A Republican meteorologist looks at climate change

Paul Douglas
Paul Douglas, a Minnesota meteorologist and author, writes a regular weather feature in the Star Tribune.
Photo courtesy of the Paul Douglas Foundation

By Paul Douglas

Paul Douglas, a Minnesota meteorologist and author, writes a regular weather feature in the Star Tribune. This article first appeared Thursday on the Huffington Post.

I'm going to tell you something that my Republican friends are loath to admit out loud: climate change is real. I'm 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 Penn State meteorologist, and the weather maps I'm staring at are making me very 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. 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.

Weather 2.0.: "It's a new atmosphere floating overhead."

These are the Dog Days of March. Ham Weather reports 5,299 records in the last seven days — some towns 20 to 35 degrees warmer than average; off-the-scale, freakishly warm. 17,360 records since March 1. Sixteen times more warm records than cold records since March 1. The scope, intensity and duration of this early heat wave are historic and unprecedented. And yes, climate change is probably a contributing factor. "Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get." 129,404 weather records in one year, nationwide? You can't point to any one weather extreme and say "that's climate change". But a warmer, wetter atmosphere loads the dice, increasing the potential for historic spikes in temperature and more frequent and bizarre weather extremes.

You can't prove that any one of Barry Bond's 762 home runs was sparked by (alleged) steroid use. But it did increase his "base state", raising the overall odds of hitting a home run. A warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor, more fuel for floods, while increased evaporation pushes other regions into drought.

Rising water levels
The ocean near Miami is seen on March 14, 2012, as reports indicate that Miami-Dade County in the future could be one of the most susceptible places when it comes to rising water levels due to global warming.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Here's what I suspect: the patient is running a slight fever. Symptoms include violent tornado sneezes, severe sniffles of flooding and raging rashes of jaw-dropping warmth. It's 85 in March. What will July bring? It's as if Mother Nature seized the weather remote, clicked America's seasons on fast-forward, turning the volume on extreme weather up to a deafening 10. This isn't even close to being "normal". Weather Underground's Dr. Jeff Masters put it best: "This is not the atmosphere I grew up with."

Some TV meteorologists, professionals 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 simulations. Others can't or won't take 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.

Acknowledging that the atmosphere is warming doesn't make you a liberal.

My climate epiphany wasn't overnight, and it had nothing to do with Al Gore. In the mid-'90s I noticed startling changes in the weather floating over Minnesota. Curious, I began investigating climate science, and, over time, began to see the thumbprint of climate change — along with 97 percent of published, peer-reviewed Ph.D.s, who link a 40 percent 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 still 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.

"Actions have consequences." We are accountable.

Trust your gut — and real experts. We should listen to peer-reviewed climate scientists, who are very competitive by nature. This is not about "insuring more fat government research grants." I have yet to find a climate scientist in the "1 Percent", driving a midlife-crisis-red Ferrari into the lab. I truly hope these scientists turn out to be wrong, but I see no sound, scientific evidence to support that position today.

What I keep coming back to is this: all those dire (alarmist!) warnings from climate scientists 30 years ago? They're coming true, one after another — and faster than supercomputer models predicted. Data shows 37 years in a row of above-average temperatures, worldwide. My state has warmed by at least 3 degrees F. Climate change is either The Mother of All Coincidences — or the trends are real.

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.

The retreating Knox Coast iceshelf exposes the barren Windmill Islands of Vincennes Bay in the Australian Antarctic Territory in a file photo from January 11, 2008.

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 2007, 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 personal hero, Sen. John McCain. At dinner I asked him, "is it possible all this warm, freakish weather is 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 many in my 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 — later this century — will probably generate more jobs, growth and GDP than legacy, carbon-based industries. I just hope our grandkids aren't having the same "debate" about the science.

"You're obsessing," my dear wife of 28 years complained recently. "People don't like having this rammed down their throats." Fair enough. I'm genuinely concerned, because I'm in touch with America's leading climate scientists. They are beyond concerned; bordering on apoplectic. We fiddle while Rome burns.

Biblical scripture: "We are here to manage God's property."

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.

I understand this: capitalism requires growth. Growth requires energy. Anything that gets in the way of insuring an uninterrupted flow of (carbon-based) energy must be inherently evil, right? Many in my party have an allergic reaction to regulation, but do we really want to go back to the '60s, a time of choking smog and combustible rivers?

There's a palpable fear that Big Government will ultimately prevent the energy industry from extracting (and burning) trillions of dollars of carbon still in the ground; the fuel we think we need to keep America competitive, growing and healthy.

Proven U.S. reserves of carbon-based fuels are estimated to be 586 GtCO2, according to the Congressional Research Service. Think Progress's Brad Johnson calculates America has roughly $10 trillion worth of carbon resources still left in the ground (coal, gas and oil).

"If we are to avoid the catastrophes associated with greater than 2 C warming, sovereign states and public corporations must strand 80 percent of proven global carbon reserves, a loss exceeding $20 trillion," he said in an e-mail.

