Q&A: Weather expert sees free-market solution to climate change

Paul Douglas describes himself as a data-obsessed meteorologist, entrepreneur, author, a Republican, a devout Christian, and a global climate change skeptic-turned-believer.

Douglas spent 11 years as a TV weatherman for NBC’s affiliate in Minneapolis, Minn. While there, he launched a company that produced software for 3D weather graphics. The technology caught the attention of Steven Spielberg, who used the graphics in “Jurassic Park” in 1993. Fellow director Jan de Bont also used it in “Twister” three years later.

He founded or co-founded three other weather-related companies as he’s juggled TV meteorologist jobs since the 1980s, penned newspaper columns and written two books.

He once balked at the notion of climate change.

Groups such as The Heartland Institute, a conservative and libertarian think tank in Chicago, have released volumes of data debunking the theory.

But severe flooding and other weather extremes in Douglas’ home state changed his opinion, making him into a national spokesperson on behalf of environmentalists and climate scientists.

Now he sees himself caught in a politically charged debate over the fate of the planet.

One side says 97 percent of scientists believe global climate change is real. The other side says that statistic is radically inflated.

Douglas recently visited Indianapolis to speak at a Hoosier Environmental Council event.

He sat down with IBJ to discuss Indiana businesses’ and government’s role in environmental stewardship and the climate change debate.

The following are excerpts from the interview.

IBJ: Have you noticed much of a difference between Indiana and Minnesota’s various views on all things environment?

DOUGLAS: I think there may be a little less skepticism [in Minnesota]. It varies.

There are skeptics every where you go, and I tell people “Look, you should be skeptical.”
Healthy skepticism is a good thing, right? Nobody wants to be sold a bill of goods.

But I tell people there’s a difference between skepticism and perpetual cynicism in the face of overwhelming evidence.

And I just tell people my story and say “Look, reach your own conclusion but make sure that your opinion is based on science and not somebody translating science for you or putting a spin on the science.”

I don’t react well to ideology or conspiracy theories. I’m driven by data.

As a business owner, I’m on my fourth weather-related company, and if you don’t react to the data, you’re dead. You’re road kill. You go bankrupt. You lay people off. You have to react to the data, even if the data tells you things that you’re not thrilled about.

And that’s kind of where we stand, I think, with climate change.

It’s become this, almost, litmus test for conservatism: You can’t be a good conservative and still believe that maybe we are altering the earth’s climate and that some of the symptoms are starting to show up with some of these weather extremes.

But I just tell people my story.

I was a skeptic in the ‘80s and the early ‘90s, and by the late ‘90s I started to see things in the weather in Minnesota and nationwide that made me do a double take.

IBJ: As a meteorologist, you were skeptical about changes in the climate? What was your attitude back then? You just didn’t see it as existing?

DOUGLAS: I thought it was maybe a little premature. I didn’t know if we had enough data.

When [environmental scientist] James Hanson testified before Congress, it was 1988, and he talked about climate change.

I thought “That’s interesting. We’ve had a few hot years but can you really tease out a true trend?”

His point was that we are conducting an experiment on the atmosphere. Greenhouse gas levels, CO2 levels haven’t been this high in 3 million years.

And I tell people “Look, scientists are skeptical. Science is organized skepticism. These guys rip each other apart, they shoot down theories, very competitive. And the fact that 97 percent agree on anything is pretty significant.”

The skeptics say “Well, maybe we’ll do something when its 100 percent.”

Well, maybe when it gets to 100 percent, there won’t be much we can do.

And already there’s a significant amount of warming in the pipeline.

If we could somehow magically turn off every coal-fired plant, stop driving combustion engine vehicles, there would still be warming in the pipeline probably for another 100, 150 years before CO2 levels started coming back down.

It’s a complex problem, and it may be one of the most complex threats we’ve ever faced as a species because fossil fuels got us to where we are today: prosperous, rich, thriving, the rest of the world now trying to catch up to our standard of living.

My point is what has worked for the last 150 years isn’t sustainable. And unless you want to relegate your grandkids to a rapidly different planet, we need to get serious about alternatives to fossil fuels.

IBJ: Indiana’s coal industry provides a few thousand jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. How do you transition to renewable energy and keep the states economy in the balance?

DOUGLAS: Well, I’ve seen a lot of studies that suggest that jobs created from new technologies and renewables will far outweigh any jobs lost in the coal industry.

The nature of capitalism is creative destruction. New companies thrive. Older, more mature companies fade away. Nobody has a right to perpetual profit if you’re not adding value and not serving the public or serving business.

I’m not going to demonize the fossil fuel industry. They got us to where we are today.

But is it a sustainable path forward? Probably not. We need to come up with alternatives.

