Cliff Mass Will Die on that Hill

The controversial meteorologist on the "heat dome," climate activism as apocalyptic religion, and getting canceled.

On Tuesday, right after the heat blast broke, I flew to Boston, straight into another heat blast. (Because why go on vacation when I can work at my volunteer job?) I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to interview Cliff Mass, Seattle’s beloved weatherman gone to the dogs, to hear his take. Mass has the rather mundane title of professor of atmospheric sciences at UW and literally wrote the book on Pacific Northwest weather. It’s called The Weather of the Pacific Northwest. But he has lost his two radio jobs due to controversial comments around non-weather topics, which he claims is a veneer for booting him over his refusal to promote an apocalyptic climate change narrative. He’s not backing down. He still runs his popular Cliff Mass Weather Blog and now hosts a podcast, where he describes atmospheric conditions in a soothing tenor akin to Bob Ross.

Enjoy. No shoutouts this week due to my travels, but look out for a shoutout thread in your inbox — trying something new this week for fun!

—Emily


“There are a lot of things that are happening at the same time.”

Cliff Mass on weather patterns and human behavior.

We’re sitting here talking while Seattle is experience record-breaking heat. There’s a lot of talk about climate change, and I hear people saying things like, “this is going to be the new normal.” In really basic terms, what can we understand about what's going on at this moment, as sweat pouring down my face?

In one sense, there’s no debate about some things. We know exactly what happened, exactly what set this up. We nailed this thing days ahead of time. That wasn't true 30 years ago. So that's very important. So that's a fact. Another fact I just found out is very few people are getting hurt by this. That's fascinating. You've got to compare that to Seattle Times, which not that long ago, had a story saying 725 people would die for every heat wave.

Well, let's stop there for a second. I have no air conditioning. I had this moment in the middle of the night — when you think crazy stuff — I was like, what if we die? And I imagined people, homeless, living in tents, people with much less not making it. So can you get into this a little bit?

Oh yeah. In fact, I'm not surprised that not many people have been hurt by this. Human beings are tropical apes. We developed our species in tropical Africa, near the equator. We are the most well-designed animal on the planet for dealing with heat, because can evaporate water. And so if human beings have water and are in the shade, are not in an enclosed space, are not going crazy exercising, if you stay in the shade with water, it's really, really hard to hurt a human being. And on top of that, if the air is relatively dry, and that's true for us, if the relative humidity is low — and they're only 30% now — we can evaporate water our skin. So you may not be a happy camper, but you're not at any risk. The death threats were never significant. And on top of that, we have another big advantage. We have cold water nearby. The Puget Sound is only 50 degrees and Lake Washington is 60. So we have cold, cool water. You go near it, you cool down or, or you jump in it, and I'll help you a lot. The threat was never a large one because of those facts. So you shouldn't hype it up. If you're 90 years old, don't have water, and are locked up in a building that you can't get out of, you might have problems.

Going back to the article in the Seattle Times, what were they going by?

It's this hype and exaggeration that's going on. I mean, when I talk the truth about this kind of stuff, it gets me in trouble. But the truth is the truth. And so they have these studies, which are theoretical things where they do extrapolations. It’s just ridiculous stuff. This goes for academic research. They come up with these ridiculous numbers that are inconsistent with any observable truth. But they get published in the Seattle Times and put it on the front page.

Yeah, but why? Is it because it's coming from UW and it's someone that you’re ostensibly supposed to trust? And you're some rogue weatherman who will keep getting us in trouble? Is that the narrative? Or is it that you have to make people panic so that they take things seriously as sort of a social service?

Well, it's two things. I mean, there are a lot of things that are happening at the same time. One is the media. Their financial model is dependent upon clicks. And so having things that are apocalyptic seems to get more clicks. Secondly, there's a political narrative here and, we've gotta be careful here, this is what gets me into trouble —

Sorry. I just opened the hole in the ground for you to fall into.

What I would say is, there’s this progressive, left-leaning narrative that has been taken climate change and other apocalyptic issues into their narrative. For a number of reasons, they find it useful to have this end of the world stuff. Some of it is almost religious in nature. I mean, basically, conventional religion has kind of died for a lot of people. So there's this new apocalypse — almost all religions have the apocalyptic stuff, right? And this religion has it, too. And you have to do the right thinking, apocalyptic ending, all this stuff. If you don't follow the rules, the apocalyptic ending.

When things like this type of weather happen, like it gets really hot or something out of the ordinary happens, are people saying that this is climate change? And when wild things happen and people say it's climate change, what's your response, because I'm guessing it's frustrating.

They don't know what they're talking about. They read a few things on the web and they get, and it gets supported by their religious leaders at the Democrat party or wherever, and so they think they're there on the side of right. That’s why they get, “oh, you know, if you're against this viewpoint, you're evil.” Nothing's worse than an apostate priest. On the other hand, I’ve got tremendous support. My last blog had over 100,000 hits. This morning I talked to a hundred million people on BBC, a hundred million people I talked to.

Screw you, local radio! So let’s go back to the current weather. I know you have blogged and talked about this on your podcast, but can you give a quick rundown of what is happening with this heat?

