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Forecasting Change: A Meteorologist and an Artist on the Climate Crisis

By Paul Schmelzer

Paul Douglas considers himself an “albino unicorn.” A moderate Republican, he’s also a meteorologist who believes climate change is real. That position was met with scorn by some of the right, who called him a “RINO [Republican In Name Only] climate poser,” a “global warming hoax promoter,” and worse. Theater artist and musician Cynthia Hopkins didn’t need much convincing about the dire consequences we face if we don’t address the climate crisis, but two events were pivotal in pushing her to take up the subject in her art—a talk on sustainability at the 2009 Tipping Point conference and a residency with Cape Farewell, a program that aims to “instigate a cultural response to climate change.” In 2010, she joined Cape Farewell’s Arctic Expedition, in which artists and marine scientists experienced the very environment most threatened by global warming.

While their career paths are sharply divergent, Douglas and Hopkins share twin tools when addressing climate change—science and spirituality. A longtime fixture in Twin Cities media, Douglas is founder of the Media Logic Group, which runs several companies dedicated to collecting, analyzing, and presenting weather data. He’s also an evangelical Christian, and biblical principles of environmental stewardship shape his stance on global warming. While deeply informed by research, Hopkins aims for a “wider, vaster lens” in her new work, the Walker co-commissioned music-theater piece This Clement World, which she says looks at both the spiritual and scientific sides of the issue. In advance of the Midwest premiere of This Clement World, Douglas and Hopkins sat down with Walker web editor Paul Schmelzer to discuss their personal climate journeys and ways that art and science can cooperate in changing minds about a changing planet.

Paul Schmelzer

As soon as someone takes on “political” themes in their art, the perception of the work’s goals often seems to change: it’s not art for art’s sake but includes an element of advocacy. Cynthia, do you notice that audiences or critics respond to the premise of this piece differently than past works? What is your aim with the work as a whole, and how does advocacy—the changing of minds—factor in?

Cynthia Hopkins

I’m always baffled when I hear this issue is politicized. I think it’s only politicized insofar as politics is so influenced by the financial markets, and I think that’s sad and horrifying. I don’t think of it as a political issue. I’m just transmitting a disturbance I’ve been learning about. I’m filtering that information through my own perspective and experiences and transforming it into a work that hopefully inspires people to learn more on their own. I wouldn’t call it a political piece. In terms of effect, I make a strident effort to ignore any idea of how something might come across when I’m making it because I find that to be a poison that can destroy the process. I think that is the advantage of art as a form of communication, in distinction from political, journalistic, or even scientific communications, because there isn’t an agenda. I’m in service to the work itself, and the work is like an organism. It’s not a means to an end.

Schmelzer

Paul, your “climate epiphany”—as you wrote in a popular essay in the Huffington Post last spring—was quite gradual. Tell us about it.

Paul Douglas

I was skeptical in the ’80s. In the ’90s, I saw evidence—just tracking the weather day in and day out—that something had changed, and these changes were consistent with what climate scientists have been saying for 20 or 30 years. Then I dug into the peer-reviewed research and came to the conclusion—independently, before Al Gore made his movie—that, hey, this is real. This is a real trend, and we ignore it at our peril. My politics are moderate. I’m fiscally conservative and socially progressive. I’m also an evangelical Christian and I’m concerned about climate change—which basically makes me an albino unicorn. I feel like that some days. “Wow, you’re a freak!” But, you know what, there are a lot of Republicans out there, especially anybody under the age of 30 or 35, who still respect science and the scientific method.

A lot of this comes down to science literacy, and the fact that many Americans really aren’t willing to dig into the science. It’s much easier to turn on a cable news show with bloviating talking heads going back and forth, and it’s kind of sad. You know what’s ironic? Mother Nature is now accomplishing what climate scientists have had a hard time doing—getting people’s attention. The past two years have been the most extreme, weather-wise, in America’s history. In 2011, four out of five Americans surveyed personally witnessed severe weather. One out of three were personally injured by severe weather. We’ve had $188 billion in severe-weather damage in the last two years, so Mother Nature is accomplishing what climate scientists cannot, and that is, convince a majority of rational, god-fearing people that something has changed. It’s not your grandfather’s weather.

