Climate out of control 

TV meteorologists talk about climate change: An interview with Paul Douglas, plus four local TV meteorologists

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Paul Douglas is running against the grain.

He is Republican who acknowledges the reality of human-caused climate change. Republicans tend not to agree with the science, despite the overwhelming – 97 percent – consensus among climatologists that human-created emissions are warming the planet, causing climate change and triggering extreme weather.

For example, a Bloomberg national poll released in early October said that while "78 percent of Democrats and 56 percent of independents believe humans are warming the earth … almost two out of three Republicans don't."

The Minneapolis-based Douglas is also a nationally recognized broadcast meteorologist, and the majority of people in his profession don't necessarily acknowledge the level at which humans are causing climate change. According to a 2011 report by the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, only 53 percent of broadcast meteorologists said that human influence plays an important role in climate change – with 34 percent saying climate change is a result of human and natural causes, and only 19 percent saying it is mostly human-caused.

Douglas would place himself with the 19 percenters, adding that he believes "human activities, the burning of fossil fuels and a 40 percent spike in greenhouse gases are having an impact on warming the atmosphere and the oceans – where 90 percent of the warming has gone in the last four decades."

Every day, we get better at connecting the dots of climate change and extreme weather. As NASA's James Hansen said in August: "The deadly European heat wave of 2003, the fiery Russian heat wave of 2010 and catastrophic droughts in Texas and Oklahoma last year can each be attributed to climate change."

Earlier this year, Douglas argued in his blog that Republicans were wrongheaded to ignore climate change. "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," he wrote. "Well, we have good reason to be alarmed."

Later in the year, he wrote a direct message to Mitt Romney via Huffington Post, exhorting the Republican presidential candidate to acknowledge the reality of climate change, and impress upon his party the severity of our current predicament.

"If Mitt Romney is genuine about his promise to 'help you and your family,' he needs to acknowledge this, and work for a solution that will solve both the economic and the climate crisis," Douglas wrote.
We talked to Douglas recently about his stance on climate change, then we contacted a sampling of local meteorologists to get their take on the phenomenon that is, literally, changing the world as we know it.

Jim Poyser: When did you begin to take note of climate change?
Paul Douglas: All of us have different thresholds for when you acknowledge the science. For me it was when James Hansen went before Congress in 1988. I thought he was jumping the gun. I didn't see it. But after living the weather – and that's what any meteorologist does, you live the weather – I just noticed in the mid and late '90s that something had changed.

JP: How so?
PD: It was no longer my grandfather's weather. The rain was falling with greater ferocity. We were seeing more extremes with greater frequency and greater intensity than I had ever witnessed in my career.

So I started digging into the peer-reviewed science and basically came to the conclusion that climate scientists were probably right, that there's just too much evidence.

We are a part of nature. I don't see anywhere in the Bible where it says that we're supposed to dominate nature. The book of Luke says, "We are stewards and we will be accountable for our stewardship." I take that seriously.

When I talk to my friends on both sides of the aisle politically I say, "We're accountable. You should care about this. If you care about your kids and your grandkids, as our parents cared for us, this is not only a scientific issue, it's a moral issue and an ethical issue."

There is something fundamentally immoral about kicking the can down the road and saying, "Well, not enough data and maybe it's real but our kids and our grandkids can clean up our mess."

JP: When did you begin to actually talk about climate change as part of your job as a broadcast meteorologist?

PD: In the late '90s I began including it in my weather statements.

JP: Was anybody else doing it at that time?

PD: No, no. The pervasive feeling at the time was that … if you even mention the term global warming or climate change you will instantly alienate 30 percent of your audience and they will tune out. So, you know, it's kryptonite.

Every day I would get scores of emails like, "Flaming liberal. You crazy crackpot. Why are you buying into this Al Gore conspiracy? You're going to cripple our economy."

It is the equivalent of sticking your finger in the electrical socket. Most of us are conditioned to avoid pain, to avoid controversy. Everybody on television wants to be loved and your contract – whether you're renewed – really depends on your ability to attract an audience. Just by reporting on this you know that you're alienating people with a certain ideology.

This science, as strong as it is, is toxic to a lot of these people who just can't or won't accept peer-reviewed science because it does not fit in with their world view. My entire life I've voted Republican and I'm a moderate Republican, which is kind of an oxymoron these days, but I've been very moderate in my beliefs. I'm fiscally conservative, socially liberal.

JP: Yet you persisted.

