Before Joe Bastardi would agree to speak with me, he wanted to make one thing perfectly clear. “I am IN NO WAY A TV WEATHER ANCHOR!” he wrote in an email, and you could almost hear the carotid artery throbbing on his neck as he typed. If you’re over the age of 18 and you write anything in ALL CAPS, it’s obviously something you feel very, very, very strongly about. And if there’s one thing that Joe Bastardi feels very, very, very strongly about, it’s that he doesn’t belong in the same company as Al Roker or Sam Champion. He is, he reminded me in a subsequent email, a “METEOROLOGIST FIRST AND FOREMOST AND ONE TRYING TO BUILD THE GREATEST LONG RANGE FORECASTING CENTER ON EARTH!” Which isn’t to say he avoids TV entirely. Bastardi frequently appears on CNN and Fox News, arguing against anthropogenic global warming and looking like he’s about to burst out of his shirt like Bruce Banner turning into the Hulk. He’s debated Bill Nye the Science Guy on The O’Reilly Factor, and gotten into a “Science Catfight” with Brenda Ekwurzel, a climatologist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, on the Colbert Report. Until earlier this week, he was the “Chief Long Range Forecaster” for AccuWeather, a weather forecasting service based in State College, Pennsylvania. But his bread and butter, he says, are his corporate clients, the names of which he won’t divulge, saying only that “I’m heavily involved in energy. Some of the companies that I work for were very happy that it snowed as much as it did this winter.”
Why should you care what Joe Bastardi has to say? According to a poll conducted last summer by Yale and George Mason Universities, 56% of Americans trust television weather reporters to tell them the truth about global warming. A bizarre statistic, until you remember that 44% of Americans also believe that the Bible is literally accurate and Jesus will return in their lifetimes. And then it’s just like, oh yeah, that’s right, the public isn’t exactly the brightest bulb in the opinion utility closet. They watch a lot of TV, and Joe Bastardi (despite what he says about NOT BEING A TV WEATHER ANCHOR) is on TV a lot, and while he may not be the only voice in the climate change debate, he’s definitely the loudest. Why should you care what Joe Bastardi has to say? Because the guy across the street with the Michele Bachmann bumper sticker on his SUV probably does.
I called Bastardi to talk about the historic winter that may or may not be behind us, depending on which groundhog you believe.
Eric Spitznagel: Last year on the Colbert Report, you claimed that you could bench 400 pounds. Is that still accurate?
Joe Bastardi: I can’t bench that kinda weight anymore because I blew my shoulder out. But yeah, for awhile my best bench press was 40o pounds, and I could squat 600. But you know, a bench press is a poor indicator of overall strength. I’ve been obsessed these days with pull-ups. The best way to make your chest big is to get your back big too. Because when you measure your chest, you have to put the tape around your back too. Your lats can be a powerful muscle.
When you’re doing an appearance on Fox News, have you ever been tempted to just rip off your shirt in the middle of a forecast?
Not at all. I can still remember when Arnold Schwarzenegger was on the Johnny Carson show, and Carson said, “O.K. Arnold, take off your shirt,” and Arnold was like (in a thick Austrian accent), “Johnny, I’m an actor now, I’m not a bodybuilder anymore.” I understand where he’s coming from. But I will tell people, “I don’t think you’ll find another 55 year old man with calluses on his hands because he’s pounding weights so hard.” I think that says something about my ability to push myself very, very hard.
I will pay you $200 if the next time you’re on Bill O’Reilly, you tear off your shirt and stare straight at the camera and say, “Hulk mad!”
No, no. I used to do this thing just to goof around with people. I’d do like an impression of Randy “Macho Man” Savage. “What are you going to do when the biggest arms in weather run wiiiiiiiild over you?!” It’s kind of funny, I’m a volunteer strength coach for the Nittany Lion wrestling club, and some of the guys joke with me, “Damn Joe, why don’t you walk around with a real tight shirt all the time?” But that’s their generation. I don’t do things like that. I’ll only take my shirt off when I’m getting ready to compete.
The way you talk about the weather sometimes, it certainly seems like you’re competing.
That’s true, yeah. My wife is always telling me that whenever I’m on TV, I hunch forward. Look at the Colbert Report I did, and you’ll see that I’m hunching forward in the chair. It’s an attack position, or what we call in wrestling a crouch position. That’s just how I am. If I try to change who I am, I’m going to lose.