Schmelzer

Environmentalists of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s came to understand the power of imagery as a rhetorical tool. Striking photography of photogenic animals coated in oil, toxic rivers on fire, and formerly pristine forests clear-cut played a key role in changing minds on the environment. It was argued around the turn of the millennium that the gradual nature of climate change—as well as the distance we are from places where its effects are most prominent (the Arctic, say)—meant that those tactics were less effective. Perhaps that’s changing again, with dramatic events such as Hurricane Sandy or Katrina, and with social media making us more connected. Take the movie Chasing Ice, about photographer James Balog, who documented Arctic glaciers melting using 25 time-lapse cameras over three years. One scene—showing the “calving” of a glacier the size of the island of Manhattan—went viral, getting more than 3.7 million views on YouTube. Could you talk about that—about how activists and artists have a new set of tools, which is a dramatic set of images and videos?

Douglas

I’ve seen that. It’s breathtaking. But I think the most effective image, especially for a denier over the age of 55 or 60, is a photograph of their grandkids. There are nearly 1,000 references in the Bible—Old Testament and New Testament—to caring for God’s creation. A thousand. For me, that’s powerful. Are you looking out for your kids or your grandkids, or is it, “Hey, let’s get the most we can grab right now and to hell with future generations”? We’re accountable. My dad taught me that actions have consequences. You can’t pump trillions of tons of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere and pretend it’s not going to come back and bite us. It’s biting us in the weather.

[German philosopher Arthur] Schopenhauer said something once that really resonates with me: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” And we are now coming out of phase two. And it’s because—as Cynthia said—so much money is on the line. You’ve got the largest corporations that have ever been on the planet, and their business model is in danger. They feel threatened. They don’t want to be regulated out of existence, so they’re fighting back. They’re keeping this confusion going, and they’re funding this ongoing confusion. It’s not just springing up organically. We’re talking about tens, maybe hundreds of millions of dollars going into these think tanks, the Heritage Foundation–type enterprises that made the news last year, that are keeping confusion going. It’s like the tobacco debate that Philip Morris had in the ’70s times 10,000, because there’s so much more money on the line. That’s why we have so much push back right now in this country.

I often ask people, “How much evidence is enough? How much do you need?” The North Pole Arctic ice has lost four fifths of its volume since 1979. Ninety percent of the world’s glaciers are shrinking. Sea level has risen 8 to 12 inches depending on the location. The oceans are warmer, the oceans are more acidic, coral reefs are dying. We’ve got all these fingerprints out there. For me, it’s been an accumulation of coincidences.

Schmelzer

Cynthia, tell us about your trip to the Arctic. I’m curious, with Paul’s reference to the photo of grandchildren, how being near these massive ancient glaciers gave you a long view of the planet or of our humanity.

Hopkins

One of the tricky issues with comprehending climate change is that it stretches beyond the scope of my lifetime or your lifetime or any human lifetime. It’s difficult enough to grasp one’s individual mortality—that’s challenging for most people, because it’s scary—and it’s even more difficult to grasp the mortality of us as a species and of the clemency of the planet. It’s clear that the clemency of the planet is not only unstable, but it’s being directly influenced by our actions, which is really hard to conceive.

One of the things that struck me about being in the arctic landscape was, because it’s a place that has never been inhabited by humans, it’s a very stark reminder that we haven’t always been here and that, in fact, perhaps we won’t always be here. It really brings that home in a visceral way. The initial thing that made me want to make a piece about climate change was the Tipping Point conference and one of the speeches that was given was by a guy named Jeffrey Sachs, who writes about sustainability. He said that the way art can contribute to this issue is that it can communicate in a different way than science or journalism can. And I think that art can communicate a shift in consciousness or it can enact a shift in consciousness. In other words, it can widen the scope of your mind to encompass future generations and past generations. It can open up the scope, in terms of time and space. This piece goes to the end of the earth, in terms of the imagery, and brings people to a place that they wouldn’t normally be able to see, which is one of the poles. But, it also has a character from outer space, who’s not from Earth. It has a character from 200 years in the future and a character from 200 years in the past. So, that’s something that can be accomplished in a fictional scenario that wouldn’t wind its way into a scientific paper, because it’s fiction. But, in other words, what my hope is that it widens the perspective of the audience to include this larger time scale, which is what is involved in this issue.