PD: I persisted and I continue to persist because the subject is too important. I thought it was ludicrous that this was somehow a litmus test for conservatism.

I remind my Republican friends that Teddy Roosevelt, staunch Republican, founded the National Parks Service. Richard Nixon, say what you will about Dick Nixon, and I'm not a huge Nixon fan, but he started the EPA. There is a history of environmental respect, respect for the environment.

"I'm proud of having been one of the first to recognize that state and national government have a duty to protect our natural resources from the damaging effects of pollution that can accompany industrial development." You know who said that?

JP: Teddy Roosevelt?

PD: Ronald Reagan. July 19, 1984. Somewhere along the way, the Republican Party became totally beholden to fossil fuel interests.

I'm not saying we don't take advantage of our natural resources. The message I'm trying to get out is that by fixating exclusively on fossil fuels, not only are we endangering future generations, we are endangering our competitiveness down the road. Because there is no debate about climate change in Europe or China.

They are moving forward with clean alternatives to creating energy. If we totally focus on mining and drilling and extracting every last bit of carbon at the exclusion of solar and wind and geothermal and battery technology and everything else that's out there, we are going to be crippled as a country competitively. The point I'm trying to make as a jobs creator is that this is a chance to reinvent and retool America, wean ourselves off foreign oil.

I like to think we're at a turning point: the thirst for knowledge about what is happening to the climate is growing.

It's ironic that extreme weather has accomplished what the climate scientists up until now could not. And that is convince a majority of logical, God-fearing Americans that something has changed.

[According to a Yale University poll], four out of five people last year were personally impacted by extreme weather. … One out of three were physically injured by severe weather last year.

This weather-on-steroids environment is getting people to wake up. I keep telling people that trillions of dollars are in play. Fossil fuel companies are scared to death that they're going to be regulated out of existence or that there will be regulations that they can't drill and mine, and that will affect their share price, their stock price, and their ultimate company value.

JP: Are Republicans listening to you?

PD:No. No. Frankly, to some degree I've been, not ostracized, but I think ignored. I'm OK with that. I'm going to keep speaking out, because this is too important.

What I am finding is that younger people, younger conservatives, younger evangelicals are listening. They respond to data. That's one of the first things that I say when I go out and talk. I ask people, "Do you have an open mind? Or is your mind made up and you're going to cherry-pick data to support your ideological beliefs?"

I find that, for most people under the age of 35, this is an issue that they really feel will impact their lives and their kids' lives. They are paying attention. That's why I can't understand why neither Mitt Romney or Barack Obama has really addressed this in the debates. I don't understand it because I think a lot of independents, a lot of people who have not made up their mind could be swayed if one of them came out and said, "Yeah, this is real and we need to address this."

JP: What do you visualize the world being like, 20 years from now?

PD: I think it's going to be a lot different than it is now. There's a significant amount of warming going on in the pipeline. Even if we could somehow magically bring our greenhouse emissions down to zero, I think there's little doubt that we're going to warm at least a degree, maybe a degree and a half. I see no evidence really that we're going to take the steps necessary to mitigate greenhouse gases. I think there's going to be a huge push toward adaption. How do we survive and thrive in this warmer, drier, stormier new world?

That means everything from new drought-resistant crops that can weather the extremes that I know we're going to see. Climate scientists say that this is just the tip of the iceberg. This is just the beginning from what we're seeing. Everything from huge impacts on agriculture to trying to mitigate sea-level rise and levies and storm walls.

As a businessman it's a threat and it's an opportunity and this may be one way to reach some conservatives. If you tell them, "Hey, by being obstinate, by denying the science, you are leaving money on the table. You are overlooking an incredible investment opportunity." I tell my conservative friends that in the Pentagon, insurance circles, there is no debate about the science.

If you ignore this, it's going to show up in your portfolio. You will shoot yourself in the foot with your investments. You have to stay up on the science, you have to listen to new data, otherwise you're going to watch your portfolio shrink. Is that what you want?

JP: What about Superstorm Sandy?

PD: Although you can't prove direct causation with Sandy, in my humble opinion – and that of most of the climate scientists I know – it's a case of systematic causation. We've loaded dice in favor of more extreme storms, heat waves and drought. We've super-sized our weather … the timing, scale and scope of the storm were extraordinary – like nothing I've ever witnessed, a hybrid of hurricane and Nor'easter that is not very well understood.

