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A Q&A with Paul Douglas, the evangelical Christian Republican poster boy for climate change

“What I’m trying to do is convince people that acknowledging climate change doesn’t make you liberal,” says the former TV weathercaster. “It makes you literate.”

Paul Douglas: "I’ve had a number of appearances on MSNBC lately, with Chris Hayes and Ed Schultz, to talk about extreme weather and to connect the dots with climate change. I’m sort of an albino unicorn to them."
MinnPost photo by Brian Lambert

Paul Douglas says he never intended to become a poster boy for climate change. But that’s what he is today, and the reasons why include the fact that his commercial news colleagues avoid the topic as they would an endorsement of pedophilia.

Watch your friendly local TV weathercast and you’ll notice the words “climate change” are almost never spoken, and never in terms of human causation, i.e. “anthropogenic,” to use science jargon.

In the absurdist universe where science has become a partisan political issue, the mere act of acknowledging the overwhelming consensus of climatologists on an advertising-supported broadcast medium guarantees a raging torrent of outrage. It’s as though climate deniers have complaint lines on speed dial. Sales departments like happy viewers, and if you can keep viewer happy by ignoring what may be the most impactful change of the 21st century, well, you know, sometimes you have to make concessions if you want to deliver shareholder value.

Of course Douglas, now 56, served plenty of time in the trenches with the ostriches, appearing first on KARE-TV from 1983 to 1994, then migrating to WBBM-TV in Chicago for three years before returning to the Twin Cities on WCCO-TV.

The industry-wide scale-back of on-air salaries — and Douglas drew a hefty paycheck — saw a red line drawn through his name in 2008. But he’s survived quite well. Of all the characters on the local TV landscape over the past quarter century, Douglas Paul Kruhoeffer is one of the most interesting. (“Paul Douglas,” according to legend, is a show-biz name laid on him in high school by his first radio boss.)

Indisputably smart, he is also a shrewd and imaginative entrepreneur, often months or years ahead of competitors in sussing out market opportunities, usually by applying the latest science to technological applications. A list of businesses he has started, sold or currently controls could fill both sides of a handout at one of his climate-science speaking appearances. His Media Logic Group, headquartered in Shorewood, lists seven separate companies currently under its umbrella. The (very) short version of what they’re up to now: “We’re pushing into personalization of weather for individuals and companies,” he said. “You can get Doppler [radar] on your watch now, you know.”

A year ago, at Edina High School, on a ridiculously foul winter night, I caught one of Douglas’s climate-change talks. Having watched the guy for years, I don’t know why I was impressed by the performance, but I was. Polished, authoritative and compelling, Douglas delivered a message that his TV colleagues avoid like a hot cup of ebola. In short: “It’s real,” he said of climate change. “Everyone’s better off preparing for it, and, if you’re so inclined, it’s worth stopping to consider the technologies and market opportunities that will come as we adjust to a changing climate.”

To heavily paraphrase his kicker line: “You don’t have to believe me. But if you doubt what I’m saying, check out what the military and the insurance industry are doing to prepare themselves. They’re not wallowing in doubt over whether it’s some Al Gore, libtard, gas-bagging hoax.”

Interested in drawing Douglas out on topics related to mass educating the public on climate change, I met with him at a coffee shop a few blocks from his Shorewood offices.

MinnPost: Like a lot of Minnesotans, I watch the local news mainly for weather. I love the cool graphics. But I never cease to be amazed that the words “climate change” are never uttered. Do you notice the same thing and why is that?

Paul Douglas: Yes. But the reality is that I don’t watch much local television anymore, now that I’m out of that business. I’m not immersed in it on a day-to-day basis. But when I do watch, I notice the same thing, and there are reasons for that. There has to be a desire on the part of news directors and producers to allocate the time to talk about this adequately. A sentence or two doesn’t cut it. But also, it really is like sticking your face in a buzz saw. Because, let’s face it, local television news, even network news, has devolved into a popularity contest, right? People vote with their remote controls every evening. Some vote on the basis of accuracy and good journalism. But most vote I would argue on whether they like the people presenting the news, weather or sports. This is hardly breaking news, and you certainly know this. Now, ‘CCO was pretty good about it [under then GM Jan McDaniel and news director Ted Canova]. But the problem, if you accept that television is fundamentally a popularity contest, is this: If you open your mouth and whisper the words “climate change” you’ll immediately piss off 30 percent of the audience. 