Schmelzer

You also play a Native American character. That strikes me as another use of fiction …

Hopkins

One of the things that character represents is a civilization that once flourished and then was decimated. So, it represents the mortality of a way of life. What I hope is that it makes it really palpable that our way of life is not stable or set in stone or the way that it’s always going to be or should be. I was interested to hear Paul’s reference to the Bible and the stewardship of the earth as a holy and sacred practice. The Native American character, too, brings up a way of life and a spiritual practice that honored and revered the earth with a recognition of the interdependence between ourselves and the natural world. To me, modern civilization, or a capitalist society, without a conscience is suicidal.

Douglas

Amen to that.

Hopkins

And it’s tricky, because we do have these financial cycles that everybody’s beholden to. What happened with the financial crisis in some ways fills me with horror, but in other ways fills me with hope. I make this analogy in the piece to alcoholism and drug addiction. I’m an alcoholic in recovery, so that’s one of the ways that I relate to this issue. I see a way of life that’s not sustainable, but that we’re enthralled in it, so it’s very difficult to change. It’s a habitual way of life. Our whole structure is embedded, and if you’re an oil company, or someone who works for an oil company, you’re really deeply embedded in and invested in it. And so, in terms of that metaphor, what causes a person who is an alcoholic or drug addict to change their behavior? It’s usually that things get so bad that any alternative is worth trying. And so when I’ve been working on this project, over these years, I keep thinking we need to find a way to hit bottom.

There’s a song in the piece where I elaborate on that metaphor. The first half of the song has to do with an individual recovering, the second with this societal recovery. In the first half I sing, “Things went wrong faster than I could lower my standards.” And that’s one definition of bottom. You can’t justify any more. You can’t lower your standards fast enough. And then in the second half of the song I say, in terms of society, we’re lowering our standards faster than things are getting worse. Like, right now we’re saying, “Yeah! We’ll go a hundred miles into the ocean to get this stuff. We’ll spend billions of dollars to inject chemicals into the ground to get gas out of it.” That’s lowering our standards. We’re going to go to the end of the earth to get this stuff that’s getting harder and harder to get, and spending unbelievable amounts of money to do that in order to continue burning it, when we know that burning it is causing our planet to become a less hospitable place. That’s insane behavior!

Schmelzer

What’s the equivalent of that, if you’re an alcoholic or drug addict?

Hopkins

You’re living on the street and you’ve got nothing, so you’re going to rob your grandmother’s purse so you can continue to get this stuff that’s killing you.

Schmelzer

Paul, as a Republican, what do you think the government’s role should be in addressing climate change? Subsidies? Regulation of carbon emissions?

Douglas

Government has to set the parameters and somehow put a price on pollutants. We did that with the ozone hole, with chlorofluorocarbons. Scientists of the world got together and said, “These chemicals are eating away at the ozone layer.” This was in the ’70s, and we came up with a treaty and we banned certain chemicals. The ozone hole is still there, but it’s not as big as it was then. Same thing with acid rain in the ’70s and ’80s. The Republicans passed a version of cap-and-trade for acid rain, and those pollutants have come down. Once we find a way to put a price on greenhouse-gas pollutants—whether it’s a tax, cap-and-trade, or a revenue-neutral kind of tax—the markets will figure it out. I’m optimistic that once the government comes in and finds a creative way, one that doesn’t blow up the economy, to put a price on carbon, the markets will react and come up with solutions. I’m not a policy wonk. I’m a bewildered meteorologist; I don’t have all the answers. I just know things are changing, and we ignore these changes at our long-term peril.

Schmelzer

Cynthia, how much did scientific data or facts play a role in the creation of your work?

Hopkins

For me, the information played a vital role. The funny thing about the whole debate and misinformation around this issue is that if you really do research for, like five minutes, it becomes pretty clear what’s happening. Even just the Keeling Curve—the fact that CO2 is measured in the atmosphere every year over a period of years and there’s more and more of it every year. It’s been proven that CO2 is emitted when fossil fuels are burned. It’s not—

Douglas

It’s not rocket science! It’s basic physics!

