Forecast Calls for Climate-Smart Business (Part 2): Paul Douglas

A boy leaping from a sand dune, Cape Cod, U.S. Photograph by National Geographic Close

A boy leaping from a sand dune, Cape Cod, U.S. Photograph by National Geographic

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A boy leaping from a sand dune, Cape Cod, U.S. Photograph by National Geographic

When will American business wake up to the scientific reality of climate change?

When the common-sense moderate middle wakes up. When pragmatic entrepreneurs and investors realize an intransigent, inflexible and, worst of all, factually incorrect political stance could lose the U.S. global influence and mountains of cash. We risk our technological and engineering -- and moral -- leadership to other countries if we continue to deny and debate established science.

I'm a moderate Republican, a Penn State-trained meteorologist and small-business owner, and I’m disheartened by my party’s refusal to acknowledge the physical evidence of climate change. The denial is disconcerting in and of itself, but it could also have serious and long-term economic consequences.

Action in the U.S. is being held back by a potent concoction of political mendacity about science, misleading talking points from anti-science groups, blind party loyalty (on all sides), investment barriers, century-old energy business models and generation gaps. The 21st century will be won by the nation that solves the energy-and-climate problem -- and the United States is tripping over itself at the starting line.

Something interesting happens once you acknowledge the world is changing: new opportunities emerge. The beauty of free enterprise is that it empowers individuals to take advantage of change. Any smart company or nation is always in what software developers call “perpetual beta,” a state of continuous reinvention and testing of new products, services and business models.

Entrepreneurs new and old thrive on invention and reinvention. They come as young as three-year-old Ever Cat Fuels, in Anoka, Minnesota, which makes fuel from plant oils and animal fats using zircon catalysts. It’s a closed-loop process that uses no water and provides its own power supply. They come as venerable as 120-year-old General Electric, which in May 2005 launched its Ecomagination strategy. The portfolio has generated $85 billion in sales through 2010, in everything from lighting, to solar and wind power, to aviation.

You don’t have to be General Electric to see opportunity. As traditional climate patterns become less predictable, weather forecasting services have vast new opportunities to help. The year 2010 was the world’s most severe since 1816, according to Weather Underground’s Jeff Masters. After a record 14 billion-dollar U.S. disasters in 2011, reinsurers, such as Swiss Re and Willis Re, have warned that extreme weather impacts will only increase. The opportunity for innovation and job-creation is staggering.

That’s why last summer my partners and I launched WeatherNation TV, an information hub for cable television and mobile devices. Our mission: 24/7 storm reports and neighborhood-level forecasts, giving Americans the reliable information streams they need to stay safe in this new “weather-on-steroids” environment.

I launched Smart Energy in 2010. We run hyper-local wind models, so wind farms can predict power loads for the grid with greater reliability and profitability. Commercial real estate can use the models to better anticipate outside weather. Automatic adjustments can save companies 15 percent to 30 percent on energy consumption. Our weather intelligence software saves farmers money by shutting down irrigation when a storm is imminent. I'm putting my money where my mouth is, launching new services to leverage a warmer, stormier, carbon-light world.

Forward-thinking companies are not waiting for congressional approval or poll results. A recent Harvard Business School working paper shows that companies that have sustainability strategies outperform peers that don’t. America’s smartest corporations know a dirty little secret: sustainability is good business.

If we don’t jump on these new opportunities we risk conceding leadership to China, Asia and Europe, where there has been no substantial “debate” about climate science for years. They have accepted the facts as facts.

And the fact is, if we burn the carbon reserves still in the ground our kids and grandkids will inherit a radically different planet. It's a moral, as well as technological challenge. Acknowledging climate science doesn't make you a liberal. It makes you literate. If you’re in business, it can make you richer. If you’re in the military, it will leave you safer.

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, a former Mississippi governor, speaks proudly of the service’s history of taking the U.S. fleet from sail to coal and from coal to oil; of deploying nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines -- and now of making biofuels for jets. “Every single time, from the 1850s to today, you’ve got naysayers... And every single time they’ve been wrong,” Mabus said earlier this year. Half of the Navy's energy consumption, ashore and afloat, will be from alternative energy sources by 2020, he pledged.

My youngest son, Brett, is graduating from the Naval Academy next month, then heading to Pensacola. He’ll be flying choppers or jets; F-18s that can already run on biofuels. The Navy is serious about renewables and alternative fuels. Because it’s the best way forward: protecting our troops, securing supply lines, creating economies of scale that will make biofuels more competitive, leaving the Navy less vulnerable to price shocks in the oil markets. Go Navy! Beat Army.

It’s difficult to understand politicians’ rejection of scientific facts. Maybe they think acknowledging such an all-encompassing environmental issue makes them look weak. But there’s something else that makes them -- and by default, America -- look weak: Losing the race of the century.

Paul Douglas is a Twin Cities meteorologist and the founder of five companies, including WeatherNation TV, a new 24-hour weather channel. Read Part 1 here.

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