A Meteorologist’s (and Entrepreneur’s) Take on a Media Question

A prominent and entrepreneurial Twin Cities meteorologist responds in depth to a question from a journalist seeking opinions on whether climate scientists should engage with the media and the public on policy issues.

A journalist, not identified, sought referrals from the Climate Science Rapid Response Team concerning whether scientists should engage with the public and the media and even express their views on political and policy issues. CSRRT co-founder Scott Mandia sent the question out to several climatologists for their responses to the reporter. That is, after all, what CSRRT does — match reporters and climate scientists, steering media questions to a wide-reaching stable of climate scientists for them to respond to technical questions.

In this case, Mandia subsequently also sent the inquiry to meteorologist Paul Douglas in Minnesota, the meteorologist who some time ago attracted national attention as a “Republican meteorologist” fully on board with the scientific evidence on climate change. Further veering from CSRRT common practices, Mandia subsequently sought and received Douglas’ approval to quote the latter’s full response on the CSRRT website and distribute it via e-mail. Both Mandia and Douglas, the author of the response, gave permission to The Yale Forum to repost it here verbatim:

graphic
Paul Douglas: ‘I believe we have an obligation to translate the implications of science, not only what it is — but what it means.’

My name is Paul Douglas. Scott Mandia suggested I drop you a quick note in response to your recent CSRRT [Climate Science Rapid Response Team] inquiry. I’m not a climate scientist; I’m a Penn State meteorologist and an entrepreneur who has launched a series of weather/technology companies over the years. I’ve been talking about weather trends; how what I’ve been witnessing on the weather maps since the 1990s dovetails with what climate models have been predicting all along. I began talking about these trends on WCCO-TV and The Star Tribune in the Twin Cities back in the late 90s, and immediately got push-back from a minority of viewers and readers who felt somehow threatened by the science. I still write a daily weather and climate science blog, and produce a daily 2:30 video segment on meteorology and climate science for our new national weather channel, WeatherNation TV.

I talk to 50+ organizations about weather and climate trends during a typical year across the Upper Midwest, and still hear a fair amount of skepticism, cynicism and outright science denial. As a meteorologist I have an obligation to be scientifically accurate, to explain the trends and most likely triggers as competently as possible. Communication, especially of complex scientific issues, is always challenging, but I believe we have an obligation to translate the implications of science, not only what it is — but what it means. The implications. It would be like a heart surgeon telling a patient he has an irregular heartbeat, and then leaving out the part of an implantable stent and going on a statin. I’m a meteorologist, but I haven’t renounced my citizenship. As such I speak out about issues, trying to highlight the signal amidst the noise. And there’s an awful lot of noise, confusion, obfuscation and (deliberate, well-funded and orchestrated) denial out there today, because of policy implications, and the sheer amount of money in the energy sector that’s in play. Trillions of dollars of carbon potentially at risk.

As an entrepreneur if I don’t respect the data and see the business world as it really is, not as I’d like it to be, I become road kill. My venture quickly goes out of business and I have to lay off good people. So it is with science, which, like nature, never moves in a straight line. But I tell people the truth as I perceive it to be. The data is the data. If we don’t react to facts on the ground and listen to professional scientists, including climate scientists, and base policy decisions on a careful and deliberate attempt to document observed changes/causes using the scientific method, we’re setting ourselves up for failure on a planetary scale.

To the heart of your question, why don’t more climate scientists enter into the public debate? Because the debate is over. It’s the moral and scientific equivalent of debating gravity. The experts have spoken, and because a very small minority of stakeholders and shareholders don’t care for the implications there is vociferous push-back from certain special interests. I worked in television news for 35 years. Mainstream media likes a good on-air food-fight, a protagonist and antagonist, shouting at each other about their world views. It attracts curiosity and eyeballs — it’s ultimately good for ratings. But it’s a false equivalent, and it’s a terrible way to conduct science. We put a handful of (paid) climate skeptics and industry lobbyists on a stage with thousands of the world’s leading climate PhD’s, and think this is somehow serving the public interest? It’s not. It’s creating more confusion, more delay and more denial, as viewers and readers pick and choose their reality as easily as changing channels on their TV or grazing over their morning horoscope. I can absolutely understand why more professionals don’t want to subject themselves to inane banter with science-deniers.

When I talk to groups and individuals I tell them the truth: it’s good to be skeptical. In a day and age of hackers, scams, media spin and political lobbyists people should be skeptical — it’s a necessary self-defense mechanism these days. And then I remind them that the most skeptical people on the planet are scientists. Science is organized skepticism. The fact that thousands of experts agree on not only climate trends, but the triggers (burning of fossil fuels) is extremely significant.

[Nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur] Schopenhauer once said that all truth goes through 3 stages: first it is ridiculed, then violently opposed, then finally accepted as self-evident. We are at the end of Stage 2. Manufactured doubt and industry push-back is preventing us from taking the planetary actions necessary to avoid even more disastrous climate volatility. When sea walls go up around Manhattan and Miami, when a large western city runs out of water or goes up in flames, when crops fail year after year across the Midwest and cruise ships packed with curious gawkers routinely sail across the North Pole, maybe the professional denialists will move on to their next target.

Not sure if that answers your question — just wanted to offer up my opinion. Let me know if there’s anything else I can do to help.

Paul Douglas
Founder, President
Media Logic Group LLC

Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Meteorologist’s (and Entrepreneur’s) Take on a Media Question

  1. Bob Bingham says:

    I also do talks to local groups but frankly I find it a bit depressing to tell a roomful of really nice people that we have put a huge pulse of CO2 into the atmosphere and it is changing the climate to give drought and floods. I also talk to schools and for those I stick to the science of how it works and not the outcome. The youngsters are fully aware and ask very astute questions.

  2. Paul Quigg says:

    Why anyone is spending time on the “denial” question is beyond me. The real crime is the thinking that mitigation efforts today will have some effect in the near term. The incredible inertia in the GHG atmospheric lifetimes, the energy sector, plus the limited impact of alternative energy are shown in all governmental projections. but that message is not getting out. Global warming or no global warming, we are going to have many catastrophic weather events in the future and adaption efforts can save lives and billions of dollars. Bloomberg ordered a study by the Urban Land Institute in response to “Sandy” and their recommendations were heavy with adaptation proposals. A dollar spent on adaptation today could have an immediate effect as opposed to mitigation dollars which could have a tiny impact generations from today.

  3. Nullius in Verba says:

    “It’s the moral and scientific equivalent of debating gravity.”

    The debate on gravity isn’t over.

    Quantum gravity is still an open problem, there is still controversy over dark matter versus MOND (modified Newtonian dynamics) variants on the force law, and scientists still think it worth their while to put very expensive experiments up in space (gravity probe B) to test various of the more obscure predictions of the current theory. It’s still impossible to solve the 3-body problem, and new implications of even the classical parts (such as low-energy chaotic orbits) are still being discovered. The debate is never ‘over’ in science.

    “When sea walls go up around Manhattan and Miami, when a large western city runs out of water or goes up in flames, when crops fail year after year across the Midwest and cruise ships packed with curious gawkers routinely sail across the North Pole, maybe the professional denialists will move on to their next target.”

    I think the crop failures were originally predicted to occur by the mid-1990s, yes? And an ice-free Arctic by 2013? So those ones have presumably already happened.

    Manhattan is interesting, because it’s largely built on reclaimed land. Over the years since it was first settled, the island has actually grown considerably. I will be very interested to see how that one comes about.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>