Okay. The key issue is this very, very intense ridge of high pressure that developed over us.

Is that the “heat dome”?

This is an example of the media. They hear a term, and they think that's the explanation, right? I mean, it's so silly. “The heat dome.” They have no idea what they’re saying, but they keep on repeating the same thing. So anyway, we have this area of applied pressure that is warm, and this high-pressure area is associated with sinking air. And basically it's the wave pattern of the atmosphere got revved up. And we think we even know where it started: a tropical disturbance went north and banged into the jet stream and caused amplification in the wave pattern. There's a wave pattern, and we’ve got this big ridge over us, and the big ridge is associated with cold temperatures; strangely enough, on both sides is a trough, and those are associated with cold temperatures. So we had this high pressure area that's bringing up warm air from the south, but even more importantly has sinking going on in it. And that sinking air is producing warming, because sinking air gets compressed, and it warms. Now that alone would make us warm, but it wouldn't make us crazy. There's something else that was going on. And that's something else is associated with a trough of low pressure that came in from the Southwest. So you had low pressure coming in and high pressure inland that creates a large difference in pressure between the two of them. And that large difference in pressure creates strong winds. And because of the orientation of these features, the strong winds are from the southeast. And if you have easterly winds, that does two things. Number one, it pushes the oceanic inputs away. Number two, as the air sinks on the mountains, down the western slopes of the cascades, it's compressed, and as the air is compressed, it warms.

Then, there's global warming. There's no hint that this big ridge and any of this stuff had anything to do with global warming. In fact, I did a paper on it. I did research on this. I know about this. Okay. But we are warming up. Global warming is causing us to slowly warm up.

No doubt about it. We've warmed up probably one to two degrees Fahrenheit over the last 50 years because of global warming. The warmth that we're having now, we're 40 degrees above normal. That's natural variability. The story they don't want to talk about is the fact that most of this is natural variability. And there's a way to prove this, too. I was working with someone last week and I had him plot up to me of a figure: the X axis is years back to 1900 and the Y axis is the number of record high temperatures at stations in Washington state. Is there a trend upward over the last 50 years? The answer's no. So that's another sign that global warming is not pushing us to have more big records; natural variability is still dominant. I have some of these activist scientists that are pushing against me, saying, oh no, this is all wrong. I said, no, you're wrong. I'll tell you why you're wrong. And then they really won't respond. So I can nail these people, but if they'll respond, most of the time, they’ll start calling me names. That's why I know I'm winning. They start calling me names.

So it seems like there are two types of people: those who hype global warming and those who seem to say it doesn’t exist, that it’s all natural variability. And you’re able to show the middle ground.  

I look at the facts. I do the modeling. I wanted to do the straight science. There's some people who say this is this existential threat and we're going to die in two years or 12 years. And then there's the people saying, oh, no, there's only natural variability and we have nothing to worry about.

Well, they're both wrong. The best science is that global warming is real. We’re going to warm the planet; it’s not going to be an existential threat, but we will warm the planet if we keep on doing what we're doing. That's what the truth is. Actually, the impact economic impacts of global warming are really not that large. A lot of international groups have shown that. It's just being hyped for whatever reason.

I have four kids and I’ve heard people say, we're not having kids because it's so bad for the planet. We have like 11 years left to exist anyway. And kids are the worst for the environment. And then meanwhile, they're all eating steaks and traveling the world. So that's my critique. What do you make of that?

Some of the people who are a little more apocalyptic do the least about it. In fact, it's interesting. Some of the faculty in my department who work on climate change the most, they're the ones that the worst carbon footprint. They have second houses. They fly all over the world. The people who know the problem better than anybody else, they are the worst in terms of their carbon footprint. They don't take it seriously. And that's true of the political class, the people who talk about it the most are flying all over the place. They know it's not true, but they're just doing it anyway.

Or they're just exceptionalist. Like, “it is true, but I have important work to do in order to make everybody else do it.” So do you have conflicts with people in your department? Am I allowed to ask about that?

Oh yeah. Oh my God. I mean, it's the reason I got kicked off KNKX. They had climate people who were just furious at me.

The KNKX deal has to do with your comments on your blog about downtown Seattle. Are you saying that that's not actually true?

No. It was all set up before then. I mean, I barely survived before then. The climate people were after them for a few years about me. And so I almost got kicked off and then the station decided to have me evaluated. And what they did is, they, they got a member of the organization that wanted to get me fired. They had me have them evaluate me. And I had lunch with the head of the station [Joey Cohn]. Joey says, you know, Cliff, we could dump you, but there would be a big to-do about it. And so I came very close to getting nailed right then. And then, then of course, when I complained about the violence downtown, you know, that was the end of it, you know?

So they did this report and didn’t find anything concrete. What’s their argument against your science?

They said climate change is existential threat and they said my giving the straight facts is helping the deniers. That’s their argument. I'm helping the deniers.

It’s not that there's anything actually wrong with what you're saying, but that you to fall in lock step with the narrative. Because if you don't, even if you're right, you're hurting the long-term strategy, right?

