Paul Douglas is running against the mainstream grain in two significant ways.
One, he is Republican and acknowledges the reality of human-caused climate change. Republicans tend not to agree with the science, despite the overwhelming—97 percent —consensus among climatologists that human-created emissions are warming the planet, causing climate change—and triggering extreme weather.
For example, a Bloomberg national poll, released in early October, said that while “78 percent of Democrats and 56 percent of independents believe humans are warming the Earth … almost two out of three Republicans don’t.”
The second way the Minneapolis-based Douglas is running against the grain is that he’s a broadcast meteorologist, and the majority of people in his profession don’t necessarily acknowledge the level at which humans are causing climate change. According to a 2011 report by the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, only 53 percent of broadcast meteorologists said that human influence plays an important role in climate change—with 34 percent saying climate change is a result of human and natural causes, and only 19 percent saying it is mostly human-caused.
Douglas would place himself in the latter category, the 19 percent-ers, adding that he believes “human activities, the burning of fossil fuels and a 40 percent spike in greenhouse gases are having an impact on warming the atmosphere and the oceans—where 90 percent of the warming has gone in the last four decades.”
Connecting the Dots
Every day, we get better at connecting the dots of climate change and extreme weather. As NASA’s James Hansen said in August, “The deadly European heat wave of 2003, the fiery Russian heat wave of 2010 and catastrophic droughts in Texas and Oklahoma [in 2011] can each be attributed to climate change.”
The 2012 drought that hit North America will very likely be connected to climate change as well, but scientists, who are conservative by nature, are still totaling their data.
Who better than your local, trusted weathercaster to walk you through how climate change influences weather?
Lo and behold, Paul Douglas. Early this year, I discovered a blog wherein he argued that Republicans were wrongheaded to ignore climate change. Here’s a sample quote from this blog: “… some in my party believe the EPA and all those silly ‘global warming alarmists’ are going to get in the way of drilling and mining our way to prosperity. Well, we have good reason to be alarmed.”
Later in the year, Douglas wrote a direct message to Mitt Romney via Huffington Post, exhorting the Republican presidential candidate to acknowledge the reality of climate change, and impress upon his party the severity of our current predicament. In the article, he said, “If Mitt Romney is genuine about his promise to ‘help you and your family,’ he needs to acknowledge this, and work for a solution that will solve both the economic and the climate crisis.”
Douglas’ contrarian, clarifying view of climate change, along with his ability to educate viewers through his work as a broadcast meteorologist, can be seen on the 24-hour Weather Nation TV channel, which he founded in 2011.
We began our phone conversation a few weeks ago by me asking Douglas what got him interested in weather in the first place.
Paul Douglas: I’ve been fascinated with weather from a young age. Tropical Storm Agnes flooded out my house in Lancaster, Pa., back in ’72. I was a wide-eyed, 14-year-old Boy Scout. I had just taken a weather merit badge, and I was just traumatized … [by] the weather.
Many TV meteorologists were traumatized by something as kids—a tornado, a flood, a hurricane, lightning: Something put the fear of God in them. No one in their right mind, I think, sets out to be a television meteorologist. But I just fell in love with weather at the age of about 14, went to Penn State and got a degree in meteorology. ...
Jim Poyser: When did you begin to take note of climate change?
Douglas: All of us have different thresholds for when you acknowledge the science. For me, it was when James Hansen went before Congress in 1988. I thought he was jumping the gun; I didn’t see it. But after living the weather … and that’s what any meteorologist does: you live the weather … I just noticed in the mid and late ‘90s that something had changed.
JP: How so?
Douglas: It was no longer my grandfather’s weather. The rain was falling with greater ferocity. We were seeing more extremes with greater frequency and greater intensity than I had ever witnessed in my career. So I started digging into the peer-reviewed science and basically came to the conclusion that climate scientists were probably right, that there’s just too much evidence.
I come from a long line of foresters in Germany. My grandfather, my great-grandfather, my great-great-grandfather were all state foresters in Germany. Maybe it’s in my scouting career. I don’t take the environment for granted. We are a part of nature. I don’t see anywhere in the Bible where it says that we’re supposed to dominate nature.
The book of Luke says, “We are stewards and we will be accountable for our stewardship.” I take that seriously. When I talk to my friends on both sides of the aisle politically I say, “We’re accountable. You should care about this. If you care about your kids and your grandkids, as our parents cared for us, this is not only a scientific issue, it’s a moral issue and an ethical issue.”
There is something fundamentally immoral about kicking the can down the road and saying, “Well, not enough data and maybe it’s real, but our kids and our grandkids can clean up our mess.”
Our kids are going to be pissed, and I want to be able to look my kids in the eye and say, “You know what? Your old man did everything that he could to beat the drum and to let others know that this is real.”
We ignore the science at our long-term peril. People say, “Ah, you’re an alarmist, you’re a warmist.” I say, “You know, the trends are alarming, and I’m reporting on the trends. You either stick your head in the sand or you can acknowledge the science.”
JP: When did you begin to talk about climate change as part of your job as a broadcast meteorologist?
