Tilting Against the Wind

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image by Travis Anderson / www.travisandersonphoto.com

To hear a full interview with Paul Douglas, visit Utne.com/Douglas.

Paul Douglas is a weatherman, and this is his long-term forecast: “Our kids and grandkids are going to live in a different world.” Meaning a warmer world, for the 51-year-old Minnesotan believes the earth’s climate is changing, and we are to blame.

It’s a position that puts him at odds with some of his weather­caster brethren, who are surprisingly likely to be skeptics on the issue, whether privately or publicly (see main story). Douglas feels beholden to make climate change a part of the “weather story” he tells daily.

“As television station meteorologists, we have an obligation to reflect the scientific consensus that climate change is taking place,” he says. “I think many of my colleagues who are misrepresenting the science are being shortsighted.”

Douglas has a platform different from most weathercasters’, and thus more freedom than many to speak his mind. He once was a traditional weatherman on a Minneapolis network affiliate, WCCO-TV, but after being “outsourced” he became the CEO and star talent of WeatherNation, a company that delivers tailor-made online forecasts to TV stations, cable channels, websites, and newspapers in 27 U.S. markets. So he’s basically the “local” weatherman in many areas, and along with his forecasts he delivers nuggets of climate-change information.

Douglas often takes pains to point out the difference between weather–what we see outside our window–and climate, the long-term atmospheric changes that play out over decades or centuries. He delivers more pointed messages, too. One of his newspaper forecasts for the Minneapolis Star Tribune was titled “Keeping an Open Mind” and began:

 “As a Christian and recovering Republican, many people ask how I can possibly believe that climate change is real. My answer: There is a place for science, and peer-reviewed climate scientists have spoken.”

Many TV weathercasters never touch climate change in their forecasts, let alone politics or religion. His candor is proof that Douglas is a man who believes it’s time to stop dancing around difficult topics and get down to talking about them. The son of a conservative household who still more closely identifies with Republicans than with Democrats, he rues the fact that climate change has become a partisan topic.

“Science is science,” he says. “How has this become a political litmus test? I think a lot of it stems from Al Gore. Al Gore is the best thing and the worst thing that ever happened to climate science. People think that for me to buy in to climate science, I have to endorse Al Gore.”

Douglas believes there might be something to the theory that meteorologists are keenly aware of the limitations of computer models in day-to-day weather forecasting.

“We get burned so often with these models, just trying to predict what’s going to happen tomorrow, I think there’s a natural skepticism that is hard for some meteorologists to avoid,” he says. “They’re very wary of modeling in general, and so they equate short-term model discrepancies and errors [with] larger climate models, which look 20, 30, 50 years into the future. It’s simplistic to have that mind-set, but there is a built-in skepticism about models in general.”

Ultimately, this weatherman’s climate change awareness campaign is not just a scientific but also a moral imperative.

“My grandkids are going to be pissed,” he says. “They’re going to ask what did you know, when did you know, and what did you do about it? Did you sit on your hands? Did you deny this? Or did you open your mouth and at least try to point out that something is going on here that we ignore at our peril?”

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