Yeah. That's right. They have a political agenda, I’m hurting it. And the thing that drives them crazy, I've got this blog that they can't shut up. It's fascinating stuff. If it wasn't happening to me, it'd be fascinating.

Is it frustrating that the general public doesn't really understand meteorology or climate science?

Well, I mean, there's tremendous interest in meteorology, right? People love this stuff, people are extremely interested with it. But, but the trouble is a lot of them get their information through the media, and a lot of the media stuff is wrong. The Seattle Times, half the stuff is wrong, just either complete advocacy or factually [wrong]. They hate me down there at The Seattle Times. Don't talk to me. Because I've pointed out time and time again how they got this completely wrong, and they don't care really. So people are not getting accurate facts. There’s massive failure mode going on now in the mainstream media, it's become advocacy on top of that. They used to have honorable science reporters, people who dedicated themselves to science. These were people who were honest and really cared about facts. Those don’t exist anymore.

There's some concept, when you're reading a newspaper and you come across an article that you know a lot about, you can pick it apart and write a letter to the editor or whatever. And then you can turn the page and read an article about another subject that you don't know anything about, like an ethnic conflict in Ethiopia, and read it and be like, well, I get it. Even though that reporter might be inexperienced or not know the language or be influenced by corrupt officials and so on.

What you're saying is extremely true. That's true about that climate change is true about COVID. There’s such a massive failure mode in getting the truth to people.

It's so depressing. I feel like the news media can turn itself around if it started listening. I’ve become that person who writes like letters to people everyday and tweets things, like, “maybe if you did your job, you wouldn’t be wondering why everybody's believing Fox and not you.” If you just listen to people and actually widen the ideological lens — and it might be scary to work with information that you didn't think was true, but you could do it.

This may be how a great nation fails, and if you can't have truth, if you start suppressing diversity of viewpoint, you start suppressing truth, then your future is not a good one, and we're dangerously close to that right now. Anyway, that's why I do what I say. So I'm in the truth business, and I have a platform, and so I'm using it to get out what I believe is the truth. That's all I can do here.

And you have a following you’ve been building for decades.

Right. That's why I've used it. I got kicked off at the station, but I did it for a reason. I'm afraid of what’s happening to cities. I think the defund the police thing is nonsense and it's very destructive exactly for the groups that they're trying to protect. And from my Jewish background, you know, we've seen this stuff before. It’s not like we haven't seen this before. We’ve seen this before and we’ve got to call it.

Did you find that there was a bit of hypocrisy? It's like, when we're comparing people to Nazis, we can only kind of talk about Trump supporters.

Well, it’s fine to do that! Oh my God. In fact, I even documented how a number of the reporters and supporters, they were talking about Trump being a Nazi all the time. And then when I talk about brown shirts and political violence, oh my God. That’s the end of you.

Do you feel like you were canceled?

I know it was cancel culture stuff, and oh my God, especially since I played the crucial role in saving the station, that's the only reason that didn't get rid of me before. I played the crucial role in saving that station, and I saved it for one reason and one reason only: diversity of viewpoint. That's why I say this. And so, to see what I saved — diversity of viewpoint — reject diversity of viewpoint, well, let's just say that wasn't a happy thing.

One last question, and it’s about something you mentioned earlier and on your podcast: that weather prediction is the greatest prevention against weather-related deaths and injuries. Do you have other predictions for technologies or weather-related tools?

That's what I do. I am working on developing the technologies. One thing that we've developed very actively, and I'm showing on my blog as these installments, running the models many times each slightly different to try to get at the uncertainty. To try to understand how reliable the forecast is in the future, we're not going to say the temperature is going to be 63, we're going to give you probabilities and various ranges. Higher resolution will be able to predict further out in time. We'll be able to do that too. That's what's going to happen in the next decade. It's just a matter of developing the technologies and getting the computer power to do it.

But it is true that weather prediction is saving a tremendous number of lives. There's all this talk about climate change killing all these people. But I think one reason that ain't gonna happen is our prediction capabilities are so powerful. We can get people out of the way of danger now. And we've seen that with hurricanes. Bangladesh, we had a big hurricane that came in. In the past, the same storm, 50 years ago, would have killed 120,000 people. This time it killed six. Why? Because we got people away from the water. That's what we can do. If you look at a plot of environmental deaths, it plummeted. It’s down 95 percent from what it was years ago, with more population, why? Prediction capabilities.

So technology will save us.

Not just predictability, but once we develop fusion power, the problems will, I mean, global warming isn’t going to go away, but it's not gonna be a problem. That’s why all this apocalyptic stuff is ridiculous. As soon as we get fusion power, we’ll have basically an unlimited energy source that doesn't pollute. That'll be not only supply all the energy for our civilization, but once we have energy, we can take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. It's called sequestration. It takes energy to take off. So global warming is a technical problem that’s going to go away. We're going to solve this problem.

Well, this has been fascinating.

And I could be wrong. That’s the ultimate check on me: to accept the fact that even though I think I'm right, I could be wrong. I have to be careful. If I think I'm always right, then I'm dead, because I'll never criticize myself. But that's why diversity of viewpoint is everything, because as long as you protect diversity, people can be wrong, but people will hear both sides.

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