The Politics Behind the Movement to Privatize the Weather
“We fear that he [Barry Lee Myers] wants to turn the weather service into a taxpayer-funded subsidiary of AccuWeather.”
Easy access to weather forecasts is a given for most Americans. The national weather service, a government agency, provides this information free of charge on a variety of platforms, via the internet, radio and other broadcasting networks. However, recent actions by the Trump administration threaten the existence of free weather forecasts, favoring instead increasing privatization of the weather.
Public vs For-Profit Weather Services
Many for-profit corporations compete with the free forecasts provided by the National Weather Service. One of the biggest players in this industry is AccuWeather, a commercial forecasting company based in State College, Pennsylvania, the home of Penn State University. AccuWeather is run by brothers Joel and Barry Lee Myers, who both attended Penn State.
Most of these for-profit services, including AccuWeather, base their forecasts off of data provided by the National Weather Service. But these companies aren’t the only ones who rely on the National Weather Service’s forecasts. Using an army of planes, weather balloons and satellites, the National Weather Service is able to collect 20 terabytes of weather-related data every day, which it releases to the global public free of charge every six hours. People in industries from fishing to natural gas speculation rely on the data to do their respective jobs efficiently and safely. Further, countless Americans and people around the world rely on alerts and information provided by the National Weather Service in order to respond appropriately when under threat from natural disasters or other climate-related hazards.
Employees of the National Weather Service have long been fearful of the Myers brothers’ political traction and the effect it could have on the availability of weather forecasts for the general public. Richard Hirn, an employee who represents the National Weather Service’s Employee Organization, told Bloomberg, “We fear that he [Barry Lee Myers] wants to turn the weather service into a taxpayer-funded subsidiary of AccuWeather.”
Until recently, the Myers Brothers were only able to politically influence the fate of the National Weather Service through political allies. This all changed in October of 2017, when Donald Trump nominated Barry Lee Myers to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), which includes the National Weather Service and the National Ocean Service among its many subsidiaries.
This wasn’t the first time the for-profit weather forecasting industry has attempted to limit Americans’ ability to be in the know about the weather. In 2005, then Republican Senator Rick Santorum, who knew the Myers brothers through alumni associations at Penn State, attempted to introduce a bill that would essentially have limited the National Weather Service from making any public weather announcements besides emergency storm warnings. The bill died while working its way through the committee.
AccuWeather’s Questionable Culture
AccuWeather is also infamous for its culture of sexism and sexual harassment. The extent of the problem is so severe that AccuWeather was investigated by the U.S. Labor Department, whose investigation and subsequent report released in January of 2018 concluded that “widespread sexual harassment” existed at AccuWeather.
Nearly 25 women who were or are currently employed by AccuWeather alleged that they were touched inappropriately, some of these incidences went beyond groping and even involved unwanted kisses. The women indicated that they were given special “perks” as compensation for the actions of their male superiors.
Some women who complained or attempted to alert AccuWeather’s human resources department were later fired. According to the U.S. Labor Department’s report, “Multiple witnesses described being fearful that they would be terminated and blacklisted if they complained about sexual harassment.” After the release of the Labor Department’s report, AccuWeather paid $290,000 to some of the women involved as part of a settlement arranged in response to the allegations.
Trump’s NOAA Nominations
Trump’s choice to nominate Myers to head the NOAA surprised many, not only due to Myers’ close ties to the for-profit weather forecasting industry but also because unlike his brother Joel, Barry Lee is not a scientist. He studied business administration and economics before receiving a law degree from Boston University School of Law and becoming chief executive officer and general counsel for AccuWeather.
Due to concerns regarding conflict of interests, the Senate did not vote in favor of Myers’ appointment to this position, but there are also concerns regarding Trump’s most recent appointee Neil Jacobs due to his previous corporate employment as chief Atmospheric scientist at Panasonic Avionics Corporation.
Jacobs also recently made news during the events surrounding Hurricane Dorian as he was involved in drafting a publicity statement defending Trump’s inaccurate claims about the threat Hurricane Dorian posed to the citizens of Alabama.
Trump tweeted that the hurricane was likely to hit states such as Alabama and Georgia much harder than anticipated despite numerous claims from the National Weather Service to the contrary. The ensuing scandal became commonly known as “sharpiegate,” due to the fact that Trump attempted to justify his remarks with a map from the NOAA that appears to have been crudely altered with a Sharpie.
Public Weather Forecasts are Critical for Public Safety
Americans rely on information provided by the National Weather Service in order to keep themselves and their loved ones safe, and the very notion of appointing someone like Myers or Jacobs in a position of power within the agency has appalled many of those affiliated with the NOAA. Jane Lubchenco, who worked as the administrator of the NOAA under Obama, said that Myers “has a track record of working to undermine NOAA’s ability to keep people safe.”
Public access to weather forecasts might not seem important, but these forecasts are essential for many industries to function properly and also necessary to keep the general public safe, particularly in times of natural disaster. Putting up a paywall around access to these services could have a devastating effect on various industries, as well as put the well-being of people around the country and even the world in jeopardy.
The Trump administration has been characterized by promoting the increasing privatization of a number of public goods from the U.S. postal service to public lands and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and more. But privatizing something as omnipresent in our daily lives as the weather risks numerous unforeseeable hazardous effects on the health and safety of the American people.