MP: Do you really think it’s that much? Or should I ask if it even matters if it’s as little as 5 percent?

PD: No. I don’t think it matters if it’s 5 percent or 35 percent.

MP: Well, my argument would be that there’s going to be 5 percent or 20 percent who’ll be pissed off at anything you say. So, if you’re being responsible about a pretty serious issue, don’t the people in charge of this game have to say, “We’re going to have to suck it up here and take a few hits, because this is important?”

PD: Well, I know that at ‘CCO I could spend all day responding to the professional deniers and the trolls who had nothing better to do than send me flame mail … .

MP: But why even respond? Why waste the time?

PD: Well, yeah. Most of these people don’t respond to evidence. It’s all about political identity, ideology and perversion of science. When people ask why is there so much controversy? Why is this some kind of litmus test for conservatism? I say, “Follow the money.” There’s trillions of dollars still in the ground and some of the richest corporations that have ever been want to go on harvesting those supplies. And frankly, a little public confusion may be a good thing. Questions keep flowing.

MP: I think most people will accept a debate over what to do …

PD: Right. You can debate policy, but don’t debate the science. You’re entitled to your opinion. You’re not entitled to make up your own facts. But with the Internet now we have this amazing echo chamber where you can find anything to support any conspiracy theory you can imagine, and I don’t care for most conspiracy theories. I think it’s intellectually lazy. But I didn’t set out to be the poster boy for climate change in Minnesota. But I think there’s a fundamental injustice that’s taken place because people have politicized this. I tell my conservative friends, “I didn’t realize this was a la carte conservatism.” If you’re conservative, you should be conservative across the board, including conserving the thing that sustains us. It’s a scientific issue, it’s a moral issue and it’s a spiritual issue. I’m writing a book now with a minister in Pennsylvania focusing on creation care and stewardship and that, as Christians, we are called to be stewards of God’s gift to us. If you accept the premise that this planet was divinely conceived and created why would you knowingly do anything to mess that up? 

MP: You mention the troll culture, and in my experience most of them are either under-educated or ill-informed. But among people who are educated and yet still resist the evidence of climate change, what is your experience with them? Do they truly disbelieve what they can see and read? Or are they simply reluctant to jump on the government regulation bandwagon?

PD: I think [Oklahoma Sen.] James Inhofe perfectly summarizes that state of mind. He says, “If I don’t accept the disease, I don’t have to accept the cure.” For a time Inhofe admitted that people were actually affecting the climate, until someone whispered in his ear what this might cost, and then he changed his tune. But my point, as a business owner on my fifth company, is that the markets will ultimately come up with most of the solutions, and it’s going to be bottom-up, not top-down. We need to find an effective way to put a price on carbon; a couple days ago even BP came out on record saying that, “Yes, it’s time to price carbon.” Once you put that signal into the marketplace the markets will come up with solutions, which will, I think, take the edge off some of the worst impacts and accelerate clean tech. I refuse to believe we have to pollute to keep the lights on and economies growing. I just don’t believe it.

MP: As an old hippie, Stewart Brand, [the guy behind “The Whole Earth Catalog”] was one of my thought leaders back in the day, and at 80-something he’s still going strong. But what’s interesting is he’s now an ardent proponent of third and fourth generation nuclear power … . 

PD: That’s the smaller models, with less waste?

MP: Yeah, fast-breeder, thorium fuel cycle. But my point is that while there’s reflexive denial among conservatives over climate change, liberals have their own sealed iron door when it comes to nuclear. Most have no awareness at all about the vast improvements that have been made and refuse to consider it even in the face of statistics on fossil fuel pollution, mortality rates and climate change. Brand’s point is that solar and wind, God bless them, are decades from producing energy on a scale to offset the power we’re getting from oil and coal.

PD: Everything should be on the table. There’s no limit to what we can do. We have the entrepreneurs. We have the technology. But what we don’t have is the political will.