Douglas: In the late ’90s I began including it in my weather statements.
JP: Was anybody else doing it at that time?
Douglas: No, no. The pervasive feeling at the time was that … if you even mention the term “global warming” or “climate change,” you will instantly alienate 30 percent of your audience and they will tune out. So, you know, it’s kryptonite. My news directors at WCCO [the CBS affiliate in Minneapolis where Douglas worked until 2008] said, “As long as you focus on the science and don’t try to dig into policy implications—[and] if you’re reporting on the science, it’s peer-reviewed science that you can back up.”
Every day, I would get scores of e-mails like, “Flaming liberal. You crazy crackpot. Why are you buying into this Al Gore conspiracy? You’re going to cripple our economy.”
It is the equivalent of sticking your finger in the electrical socket. Most of us are conditioned to avoid pain, to avoid controversy. Everybody on television wants to be loved, and your contract—whether you’re renewed—really depends on your ability to attract an audience. Just by reporting on this, you know that you’re alienating people with a certain ideology. [To find out where a few local meteorologists stand on this topic, see “Weather Climate Controversy,” p. 12.]
This science, as strong as it is, is toxic to a lot of these people who just can’t or won’t accept peer-reviewed science because it does not fit in with their worldview. My entire life I’ve voted Republican and I’m a moderate Republican, which is kind of an oxymoron these days, but I’ve been very moderate in my beliefs. I’m fiscally conservative, socially liberal. It was amazing to me, the feedback.
JP: Yet you persisted.
Douglas: I persisted and I continue to persist because the subject is too important. I thought it was ludicrous that this was somehow a litmus test for conservatism. I remind my Republican friends that Teddy Roosevelt, staunch Republican, founded the National Parks Service. Richard Nixon, say what you will about Dick Nixon, and I’m not a huge Nixon fan, but he started the EPA. There is a history of environmental respect, respect for the environment.
“I’m proud of having been one of the first to recognize that state and national government have a duty to protect our natural resources from the damaging effects of pollution that can accompany industrial development.” You know who said that?
JP: Teddy Roosevelt?
Douglas: Ronald Reagan. July 19, 1984. Somewhere along the way, the Republican Party became totally beholden to fossil-fuel interests.
I’m not saying we don’t take advantage of our natural resources. The message I’m trying to get out is that by fixating exclusively on fossil fuels, not only are we endangering future generations, we are endangering our competitiveness down the road. Because there is no debate about climate change in Europe or China.
They are moving forward with clean alternatives to creating energy. If we totally focus on mining and drilling and extracting every last bit of carbon at the exclusion of solar and wind and geothermal and battery technology and everything else that’s out there, we are going to be crippled as a country, competitively.
We will look back 20 years from now and say, “We blew it. We had a chance. This was our energy moonshot and instead of innovating, instead of doing the right thing, we were lazy. We took the easy way and now we’re paying a price for it in terms of more extreme weather—drier droughts, heat waves, public-health issues, a detriment for our farmers.”
People say, “Well, if weather systems shift north, we can grow our crops in Canada.” Until somebody pointed out that there is no topsoil across much of Canada. People just aren’t seeing the long-term implications.
The point I’m trying to make as a jobs creator is that this is a chance to reinvent and retool America, wean ourselves off foreign oil. Mitigating climate change is going to require a level of innovation and reinvention that will propel us to a new competitive paradigm. By focusing on carbon-neutral ways of generating energy and growing our GDP, we will take American exceptionalism on the world stage to a new level.
JP: I like to think we’re at a turning point: The thirst for knowledge about what is happening to the climate is growing.
Douglas: It’s ironic that extreme weather has accomplished what the climate scientists up until now could not. And that is convince a majority of logical, God-fearing Americans that something has changed. [According to a Yale University poll], four out of five people [in 2011] were personally impacted by extreme weather. … One out of three were physically injured by severe weather last year.
This weather-on-steroids environment is getting people to wake up. I keep telling people that trillions of dollars are in play. Fossil-fuel companies are scared to death that they’re going to be regulated out of existence or that there will be regulations that they can’t drill and mine, and that will affect their share price, their stock price, and their ultimate company value.
JP: They’ve already made such an investment in those areas, coal and oil, so letting it lie there doesn’t seem like a good business decision.
Douglas: Exactly. Did you read Bill McKibben’s article in Rolling Stone [“Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” July 19, 2012]? If we burn all of the remaining carbon reserves, it’s going to be a brand new planet.
I give people a metaphor … that Mother Nature has picked up the DVR and put our weather on fast forward and turned the volume of extreme weather up to an 11. I mean, of course, the weather is extreme. The weather has always been extreme, but it’s coming with greater velocity and greater intensity. More noise, more fury and more trauma. This is what you get when you warm up the atmosphere even a couple of degrees. You load the dice in favor of more of these extreme rains.
JP: Are Republicans listening to you?
Douglas: No, no. Frankly, to some degree, I’ve been not ostracized but, I think, ignored. I’m OK with that. I’m going to keep speaking out, because this is too important.