Hopkins

It’s really not rocket science. It is a complex issue and there are a lot of factors involved. But on the other hand, it doesn’t take a huge amount of research to understand what’s going on. My feeling, in terms of what I do, is that this information is out there in vast volumes, so I feel like what I can do is more on the spiritual side or this vaster, wider lens. What I make are pieces that have music and they exist in time. They’re time-based pieces, so they’re experiential and they have a visceral effect and an emotional effect, as well as an intellectual effect. I feel like that’s what I can contribute—a communication that fires on all those multiple levels.

Douglas

Interesting. I have a presentation with 100 slides showing the data, showing the trends: the ice is not on the lakes as long; it’s not getting as cold in the winter; we’re now in a new climate zone. We’re in Climate Zone 5 in the Twin Cities—stuff’s growing here that wasn’t growing 40 years ago. But at some point, people tune out. Their eyes glaze over. So we need new, effective ways to reach people and to get them to internalize this.

Maybe that’s where the spiritual comes in. We’re addicted to fossil fuels and we’re addicted to debt, $16.5 trillion in debt. I acknowledge that this is a huge issue. But what about environmental debt? What we’re bequeathing to future generations. I often close my talks with this: “I’m a weatherman, I’m wrong a lot.” It’s a steep learning curve. But here’s a forecast with 100% accuracy: at some point, your kid or your grandkid will come to you and say, on this subject—climate change—“What did you know, when, and what did you do? Did you sit on your hands? Did you continue business as usual? Or were you part of the solution?” I want to pass the red-face test with future grandkids—that I did everything in my power to let people know that this is a real issue, that there are solutions. I applaud Cynthia for what she’s doing because it’s pretty obvious to me now that the current methods of trying to reach people—hitting them over the head with science—some people respond to that well, others tune out. We need find other, effective ways to reach people where they live and to personalize this in a way maybe science can’t do now.

Schmelzer

In your Huffington Post piece of March 2012, you mentioned a climate conversation you had with John McCain.

Douglas

Yes, in Minneapolis. We were welcoming Iraq War vets back and it was a banquet in their honor, and I was sitting at the table with John McCain, who’s always been something of a hero. I knew at that point, in 2007, there was very little debate, even among Republicans, and John McCain was like, “Yeah, we’ve got a problem. Climate change is real.” So I tested him over dessert. I said, “Senator McCain, is it possible, is there even a chance that this could be a natural cycle, that this could be a fluke, an aberration?” He looked at me, rolled his eyes, and chuckled. “Paul, I just got back from the Yukon, where a village elder presented me with a 4,000-year-old tomahawk that just melted from the permafrost. This is no natural cycle. Next question.”

Here’s the thing: if John McCain made the movie instead of Al Gore, would we be where we are today? Would Democrats be denying the science, if John McCain made the movie? I don’t think so. I hope not. It’s ludicrous. There’s still that reaction, that it’s got to be some Democratic plot to regulate us to death and expand the government. It’s not. It’s a threat and it’s an opportunity. It’s a chance to reinvigorate and reinvent our economy. At some point, even the cynics will figure that out. I just don’t know how long it will take or how many more Sandys it’s going to take to shake people out of this sense that we can continue as is indefinitely. Because we can’t. The whole addiction thing really resonates with me. We’ve become a planet of fossil fools.

I refuse to believe that we have to rely on 19th-century extraction technology to power our economy in the 21st century. Really?! You’ve gotta be kidding me. We’ve gotta suck stuff out of the ground to keep the lights on? We have the technology. What we don’t have is the political will. I’m hoping that Obama will do everything he can…

Schmelzer

President Obama mentioning it in an inaugural speech—especially as forcefully as he did—is promising, yes?

Douglas

Yeah, as long as it’s backed up by action. With the logjam and the mess that has become Congress, he can’t get anything through there. But he can uphold the Clean Air Act that Congress approved 40 years ago. And do some things via the EPA. We’ll see. A big test is going to be this Keystone XL pipeline. I didn’t realize this, but the tar sands of Canada have seven times more oil than Saudi Arabia. Most of that stuff is exported out of the United States. It’s not like it’s going to bring our costs down. That, to me, is going to be the acid test, if the president is serious about his legacy.

Schmelzer

Isn’t the extraction of oil from tar sands so intensive that it it’s kind of like the junkie robbing from grandma to get a fix?

Douglas

Absolutely. It’s the dirtiest oil. I realize Canada is our number-one trading partner, but on some level you don’t want to piss off your allies. But where is that line in the sand? … In the tar sand.