Sandy was made worse by unusually warm ocean water in the Gulf Stream, and the record melting of polar ice in September may be creating a blocking pattern in the upper atmosphere that favors major storms, especially for the eastern third of the USA – a trend in recent winters. It would have been a major storm without a hurricane in the core, but the combination of Nor'easter powered by temperature extremes and a hurricane powered by warm ocean water created a meteorological bomb that impacted a huge swath of coastline. Again, fairly unprecedented, historically. And the fact that Sandy impacted a densely populated region of the USA meant more people affected, and brought additional media attention.

Weather has always been severe, but now a warmer climate is flavoring ALL weather. The frequency and intensity of extreme weather events is on the rise, and Sandy was just the most recent and visible manifestation of this trend across North America. NOTE: You can read Paul Douglas' blog here.

 

Orlando meteorologists weigh in on climate change

We contacted multiple local TV meteorologists to find out where they stand on the climate-change debate – and to ask them whether they try to bring climate change up when reporting on extreme weather. All interviews by Victor Ocasio.

Tom Terry
chief meteorologist, WFTV Channel 9

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Orlando Weekly: Do you believe our planet is undergoing a significant climate change?
Tom Terry: Yes, and year after year, the facts are bearing this out. As an example, October went down as the fifth warmest globally according to the climate scorekeepers at NOAA. And this is only one small facet of the overall changing conditions the world is experiencing.

OW: Are human actions causing this change?
TT: Though there's still debate as to this, I do believe that man-made or "anthropogenic" causes are mainly responsible for the changes we're seeing globally. Changes in solar radiance from one year to another also play a role. Deforestation, changes in the permanent ice caps, including Greenland's ice sheet, new world modernization, etc., all play a role.

OW: Why do you think there is such a controversy over climate change?
TT: Climate's a tricky thing, because we're talking about long-term changes as opposed to singular or even multiple events. And there are numerous sources for error in decoding the climate of the past, even in the past 50-100 years, as our sensors have gotten much better today. Also, our urban sprawl can make it difficult to compare conditions in similar areas. These are only a few examples. Plus, some experts are simply "all-in" in a certain way of thinking and aren't open to mounting pile of evidence in regard to changes in climate.

OW: Do you think a lot of people deny climate change?
TT: To be honest, I don't come across the topic very often when I talk with people.

OW: What issue relating to climate change concerns you the most?
TT: I think what we have to realize is that we all have to make changes, even subtle ones – I drive a hybrid to work – to help make a difference, but we are only small cogs in a much larger wheel that is the world we live in. Countries such as China and India, who are undergoing rapid modernization, can make far more contributions to the amount of greenhouse emissions than you and I will not contribute. It's a global problem.

OW: Are super storms like Sandy something we are likely to see more frequently?
TT: Yes. … You can't make this place warmer, and that place drier, as an example, without changing all the other weather parameters. Namely, the jet stream. So, it's a feedback mechanism. The more out of balance the world gets, the more rapid and violent the shifts can be to make the weather move back into balance again. So outbreaks and super-outbreaks of hurricanes, tornadoes, drought, heat waves have been – and I think will continue to be – more frequent globally.

OW: Do you make mention of climate change during your forecasts?
TT: I generally don't, mainly due to the format. I have about two and a half minutes to give the weather for the next few days to over 3 million people in our coverage area.

Tom Sorrells
meteorologist, WKMG Local 6

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Orlando Weekly: Do you believe our planet is undergoing a significant climate change?
Tom Sorrells: That's kind of a loaded question. But I do believe our planet has warmed in the last 50 years. I believe it goes through phases and we are currently riding a warm phase.

OW: Why do you think there is such a controversy over climate change?
TS: I think there is inherent controversy over most things we don't have a clear understanding of. … There also stems a huge fight over measures to fix the problem if it is really being caused by our lifestyle.

OW: Do you think a lot of people deny climate change?
TS: The term 'climate change' doesn't actually mean global warming. The phrase 'climate change' has been hijacked by some people and now has come to mean warming in most conversations. But back to your point, it doesn't bother me when people express doubts or deny change. It bothers me when people insist that they know the answer and know it for certain.

OW: What issue relating to climate change concerns you the most?
TS: The issue that gets my attention the most is rising sea levels [and] possible droughts in areas that usually produce huge amounts of food.

OW: Are there holes in theories concerning climate change?
TS: I think both sides in this debate come to the table with research numbers and stats and models that are convincing in the moment. But there are holes in both sides. ... The word 'theory' implies [that] it's unproven. Can't get a much bigger hole than unproven.