What I am finding is that younger people, younger conservatives, younger evangelicals are listening. They respond to data. That’s one of the first things that I say when I go out and talk. I ask people, “Do you have an open mind? Or is your mind made up and you’re going to cherry-pick data to support your ideological beliefs?”
I find that for most people under the age of 35, this is an issue that they really feel will impact their lives and their kids’ lives. They are paying attention. That’s why I can’t understand why neither Mitt Romney or Barack Obama has really addressed this in the debates. I don’t understand it because I think a lot of independents, a lot of people who have not made up their mind, could be swayed if one of them came out and said, “Yeah, this is real and we need to address this.”
The essence of the word “conservative” is “conserve.” We’ve gone off track in the Republican Party by ignoring that. We are a part of nature, and this meme that we are here to dominate nature—I don’t know where that comes from. I don’t recognize that strain of conservatism. I mentioned this in my Huffington Post article. Bill O’Reilly has his No Spin Zone, and yet many in my party have been spinning the science, denying the science. I just don’t understand it. I don’t get it.
JP: What do you visualize the world being like, 20 years from now?
Douglas: I think it’s going to be a lot different than it is now. There’s a significant amount of warming going on in the pipeline. Even if we could somehow magically bring our greenhouse emissions down to zero, I think there’s little doubt that we’re going to warm at least a degree, maybe a degree and a half. I see no evidence really that we’re going to take the steps necessary to mitigate greenhouse gases. I think there’s going to be a huge push toward adaption. How do we survive and thrive in this warmer, drier, stormier new world?
That means everything from new drought-resistant crops that can weather the extremes that I know we’re going to see. Climate scientists say that this is just the tip of the iceberg. This is just the beginning from what we’re seeing. Everything from huge impacts on agriculture to trying to mitigate sea-level rise and levies and storm walls.
As a businessman, it’s a threat and it’s an opportunity and this may be one way to reach some conservatives. If you tell them, “Hey, by being obstinate, by denying the science, you are leaving money on the table. You are overlooking an incredible investment opportunity.” I tell my conservative friends that in the Pentagon, insurance circles, there is no debate about the science.
If you ignore this, it’s going to show up in your portfolio. You will shoot yourself in the foot with your investments. You have to stay up on the science, you have to listen to new data, otherwise you’re going to watch your portfolio shrink. Is that what you want? I’m trying a couple of different ways to appeal to people who have that conservative mindset.
It’s OK to be conservative and still acknowledge the science and to recognize something that Jesus taught: Actions have consequences. You can’t release 90 trillion tons of greenhouse gases in 50 years, according to the Department of Energy, 90 trillion hot-air balloons of man-made pollution, and pretend that that’s not going to have any impact.
… Sometimes I wonder, you know, is our country ready for a third party? A green party or … I don’t know.
JP: How about the common sense party?
Douglas: I think you’re right. I still think most Americans are somewhere in the middle of the bell curve. Most Americans are fairly moderate. And yet our system has been hijacked by extremists at both ends of the political spectrum. It just makes me nuts that Washington does not reflect what’s happening outside of the Beltway, scientifically or otherwise. The naÃ¯ve optimist in me believes that this will be corrected over time.
Yet, the amount of money in play right now is staggering and I do worry about what that means for representative democracy. It’s too easy to listen to Rush Limbaugh on the radio or to look at a blog post someone e-mailed you.
People need to educate themselves and not rely on what Uncle Joe says at the dinner table. There’s so much information available online, but you need to be looking at peer-reviewed science. Not somebody’s opinion in a blog post. Not what you heard on the local bloviating talk show in town. The data is the data, and people need to be seeking out science. Not opinion.
JP: Finally, what about Sandy?
Douglas: Although you can’t prove direct causation with Sandy, in my humble opinion—and that of most of the climate scientists I know—it’s a case of systematic causation. We’ve loaded dice in favor of more extreme storms, heat waves and drought. We’ve super-sized our weather … the timing, scale and scope of the storm were extraordinary—like nothing I’ve ever witnessed, a hybrid of hurricane and Nor’easter that is not very well understood.
Sandy was made worse by unusually warm ocean water in the Gulf Stream, and the record melting of polar ice in September may be creating a blocking pattern in the upper atmosphere that favors major storms, especially for the eastern third of the USA—a trend in recent winters. It would have been a major storm without a hurricane in the core, but the combination of Nor’easter—powered by temperature extremes—and a hurricane—powered by warm ocean water—created a meteorological bomb that impacted a huge swath of coastline. Again, fairly unprecedented, historically. And the fact that Sandy impacted a densely populated region of the USA meant more people affected, and brought additional media attention.
Weather has always been severe, but now a warmer climate is flavoring all weather. The frequency and intensity of extreme weather events is on the rise, and Sandy was just the most recent and visible manifestation of this trend across North America—which is home to the most weather extremes in the last 30 years, a quintupling of weather disasters, according to an October report from risk-management reinsurer Munich Re.
Jim Poyser is managing editor of NUVO, an alternative newsweekly in Indianapolis, Ind., where this article was published on Nov. 28, 2012.