On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver embraced a topic crucial to public safety and long elevator rides: the weather. Specifically, the role of the National Weather Service (NWS), a public department which collects a massive amount of data each day, in conjunction with other countries, for accurate and timely weather forecasts.
The public service undergirds the private business of weather forecasting – companies such as the Weather Channel, AccuWeather and Weather Underground all rely on NWS data. “Think of it like this: National Weather Service data is to a weather forecast what fresh wolverine meat is to Hormel chili,” explained Oliver. “You can’t make one without the other – it’s the dominant ingredient there.”
There’s certainly value to private forecasting companies, Oliver continued. He cited a 2018 interview with Joel Myers, founder and CEO of AccuWeather, in which Myers recounted a time AccuWeather warned the Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder of a storm 20 minutes before lightning struck his stage. The episode demonstrates how the relationship between the private and the public sectors can be mutually beneficial, said Oliver, given that “making sure Eddie Vedder doesn’t get struck by lightning is simply not something the National Weather Service has the bandwidth to do”.
There are tensions, however – AccuWeather’s impossible and unreliable 45-day forecast, the Weather Channel naming fickle winter storms despite the NWS’s refusal to cheapen the practice of naming significant tropical storms and hurricanes.
But the biggest dispute, Oliver said, is over the private sector’s attempts to curtail the NWS’s capabilities. In 2004, AccuWeather supported a bill in Congress that would prevent the NWS from doing anything a private company does, such as putting content on its website or providing daily forecasts. The bill failed, “which is good, because what you do not want is a paywall system of weather where only paying customers can find out if they’re about to drive into a tornado”, said Oliver.
He wasn’t making that worst-case scenario up – “it’s basically AccuWeather’s sales pitch”, he said. In the same 2018 interview, Myers also boasted of AccuWeather’s work with a railroad client: “We told [Union Pacific] that a tornado was heading to a spot; two trains stopped two miles apart, they watched the tornado go in between them. Unfortunately, it went into a town that didn’t have our service and a couple dozen people were killed. But the railroads didn’t lose anything.”
“What the fuck did you just say?” Oliver said, aghast. “That is a weird focus on the safety of a railroad over human life. That’s a man who read Anna Karenina and came away thinking it’s a story about a woman who mildly inconvenienced a train.”
People died in the tornado, but actually, that example demonstrated the current system working well, said Oliver – AccuWeather warned the railroad, and the NWS warned the town just a few minutes later, giving residents crucial time to seek shelter. “But what Myers is doing there is marketing AccuWeather as indispensable for public safety, which, thanks to the current strength of the National Weather Service, it isn’t.”
Freely shared meteorological information is important, Oliver said. Thus, it is crucial that whoever runs the NWS is “someone who a) understands the obvious benefits of international cooperation, and b) can stand up to the potential pressures of the private sector, and particularly Joel and [his brother, former AccuWeather CEO] Barry Myers”.
“And at this point, you can probably guess what’s coming,” Oliver cautioned – Donald Trump nominated Barry Myers to lead the National Weather Service in 2017. During his confirmation hearing, Barry Myers insisted that he and his brothers would only talk football during Thanksgiving dinners. Oliver didn’t buy it. “Really? You won’t talk about the thing that will vastly enrich your family business at Thanksgiving? Allow me to make a 45-day forecast – bullshit.”
Bogged down by conflicts of interest and a labor department investigation into AccuWeather’s culture of sexual harassment, Barry Myers’s nomination has stalled for two years in the Senate; if they don’t approve him by the end of 2019, Trump will have to resubmit his name. Which prompts the question: “Why not find another guy?” Oliver ranted.
“Any other guy! Except of course, for that to happen, Trump would have to do stuff, know stuff and think workplace harassment is a bad thing, and none of us should be holding our breath on that.”