OW: Are super storms like Sandy and other extreme weather systems something we are likely to see more frequently?
TS: No, I don't think so. Sandy was a nasty storm, but to tie Sandy to any global-warming agenda is irresponsible. Stronger storms than Sandy have smashed the East coast before. The problem with Sandy was the angle [in which] it hit the coast. The flooding was enormous.

OW: Do you mention climate change during your forecasts?
TS: I try very hard to never mention it in my regular weathercast. ... the topic is so very political and angers so many, that if you don't totally agree with some people, then you are labeled by one side or the other as a nonbeliever, not credible, misinformed, a denier, a believer, etc. It's a dangerous game. I did a piece on possible connections to global warming in my hurricane special a year ago and got overwhelmed with angry email ... from both sides of the issue. At the end of the day, I think much of our changing climate will produce "global weirdness" instead of global warming. Sandy was weird but not unprecedented. Sometimes if a record high is from the 1930s or 1940s I will point out, "Wow ... that was hot. That was before global warming!"

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Ali Turiano
Meteorologist, CF News13

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Orlando Weekly: Do you believe our planet is undergoing a significant climate change?
Ali Turiano: I believe there have been changes to the climate, but it is hard to say that the changes are significant.
Climate data has only been collected for less than 200 years. That is just a small sample of data to make such a profound statement.

OW: Are human actions causing this change?
AT: Human actions may add to these changes. I do not think humans are the only variable to the planet's climate change.

OW: Why do you think there is such a controversy over climate change?
AT: I think there is always controversy over topics people do not fully understand. Often times, opinions more than facts, can add to the controversy. On top of that, studies have counteracted each other, making it difficult for understanding of the subject.

OW: Do you think a lot of people deny climate change?
AT: In my career, I have met more people that believe the climate is changing. They are intrigued and interested in learning about weather and climate.

OW: What issue relating to climate change concerns you the most?  
AT: I'm a numbers girl … meaning I just don't think there is enough data for any one stance on climate change. This planet has been evolving for 4.6 billion years. Who's to say how and/or if the climate is supposed to change?

The bottom line is that there are more people inhabiting areas across the globe than ever before. More weather phenomena will be seen and impact more people just because of that fact, which may skew numbers in the long run.

OW: Are super storms like Sandy something we are likely to see more frequently?
AT: That is a great question.
Category One hurricanes are not that rare. In the past 30 years, the Atlantic Basin has averaged six hurricanes each season. It is more likely that many hurricanes in the past were powerful, but no observations of the storms were ever recorded. I go back to averages are not set in stone.

OW: Do you mention climate change during your forecasts?
AT: No. I do not think it is my place to mention climate change, since that is not my area of expertise.

 

OW: Why do you think TV meteorologists avoid mention of climate change in their forecasts?
AT: It most likely is not their area of expertise either. Plus, I think in our two-minute segments, viewers would rather hear about what that can expect today. To me, it would be more important to speak of an imminent storm danger.

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Tony Mainolfi,
Chief meteorologist, WESH-TV2

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Orlando Weekly: Do you believe our planet is undergoing a significant climate change?
Tony Mainolfi: There is no doubt that the planet is undergoing some sort of climate change. … It's likely been going on since the start of the industrial revolution, with the advent of automobiles, planes, factories and many other man-made chemicals. With today's technology, we are better able to look at the Earth's atmosphere and really gage what's going on. Satellites and computer modeling are showing us the change that's taking place around the globe. The extent to which it's accurate may be up for debate but the evidence does show that change is happening.

OW: Do you think a lot of people deny climate change?
TM: I'm not sure how many people are denying climate change but denying that it's happening is potentially a big mistake and that's why we need to monitor Earth's changes to see if this is a cyclical process that happens over hundreds or thousands of years, or something that's man made and potentially life-threatening.

OW: Are super storms like Sandy something we are likely to see more frequently?
TM: It seems to me that any big storm these days is being called a super storm. If you look back over the last 100 years of the modern era there have been many bad storms … Sandy was a bad storm, but so were Camile, Donna, Charley, Frances, Jean, Andrew, Katrina. I'm not so sure if the frequency of large storms will change but with more cable outlets and cameras in the field pictures and views of damage will certainly be increasing.

OW: Do you mention climate change during your forecasts?
TM: I only have about two minutes and 30 seconds for the weather each night, so I don't normally show much in the way of climate change info in my weathercasts. … That's not to say that I wouldn't. If there is a good story to tell or look at then it will be in my broadcast.

Local meteorologist interviews by Victor Ocasio

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