MP: When you got out of the local TV gig, with success tied to popularity, did you worry at all that being a “poster boy” for climate change would have a negative impact on the businesses you created?

PD: No. But I try not to club people over the head with it. But where there is an opportunity to connect the dots, I usually take it. What I tell my conservative friends is that it’s a threat and an opportunity, and that there will be trillions of dollars made by companies trying to come up with solutions.

MP: And what’s their reaction? They don’t believe it?

PD: The smart ones understand it, and are out there looking for opportunities. Look at water. It’s not something anyone is taking for granted anymore. There are hundreds of new technologies being applied to cleaning water. Climate-change resistant infrastructure. Fortifying coastal architecture. This is going to affect everything we do, so I’m trying to put my money where my mouth is. Some of the work we do at my companies deals directly with weather extremes and helping people prepare for it long-term.  

MP: A straight forecasting question. I hear so much about how the “European model” is or has been so much more accurate than those created here in the States. Why is that? Are they using completely different information?

PD: Yup. Different physics and better initialization. They’ve done a much better job of using current observations to put better quality data into the model. It’s the old junk-in, junk-out maxim. The higher the resolution of the data you put in, the initialization, the better the outcome. But the Europeans, to their credit, have focused on one model. It’s called Integrated Forecast System, the IFS. They have one model. All the time and resources has gone into developing one that is as good as humanly possible. It’s a European Union consortium. Thirty countries. By contrast, here, NOAA has dozens and dozens of models. It’s kind of entrepreneurial. Let the best model win. Slightly different physics. A different model for tracking hurricanes. A different model for tracking global weather. Another for U.S. weather. Much of the challenge is in deciding which model to believe. We’re drowning in data.

MP: It sounds like you approve of the way the Europeans have done it.

PD: Well, I just go off results. It doesn’t make me happy to acknowledge that up until recently the Europeans have done a better job. But now NOAA just got $45 million from Congress. They upgraded two supercomputers.

MP: $45 million sounds like something out of the change jar.

PD: Yeah. The federal government could find that in the cushions. But I think it’ll help.

MP: I assume you run into old colleagues and competitors in the TV weather game. What do they say to you, particularly about not having to operate under the constraints they do? Never mentioning something so critically important as climate change?

PD: Well look, these are good, intelligent people. On occasion someone will tell me they envy me being out of the TV business. And some of them have told me in no uncertain terms that they’re not allowed to talk about it. But for me, well, I think the truth matters. There are some things more important than ratings, and life is not a popularity contest.

MP: Look, I don’t want to belabor the local TV thing. But in the context of who is struggling to accept climate change, I have to think that since the audience for local TV is generally older … 

PD: Yes.

MP: And, I suspect, less well-informed on complex scientific issues, it remains an important audience to educate properly, instead of pandering to partisan prejudices. It just strikes me as irresponsible.

PD: It’s a little analogous to talking about civil rights in the 1960s. But it is true the American public is not being well-informed. I’ll tell you, Brian, I don’t talk to many people under the age of 35 who question climate science. And of course, it’s not just climate change. Pick your topic. It’s also vaccines. GMO foods. People accept science up to the point it becomes political. It’s funny. I’ve had a number of appearances on MSNBC lately, with Chris Hayes and Ed Schultz, to talk about extreme weather and to connect the dots with climate change. I think they call because I’m the evangelical Christian Republican who’s concerned about such things. They view me as a curiosity. I think they have sympathy for me. I’m sort of an albino unicorn to them. But what I’m trying to do is convince people that acknowledging climate change doesn’t make you liberal. It makes you literate. I had a Tea Party guy at one my presentations recently. He got up and said, “For everything Paul just mentioned there’s another explanation.” And I had to say that, “You’re welcome to your opinion. You’re entitled to it. But at this point, debating climate science is roughly equivalent to debating gravity.” And the thing is, the “debate,” if you can call it that, really is just here in the United States. China gets it. The debate is over in Europe. Only here, with the powerful vested interests, the special interests and the money in play, is it still a “debate.”

With that we gathered our coats and walked out into the sunny chill. We said our good-byes. Douglas popped the electric door handles on his slightly dirty Tesla, hopped in and headed off to work.