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Bleak Forecast 

Paul Douglas: Stop denying climate change

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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.

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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 naïve 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.

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