Schmelzer

The title of Cynthia’s work, This Clement World—which is taken from Carl Sagan—sounds hopeful, like the Earth is resilient and actually forgives us for all that we’ve done to it. In wrapping up our conversation, Cynthia, could you talk about the title? And then could you both weigh in on whether we can have hope facing the challenges of climate change or whether we’re screwed?

Hopkins

I have a great deal of hope, and I think it’s a very hopeful piece. When we were talking about data versus art in terms of communication, that’s one thing that an artistic or a narrative communication can offer: these rays of hope. I think the hard science can be overwhelming and can make you want to run screaming from it. What I hope is that what this piece can offer—and what artistic communication on this subject can offer—is a larger vision of the resilience of the Earth, but also a vision that fundamental change is possible.

In Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, he’s telling the story of how we came to understand where we are in the universe. It’s basically the history of science. And he consistently refers to the Earth as “this clement world.” Part of that reference comes in distinction and contradistinction to other times in history when it hasn’t been a merciful place, or it hasn’t been a clement place. In a way, what I hope the title brings to mind is both the hope for the continuing clemency of the Earth but also the fragility of that clemency—the mortality of that clemency, which is so hard to grasp.

In terms of optimism, I also wanted to point out Paul Hawken’s book Blessed Unrest, which conceives of the biosphere. There’s this immune system at work and a movement to become, to engender a more sustainable interdependent relationship with nature. A global movement is rising up, and you can see it in our culture and in a more universal way. We’ve seen fundamental changes. The civil rights movement, I think, is a really good example of an entrenched way of being that changed with a lot of bloodshed and sacrifice. But, it was a groundswell that was powerful enough to make change. And, it’s kind of what Paul was saying earlier, the truth is the truth. It has a power that is stronger than denial, ultimately.

Schmelzer

One of the takeaways for me from Hawken’s book is that we can’t isolate the environmental movement. It’s related to movements for fair work conditions around the world, for the rights of women, for economic growth for all, and all of these rights are tied together.

Douglas

Right. And the fundamental question is, are we part of nature or do we think nature is subservient to us, to our desires, our goals? Nature doesn’t care about our economy. I think that’s going to be a heavy lesson for a lot of people.

Schmelzer

And where do you stand on the optimism/gloom spectrum?

Douglas

Oh, I have hope. I think we’re going through [psychiatrist Elisabeth] Kübler-Ross’ stages of grief: anger, denial … and I think we will get to acceptance. What was that thing Winston Churchill said about Americans that really resonated with me—

Hopkins

“If you’re going through hell, keep going”?

Douglas

[Laughter] Something like that. He said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing after they have tried everything else.” [Laughter] We’re trying everything but the right solution, and eventually we’ll get there. It’s making sausage. But, I think the truth eventually is going to manifest itself. Imagine a puzzle where two-thirds of the pieces are in place and if you step back, almost like looking at a painting, you can see the outline. There’s enough there that most rational people who still appreciate science say, “Yep, there is enough evidence, and we should be doing these things.” The paradox is if you wait for the last puzzle piece to fall into place, at that point, it’s going to be too late to do anything.

“I’m an alcoholic in recovery, so that’s one of the ways that I relate to climate change. I see a way of life that’s not sustainable, but that we’re enthralled in it, so it’s very difficult to change.” —Cynthia Hopkins

“Here’s a forecast with 100% accuracy: at some point, your kid or your grandkid will come to you and say, on this subject—climate change—’What did you know, when, and what did you do?’ I want to pass the red-face test with future grandkids—that I did everything in my power.” —Paul Douglas

Conversations Beyond Elections

Based on the belief that artists’ voices are vital in the conversation about creating a better society, this series of discussions is interested in politics with a lowercase p—concerns about power, inequality, and participation—and ways that artists’ personal values interface with it.

Cynthia Hopkins performing This Clement World

Paul Douglas

Photo courtesy Paul Douglas

The calving face of the Ilulissat Glacier, captured in the film Chasing Ice

Photo: James Balog, Extreme Ice Survey

Cynthia Hopkins in This Clement World

Photo: Pavel Antonov

The Keeling Curve, which since the 1950s has measure the concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere

The Noorderlicht nears a glacier on Cape Farewell’s 2010 expedition