The cable portion of the Summer 2011 Television Critics Association tour kicked off yesterday with a session by The Weather Channel that went beyond promoting its programming into something much bigger. That's the great thing about the cable and PBS days at TCA tours; they include many timely sessions for informative programs that are infinitely more stimulating than all the sitcom, crime drama and reality show presentations that dominate the broadcast days.

For example, the purpose of the Weather Channel panel was to call attention to the network's coverage of extreme weather and the devastation it often leaves behind – as compelling a topic as any in this year of consistently punishing weather events that have dominated national news, from the multiple major snowstorms of winter to the floods and tornadoes of the spring to the broiling heat and stifling humidity that has made this summer a bummer. But as might be expected, no discussion of major weather issues can be had without raising questions of global warming and the impact of man's behavior on climate change.

Tellingly, and refreshingly, the panelists on hand – Weather Channel personalities and meteorologists Jim Cantore and Stephanie Abrams and hurricane expert Dr. Rick Knabb – did not begin lecturing about the dangers of global warming, as so often happens when public figures or media personalities are asked to comment on the issue. Rather, Cantore, Abrams and Knabb all provided thoughtful and insightful information about the extent to which mankind's behaviors may or may not be impacting global weather patterns.

"When we talk about hurricanes, there are so many factors that determine what hurricane activity is like every year and where the systems go, things like El Nino and La Nina, multi-decade oscillations, ups and downs in hurricane activity," Knabb explained. He recalled that in the '70s, '80s and early '90s hurricane activity was not as active as it has been since 1995. "So you could make a long, long list of the factors that influence hurricane activity," he said.

Does that mean that, when it comes to drastic changes in weather patterns, humans are blameless? "I think it would be hard to make a case that humans are having zero effect," Knabb asserted. "Certainly we're going to affect our environment. But there are so many other factors involved, at least when it comes to hurricanes. We're just really scratching the surface and learning about how we're affecting our environment."

"But we do know the Earth has warmed, especially in the last 30 years," Cantore chimed in, perhaps wanting to keep the controversial global warming thing at the forefront of the conversation. "We're 1.5 degrees warmer than we were in the '70s. If heat holds more moisture in the atmosphere, we certainly can make a case for some of the rains we're seeing that are much, much heavier. I mean, it doesn't mean it's going to rain everywhere. You can have extreme drought. You can have extreme cold. Maybe this is the Earth's way of trying to compensate for that."

"With hurricanes you might think, 'Well, if the ocean keeps warming, logically more hurricanes and [stronger] hurricanes are going to occur," Knapp noted. "But there are feedback mechanisms in the atmosphere. You could, in the next several decades, have a change in the upper-level wind shear, which could be a counteracting effect to the ocean temperature. So we really don't know what the future holds exactly."

It's about "getting the information right," Abrams added. "We're trying to use the [term] 'climate change' instead of 'global warming' because everyone attaches onto that warming thing and that's not necessarily the case. You know, some places are getting cooler. It's not all about warming."

The threat of global cooling was a huge scientific issue in the '70's, fueled by the fact that the earth was (and still is) seemingly overdue for an ice age. But is it still a concern about global warming? "It's a lot easier to observe what's going on," than to talk about what was or what might be, Knapp said. "Clearly there are places in the Arctic that are now navigable by ships during the summer that didn't used to be. That is an observed change. [But] the smartest people in the world with all the technical models that they run about what the climate is going to do over the next several decades get different answers depending on what model they run and what parameters they put in there. So we don't have [an] answer to [the question], 'Is it going to continue warming or cooling?"

"Certainly if ice changes to water over a vast portion of the Arctic, then you logically conclude that will have some effect," he added. "We just don't know how much of one."

The Weather Channel started a day that also included sessions by ESPN, the Hallmark Channel (which included among its guests a direct descendent of the original Rin Tin Tin, on hand to promote Hallmark's presentation of the American Humane Association Hero Dog Awards on November 11), History, Lifetime and, in its TCA debut, the family entertainment channel GMC (which previewed two very promising movies, Trinity Goodheart, starring Eric Benet, and A Mile in His Shoes, with Dean Cain and Luke Schroder. Also making its TCA debut yesterday was Univision, a network that far outperforms most of the other networks that are included in TCA tours. The day ended with a party for Playboy TV at the Playboy Mansion. The Playmates and the many birds and small animals in Hugh Hefner's private zoo were hugely popular with the critics, but we all couldn't help wondering why cast members of NBC's upcoming drama series The Playboy Club weren't invited to attend. Surely Playboy sanctioned that show?