Among your weather forecasting peers, who’s the biggest physical threat? Obviously Al Roker would go down like a sack of flour. But what about Sam Champion? He’s got some guns, right?
Yeah, I see where you’re going with this. A lot of people mistake me for Jim Cantore on the Weather Channel. I like him, he’s a nice guy, but he’s a small guy.
Oh, snap! Are you officially challenging him to a meteorology cage match? Bastardi vs. Cantore, mono y mono?
(Laughs.) No, I like the guy. He lifts a lot of weights. He’s a soccer player. It’s just that, you know, TV of course makes you look bigger. Most meteorologists never wrestle. I’m the only degreed meteorologist in the country to letter division one NCAA in wrestling in the history of the sport. The sport is so demanding, and it makes you a little bit mentally tougher, I think.
Why didn’t you just stick with wrestling? Why go into meteorology at all?
Well for one thing, I was a terrible wrestler. At Penn State, I had a one and four record; one win and four losses. But the wrestling feeds into the weather. You’re using the same muscle. Weather can be a relentless opponent, and if you don’t compete as hard as you can, it will tear you apart. I’m obsessed with the idea of forecasting the weather, of just nailing the forecast. And wrestling at Penn State, we were taught that you have to prepare, prepare, prepare. If you want to win, you have to prepare.
You’re scaring me a little bit, Joe.
I’ve been obsessed with weather since I was a kid. They had to keep an eye on me cause I’d lie out the back yard and stare at the sun all afternoon. You can burn your retinas out that way. I was born on July 18th, 1955, and I figured something out. My mom and dad were honeymooning in Atlantic City when Hurricane Hazel hit, in mid-October 1954. You do the math. I was conceived during Hurricane Hazel. The weather’s just in my blood. My father was a meteorologist, my son wants to be a meteorologist. My dad’s great-grandfather in Sicily, during the 1800s, he was the town weatherman.
Let’s talk about global warming. You don’t believe in it. How does climate change compare with professional wrestling?
What seems more fake to you, the argument that carbon emissions are melting the glaciers, or when the Iron Sheik surprises Hulk Hogan with a camel clutch?
(Laughs.) I couldn’t tell you, I’m not into professional wrestling. I watch it every once in a while. I’m more about collegiate wrestling and mixed martial arts and ultimate fighting. That’s as real as it gets. As far as the global warming goes, to me that’s just a big forecast. Who’s going to be right? There are guys saying C02 is driving the whole thing and making the world warmer. Well, for the last 30 years, since we started the satellite era, the globe has been stacked for warmth. Now it’s changing around, so if the global temperature falls over the next 20, 30 years, we’ll know it’s not C02.
My problem with the debate is, it always seems like the people saying climate change is a myth are the same ones who own hummers.
Okay, hold on. Those kind of generalizations drive me crazy. You know what kind of car I drive? A Prius. I always have an economical car. Why? 40 miles per gallon sounds good to me. I also have an SUV, but that’s because I have kids. Somebody hits the darn thing from the side, with an SUV you have a better chance of living. But it’s not about common sense, it’s about demonizing the other side. Suppose I drove a daisy mobile, that was fueled entirely on daisies. Somebody would yell at me, “You’re killing all the daisies!”
Not me. I would totally buy your daisy mobile.
I will tell you this. If I’m wrong about climate change, I will be the biggest cheerleader for the other side. What I resent is the demonization and the shutting down of the debate. When did we get to the point where one side of the debate is shut down completely? When did this happen? I don’t understand it. It’s why I didn’t read any of the Climategate emails. You know why? Because it would bias me against these guys. Everybody’s up in arms about the darn emails. All I’m concerned about is their work, and whether their work is right or wrong. All of that other stuff gets in the way of the issue, which is a very simple issue.
Let’s make it a little simpler. Are you familiar with the Heat Miser and Cold Miser?
Yeah, yeah. From that Christmas claymation thing? (sings.) “I’m Mr. Heat Miser, I’m Mr. 101.” What about it?
Explain your theory about climate change in that context. The weather is a competition between the Heat Miser and the Cold Miser. Which brother is winning?
Well, since the early 1800s, Mr. Heat Miser has been doing a pretty good job. Part of it is because of the sun spot cycle. Part of it is because the earth was abnormally cold in the 1700s and early 1800s, so there was a reaction the other way.
And part of it’s because he just hates Santa Claus so very, very much.
Mr. Cold Miser, he was winning for a time in the 60s and 70s, when the Pacific turned cool. But here’s the thing. Before the 70s, we didn’t have the right referee.
