooden cases with a flashlight. 

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Howard Hardee is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. He has written extensively about government, natural disasters and forest health in northern California.

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