Even in the market place, natural gas, in many cases, is cheaper than coal. It produces half as much carbon pollution. So it’s a step in the right direction and the marketplace is already moving that way.

A lot of coal-fired plants are being retrofitted to natural gas. Why? Because ratepayers save money. The consumers ultimately save money and its more profitable for the utilities if they have more margin.

I genuinely feel bad for coal miners and people that rely on coal, but we have to come up with alternatives.

If it’s done properly, people that are in some of these industries that are being replaced with new technologies will have a chance to be a part of these new initiatives.

It kind of goes back, too, to this notion that you do one thing in life: You go to college, you get your degree and you’re done.

The whole concept of education is changing, now with online education. So I think people have to be flexible and be willing to go to where the opportunities are.

And increasingly, the opportunities are going to be clean tech, green tech, renewables.

Will they provide all of Indiana’s power today? Absolutely not.

The thing that, as an entrepreneur, we can’t even imagine: What new technologies are coming?

We’re a nation of innovators. We fail, we pick ourselves up, we brush ourselves off, we try a different route, and we’re really good at that. In fact, we’re better at that than any country on earth.

And we have to create an environment, I think, where startup companies are going to think of Indiana—where there are incentives, there is a culture that encourages companies to come in and try new ways to try and generate electricity and power the economy.

IBJ: What role do you think the federal government or state government has in terms of incentivizing R&D work in green energy?

DOUGLAS: I don’t think the [federal] government should be picking winners and losers. I think we have to do everything in our power to let the markets work.

Markets are pretty efficient. Local and state government can provide some level of incentives to attract innovators, to attract entrepreneurs who want to settle here and try some things.

But we can’t be in the business of picking winners and losers.

The whole Solyndra debacle left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths.

But [we need to be] creating an environment where people are willing to come and try new things and innovate, because we have to keep innovating. We can’t rely on stuff that worked 20, 50, 100 years ago.

And is that innovation going to happen here in Indiana? Or is it all going to move to Texas or California or God knows where else?

IBJ: You believe consumer demand needs to affect this in terms of telling the companies what they need to do. Power companies are not particularly nimble in their business models—huge capital expenditures for anything that they do, and consumers have to pay. So how do you get over the obstacle where people want to see quick, cheap change, but the companies themselves say they just cannot do that?

DOUGLAS: Right, they can’t do that, without, in some cases, rate increases, which are, obviously, going to be fought.
People want clean air. They want clean water. It seems like a reasonable expectation.

But you’re right, the capital outlays are considerable. There needs to be a return on investment for these utilities.

I think it has to come from consumers. There has to be pent-up demand. Utilities have to hear from their customers, asking for alternatives.

I know it can be politically unpopular, at least today, but we have to start investing in the future. That means natural gas, it means nuclear, it means solar, it means wind, it means biofuels. And it means things that we cannot even imagine today.

I’ve yet to meet anybody who doesn’t want to save money. I don’t care, Tea Party, liberal, everybody wants to save money.

So how do you create a system that incentivizes innovation that saves Indiana’s money while at the same time cleaning up the air in the process?

I think there’s a way to do it. I don’t pretend to have the answer key. It needs to be a homegrown, Indiana solution. What works in Texas is not necessarily going to work in Indiana.

It’s going to be organic. It’s not going to come from Washington, D.C., or the federal government.

It’s going to come from Hoosiers who want change, and maybe are willing to pay a little more for change in the short-term, if in the long-term, they get a return.

That’s how it works today for anything.

You make an investment upfront. Do you get the ROI? … OK, it’s like we’re building a new home and we’re going to put in geothermal. It’s a little more money upfront, but if you’re in the home for at least five years, it pays for itself.

If you can do the math, most rational, God-fearing people will look at the math and say ‘OK. That makes sense.’

IBJ: Who should be presenting the math and the facts and the figures? Who will all people believe? That seems to be an issue—as soon as somebody hears something they disagree with, they brush it off as being a biased source.

DOUGLAS: It has to be somebody, I think, who isn’t trying to sell you something, who doesn’t have a vested interest. And who isn’t necessarily running for office.

I know there seems to be this latent distrust of climate scientists. I’m not sure where that comes from.

But that’s a great question. I wish I had a great answer.

Who do we trust? Preachers?

I’m talking to more churches now than ever—the whole Creation Care [a church-based environmental movement].

Maybe it does come from ministers, from preachers or rabbis or priests. I don’t know.

But we have to find trusted sources who are willing to talk about this and present the argument.

It is a complex argument and people have short attention spans. Get to the punch line. What’s the bottom line? How does this affect me?

My prediction is that Indiana residents are going to see more of the symptoms of a warming climate. It’s not going to be everyday, but there will be more of these extreme events where people do a double take and go ‘Wow, I haven’t seen that before.”

Expect it.

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