You’re talking about Mrs. Claus?
We didn’t have the satellites! Now we have the right referee. Mr. Heat Miser might be getting more credit than Mr. Cold Miser, we’re going to find out over the next 30 years. I think the cold side of the equation, Mr. Cold Miser, is going to win over the next 20 to 30 years. The Pacific is already getting colder, and the Atlantic will be turning colder in ten years, like it always does. You’ve got solar cycles getting involved. Some of my colleagues think that not only is Mr. Snow Miser going to win, he’s going to put Mr. Heat Miser out of business.
That’s just elf lies!
There are a lot of reputable people who think another ice age is coming. I go to conferences where there’ll be a thousand PhDs who don’t believe any of this stuff.
They don’t believe in the Heat Miser?
They think it’s all about the Cold Miser. Generally, I find the more in love with weather you’ve been since you were small, the less likely you are to believe in global warming. Because you’ve seen the power of the weather. Look at what what happened in California this year. All that crazy stuff went on in December, and since then, nothing. What happened?
Al Gore seems like a big Heat Miser guy. He got a Nobel Peace Prize for being all, “Look out for Mr. Heat Miser!”
I believe Mr. Gore has the best intentions. But come on, how many weather forecasts has he made where he actually gets paid for them?
You’re saying he isn’t trustworthy because he doesn’t make Al Roker’s salary?
Listen, I don’t get paid for research. I get paid for the correct result of my research. You understand that? Nobody’s saying, “O.K., here’s a million dollar grant to study this.” That’s not what I do for eight to ten hours a day. You get paid because of the result of your work, not because of your work. I do not believe that the means justify the ends, I believe that the ends are because of the correct means. I didn’t come to save the planet, I came to forecast the weather. I guess that’s the difference between Gore and me. I don’t have that burden of worrying about whether I’ve saved humanity. That’s a lot less pressure on me, even though being a weatherman is a high pressure job. (Long pause.) That’s a joke there, get it?
I get it. But I’m trying to understand what you’re telling me about Gore. You think he’s a jerk because he believes he’s saving the planet?
No, not a jerk. I personally believe that Gore, after the disappointment of the election, he thought to himself, “O.K., I can’t be President of the United States. How can I help out more?” And he latched onto this issue. He really rattled me a few weeks ago, when he tried to blame snowfall on warmer weather.
You mean the Heat Miser?
Yeah, yeah, the Heat Miser. He said it was another one of the Heat Miser’s tricks. But that’s not right, and I’ll tell you why. We’ve had the third snowiest weather in northern hemisphere history, but moisture in the snow pack is below normal. Which means it’s not because there’s more moisture but because it’s been colder. He’s just not looking at the facts. With the global temperature collapsing, you can’t be saying, “Well, it’s getting colder because it’s getting warmer.” That’s the opposite argument they were using when the temperature was going up.
Forget about Al Gore. What about groundhogs? Can we trust them as weather forecasters?
Sure we can trust them.
The groundhog consensus is that we’ll have an early spring. Do you agree?
I absolutely agree. I was saying that long before the groundhogs. I predicted that back in mid-January. I said that for most of the country, south of the Mason-Dixon line, south of the Ohio River, winter is over.
Did your prediction have anything to do with seeing or not seeing your shadow?
Not at all! And I can give you more details than the groundhogs. I can tell you that the winter’s going to stubbornly hang on in the Great Lakes and New England, exactly the opposite of last year. In the south there are going to be a whole lot more tornados than there were last year. In the West, you’re going to have a hard time pulling out but when you do it’s going to be a hot summer. It’ll be a very hot summer with a drought in Texas. But a cooler summer in the Great Lakes.
Why do we put so much faith in groundhogs like Punxsutawney Phil when clearly you provide a much better forecast?
Well first of all, I love Phil. I’ve spoken twice in Punxsutawney, so I don’t want to insult their guy. But let me say this. We have groundhogs in my back yard, and I saw one of them just the other day. He was lying on his back, not moving at all, just staring up at the sky.
Just like you as a kid.
Right, yeah. He might’ve been hit by a car, I don’t know. I do believe animals have an instinctive way of figuring out what’s going on. The groundhog has it’s value. Who am I to challenge such a fur-bearing competitor? We actually have a lot in common besides accurate weather forecasts. As an Italian, I’ve got hair all over my body. In the right light, I kinda look like Punxsutawney Phil. I probably have some genetic linkage to the groundhog.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)