My Favorite Local Meteorologist Gets National Attention

Minnesota Clouds
Licensed by Creative Commons (TwisterMc)

More than the residents of any other part of the country where I’ve lived or visited, Minnesotans pay a lot of attention to weather. Jokes about our ten-month winters notwithstanding, the North Star State actually has quite distinct seasons, sometimes turbulent (especially in the stormy spring) and always changeable. And those of us who don’t blog and read books for hours on end spend a lot of time outdoors, or at least driving north to beat the summer heat comfortably ensconced in lakeside cabins.

So the profession of TV meteorologist is taken a bit more seriously ’round here than, say, southern California. Growing up in the Twin Cities in the 1980s and early 1990s, no weather forecaster was more popular or influential than Paul Douglas, who spent nearly a decade at the NBC affiliate (KARE), then moved on to its CBS arch-rival (WCCO) after a four-year intermission in Chicago. He also founded several companies along the way, one of which was hired by Steven Spielberg to design computer graphics for the storms adding drama to Jurassic Park. WCCO dismissed him in 2009 during a wave of cost-cutting, but he’s founded a new company, WeatherNation (it happens to employ one of my wife’s cousins), and continues to write about weather for the largest newspaper in the Twin Cities.

Plus, he’s just a generally likeable guy who takes his work much more seriously than he does himself. Here he is early in his Twin Cities career, playing along with a bit for “National Weatherman Day”:

So it was utterly fascinating to see something he wrote reposted on the New York Times website this weekend, under the heading, “Republican Meteorologist Tries to Remove Liberal Label from Climate Concern.” (Reposted from Shawn Otto’s blog, where you can find the full post from Douglas.)

Paul Douglas
Paul Douglas

I’ve heard or read Douglas on this issue several times, so it wasn’t surprising to find him making the case that humans have accelerated climate change by artificially increasing carbon levels in the atmosphere. But the piece was interesting to read for a few reasons:

1. Meteorologists have generally been skeptical of climate science, or at least hesitant to enter what they see as a politicized discussion. Of course, few meteorologists go around quoting 19th century German philosophers…

Some TV meteorologists, professionals who are skilled at predicting short-term weather, are still in denial. Why? Some don’t like being upstaged by climate scientists; we’ve all been burned by weather models, and some (mistakenly) apply the same suspicion to climate models. Others haven’t taken the time to dig into the climate science. “It’s all political” one local TV weather-friend told me recently. No, it’s science. But we’ve turned it into a political football, a bizarre litmus test for conservatism. Weather and climate are flip-sides of the same coin; you can’t talk about one without understanding the other.

My climate epiphany wasn’t overnight, and it had nothing to do with Al Gore. In the mid-90s I noticed gradual changes in the weather patterns floating over Minnesota. Curious, I began investigating climate science, and, over time, began to see the thumbprint of climate change, along with 97% of published, peer-reviewed PhD’s, who link a 40% spike in greenhouse gases with a warmer, stormier atmosphere.

Bill O’Reilly, whom I respect, talks of a “no-spin zone.” Yet today there’s a very concerted, well-funded effort to spin climate science. Some companies, institutes and think tanks are cherry-picking data, planting dubious seeds of doubt, arming professional deniers, scientists-for-hire and skeptical bloggers with the ammunition necessary to keep climate confusion alive. It’s the “you can’t prove smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer!” argument, times 100, with many of the same players. Amazing.

Schopenhauer said “All truth goes through three stages. First it is ridiculed. Then it is violently opposed. Finally it is accepted as self-evident.” We are now well into Stage 2. It’s getting bloody out there.  Climate scientists are receiving death threats and many Americans don’t know what to believe. Some turn to talk radio or denial-blogs for their climate information. No wonder they’re confused.

2. From the outset, Douglas made clear his political and ideological allegiances, and his particular disappointment with fellow Republicans.

I’m going to tell you something that my Republican friends are loath to admit out loud: climate change is real. I am a moderate Republican, fiscally conservative; a fan of small government, accountability, self-empowerment, and sound science. I am not a climate scientist. I’m a meteorologist, and the weather maps I’m staring at are making me uncomfortable. No, you’re not imagining it: we’ve clicked into a new and almost foreign weather pattern. To complicate matters, I’m in a small, frustrated and endangered minority:  a Republican deeply concerned about the environmental sacrifices some are asking us to make to keep our economy powered-up, long-term. It’s ironic. The root of the word conservative is “conserve.”  A staunch Republican, Teddy Roosevelt, set aside vast swaths of America for our National Parks System, the envy of the world. Another Republican, Richard Nixon, launched the EPA. Now 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.

…My father, a devout Republican, who escaped a communist regime in East Germany, always taught me to never take my freedom for granted, and “actions have consequences.”  Carbon that took billions of years to form has been released in a geological blink of an eye. Human emissions have grown significantly over the past 200 years, and now exceed 27 billion tons of carbon dioxide, annually. To pretend this isn’t having any effect  on the 12-mile thin atmosphere overhead is to throw all logic and common sense out the window. It is to believe in scientific superstitions and political fairy tales, about a world where actions have no consequences – where colorless, odorless gases, the effluence of success and growth, can be waved away with a nod and a smirk. No harm, no foul. Keep drilling.

In 2008, before it became fashionable to bash climate science, I had the honor of welcoming Iraqi war veterans back to Minnesota for a banquet. The keynote speaker was my hero, Senator John McCain. At dinner I asked him point blank “is it possible this warm, freakish weather is all one great big, cosmic coincidence?” He rolled his eyes, smiled and said “Paul, I just returned from the Yukon. The Chief Elder of a local village presented me with a 4,000 year old tomahawk that had just melted from the permafrost. The short answer? No.” How did we get from there – to here, with an entire party in perpetual denial? Is it still Al Gore? Fear of a government land-grab? My party needs to step up and become part of the solution, which, this century, will generate far more jobs and GDP than legacy, carbon-based industries.

3. Douglas also framed his commitment to environmental protection as a religious imperative.

I’m a Christian, and I can’t understand how people who profess to love and follow God roll their eyes when the subject of climate change comes up. Actions have consequences. Were we really put here to plunder the Earth, no questions asked? Isn’t that the definition of greed? In the Bible, Luke 16:2 says, “Man has been appointed as a steward for the management of God’s property, and ultimately he will give account for his stewardship.” Future generations will hold us responsible for today’s decisions.

…This is a moral issue. Because the countries least responsible will bear the brunt of rising seas, spreading drought and climate refugees. Because someday your grandkids will ask what did you know…when…and what did you do to help?  We’ve been binging on carbon for 200 years, and now the inevitable hangover is setting in. Curing our addiction to carbon won’t happen overnight. But creative capitalism can deal with climate change. I’m no fan of big government or over-regulation. Set the bar high. Then stand back and let the markets work. Let Americans do what they do best: innovate.


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