This is what the fight is about. Big Energy wants to keep us addicted to carbon-based fuels indefinitely; shareholders want to keep the money spigot flowing, and lock in future profits. Surprised? Me neither. But in business, as in life, you hedge your bets. We can slowly, methodically, reduce our reliance on carbon-based fuels, while investing in carbon-clean alternatives. That doesn't mean government picks winners. That's anathema to free enterprise.

Climate change: The ultimate test of capitalism. "Let the markets work."

I'm a hopeless serial entrepreneur. The eight Minnesota companies I've created ultimately employed a couple hundred professionals. Where others see chronic problems I see opportunity. One of my companies is Smart Energy, with a new level of wind forecast accuracy for global wind farms.

Last summer, in response to the most severe two years since 1816, my partners and I launched a new, national cable weather channel ("WeatherNation Television") — to keep Americans updated with 24/7 storm reports. "Global Weirding" has arrived. Why bother? Because it's the right thing to do. And because going green will generate green. As in profits.

We won't drill our way out of this challenge; we'll innovate our way into a new, lower-carbon energy paradigm. Something we're pretty good at. We should take another look at newer, safer forms of carbon-free nuclear energy. The Chinese are doing some things with molten salts and thorium. "Fast neutron" reactors burn "waste" and it burns up the resultant plutonium, eliminating the so-called terrorist effect, said Don Shelby, former WCCO-TV anchor and energy reporter.

"If the U.S. would allow some reprocessing and enrichment, you could put all of the nuclear waste of the country in a shoebox and never dig another ounce of uranium for 100 years. But before nuclear energy can be considered viable we have to solve the waste problem," he added.

I was 30 miles downwind of Three Mile Island the day we had a near-meltdown in 1979. My thinking has evolved since — there's probably a place for (safe) nuclear power.

Amazingly, America already has the technology and creative minds necessary to ensure future growth and more jobs, without treating Earth like a battered ATM card. We can tackle this problem, like we've tackled every other problem in our nation's history.

But do we have the political will? Washington D.C. is broken, utterly incapable of dealing with long-term threats. Compromise is seen as weakness; our natural resources put at risk by political paralysis.

Will getting serious about climate change require a third political party: a pro-jobs, pro-clean-energy Common Sense Moderate Middle — to prove that America can move forward and thrive, without trashing the land and air we value? Perhaps. Will it take a series of climate catastrophes to shake some of us out of our perpetual-denial-bubble? I hope not.

The climate is warming. The weather is morphing. It's not your grandfather's weather anymore. The trends are undeniable. If you don't want to believe thousands of climate scientists — at least believe your own eyes: winters are warmer & shorter, summers more humid, more extreme weather events, with more frequent and intense rains.

For evidence of climate change don't look at your back yard thermometer. That's weather. Take another, longer look at your yard. Look at the new flowers, trees, birds, insects and pests showing up outside your kitchen window that weren't there a generation ago.

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 grand kids 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.

"The mother of all opportunities:" Turning America into the Silicon Valley of clean energy.

We can figure this out. Frankly, we won't have a choice. But I'm a naive optimist. We can reinvent America, leaving us more competitive in the 21st century, launching thousands of new, carbon-free energy companies — supplementing, and someday surpassing anything we can expeditiously suck out of the ground and burn, accelerating an already-warming planet. We won't have to bury our heads in Saudi sand indefinitely — we'll never "frack" our way to a sustainable future.

It's time for a New Energy Paradigm. There's no silver bullet. But there's plenty of (green) buckshot, if we aim high and point America in the right direction. Keep drilling, but have a Plan B, C and D. We need real leadership, and a viable, bipartisan blueprint for inevitable energy independence from President Obama and Congress. Yes, health care is important. So is the long-term health of our air, land and water.

There are steps all of us can take today. I own one hybrid, another on order. I bought a home a mile away from my office, to reduce my carbon footprint (and preserve some sense of sanity). But there's more I can do. Let's challenge ourselves to reinvent our own energy ecosystems.

America 2.0.: "The best way to predict the future? Invent it."

I don't pretend to have the answer key. But the same Tenacious, Fast-Forward, Can-Do American Spirit that built the transcontinental railroad, the Internet, lasers and the first artificial heart — sending men to the moon in a breathtakingly short period of time — will ultimately figure this out.

My youngest son is graduating from the Naval Academy in May, and then heading to Pensacola. He'll be flying choppers or jets; F-18s that can already run on biofuels. The Navy is serious about renewables and alternative fuels. Because it's the best way forward — protecting our troops, securing supply lines, creating economies of scale that will make biofuels more competitive, leaving the Navy less vulnerable to price shocks in the oil markets.

Hedge your bets. Put fewer troops at risk. Think ahead. Only the paranoid survive. In the words of my Eagle Scout brethren, "Be Prepared." Go Navy. Beat Army.

We don't have much time. Earth Day is April 22, but every day is Earth Day. Native Americans remind us of the sacred responsibility we have for all those who come next: "We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors ... we borrow it from our children."

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