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Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

Cross-posted from NextGenJournal

Dr. Gavin Schmidt is a climate modeller at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, as well as the editor at RealClimate. I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Schmidt, one of the top scientists in his field, on what we can expect from the climate in the coming decades. Here is the entirety of the interview we completed for my article Climate Change and Young People.

Kate: In a business-as-usual scenario, what range of warming can we expect within the lifetimes of today’s young people – so to about 2070 or 2080?

Gavin: Well, we don’t have a perfect crystal ball for exactly what “business-as-usual” means, but the kind of projections that people have been looking at – which involve quite high increases in population and minimal changes in technology – you are talking about global temperature changes, by about 2070, of somewhere between two, three, five degrees Celsius, depending a little bit on the scenario, and a little bit on how sensitive the climate actually is.

That metric is a bit abstract to most people, so how will that amount of warming actually impact people’s lives?

That’s a very good question, because most people don’t live in the global mean temperature, or the global mean anything. Those kinds of numbers translate to larger changes, between four and six degrees of warming, over the land. As you go towards the poles it becomes larger as well, because of the amplifying feedbacks of ice albedo changes and reductions in snow cover.

Right now the range between a cold summer and a warm summer, in most mid-latitude places, is on the order of a couple of degrees. You’ll be looking at summers then – the normal summer then – will be warmer than the warmest summers that you have now, and significantly warmer than the coldest summers. The same will be true in winter time and other seasons.

How will that impact metrics such as agriculture, food prices, the economy…?

It’s easy enough to say that there are going to be some impacts – obviously agriculture depends on the climate that exists. People will adapt to that, they’ll plant earlier, but crops are very sensitive to peak summer temperatures. So you’ll see losses in the fatally sensitive crops. But then you’ll see movement north of crops that were grown further south. You have to deal with the other changes – in nutrient balances, water availability, soil quality. We’re not talking about just moving the subtropics further toward the poles.

Lots of other things are going to change as well. Pests travel much faster with climate than do other kinds of species: invasive species tend to increase faster, because they’re moving into an empty niche, than species that are already well established. There’s going to be changes to rainfall regimes, whether it snows or rains, how heavily it rains – a lot of those things will tax infrastructure.

You’ve got changes for people living on the coast related to sea level rise. That will lead to changes in the damaging effects of storm surges when any particular storm comes through. We’re also looking at more subtle changes to the storms themselves, which could even amplify that effect.

How much of this warming, and these impacts, are now inevitable? Do we have the ability to prevent most of it, and what would that take?

Some further changes are inevitable. The system has so much inertia, and it hasn’t even caught up with what we’ve put into the atmosphere so far. As it continues to catch up, even if we don’t do anything else to the atmosphere from now on, we’ll still see further warming and further changes to the climate. But we do have a choice as to whether we try and minimize these changes in the future, or we allow the maximum change to occur. And the maximum changes really are very large. It’s been said that if we allow that to happen, we’ll end up living on a different planet, and I think there’s some certain truth to that.

I hear you talking a lot about uncertainty, and that’s something a lot of people are paralyzed by: they don’t want us to take these actions because they think everything might be fine on its own. What’s your response to that attitude?

Any decision that you’re making now that has to do with the future is uncertain. We make decisions all the time: where to invest money, whether to buy a house – these things aren’t certain, and we still have to make decisions. The issue with climate is that no action is a decision in and of itself. That one is actually laden with far more uncertainty than if we actually try and produce energy more efficiently, try and use more renewables, adjust the way we live so that we have a more sustainable future. The uncertainty comes with what would happen if we don’t make a decision, and I find that to be the dominant uncertainty. But climate change is not unique in having to deal with decision making under uncertainty. All decisions are like that. It’s nothing special about climate change in that there’s uncertainty about what’s going to happen in the future. Any time we decide to do anything, there’s uncertainty about the future, yet we still manage to get out of bed in the morning.

Probably in response to this attitude, climate science has got a lot of bad press in the past couple years. What have your experiences been – what sort of reactions have there been to your research?

There are a lot of people, particularly in the US, who perceive the science itself – just describing what’s going on and why – as a threat to their interests. To my mind, knowing what’s going on in the planet and trying to understand why should just be information, it shouldn’t be a threat. But other people see it as a threat, and instead of dealing with either their perceptions or what the science actually means, they choose to attack the science and they choose to attack the scientists. Basically, you just have people adopting a “shoot the messenger” strategy, which plays well in the media. It doesn’t get us very far in terms of better understanding what’s going on. But it does add a sort of smokescreen to divert people’s attention from what the real issues are. That’s regrettable, but I don’t think it’s at all surprising.

And finally, are you at all optimistic about the future?

It depends on the day.

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“Climate change journalism has gotten worse,” says Dr. Ben Santer, researcher at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, and one of the world’s top scientists studying the attribution of climate change.

The decline in the quality and accuracy of climate change coverage over the years is quite a paradox. Surely, now that this issue has been in the public sphere for over twenty years, journalists and media outlets should be able to get it right. You would expect that their reporting would get better over time, not worse. That’s not so, says Dr. Santer.

“One would hope that in journalism it was similar [to science]”, he continues, “that in the midst of complex issues there would be some attempt to really get to the bottom of them. I’ve seen little of that search for understanding in the journalism on climate change.”

Coverage of ClimateGate, the scandal that wasn’t, gets Santer particularly riled up. He describes it as “reflexive, knee-jerk, reactive, not thoughtful, and rather asymmetric too: devoting a lot of publicity to the stolen emails without really trying to understand context or trying to understand issues.”

As if it wasn’t enough for the media to treat information vital to our future so lightly, they have also helped to spread unfounded accusations of fraud against climate researchers. Scientists are people just like anyone else, and should not be subject to such harassment. “These attacks on people like Phil Jones,” Dr. Santer agrees, “had tremendous personal cost. He was nearly driven to suicide by the hatred that he encountered.”

Indeed, Dr. Phil Jones, the director of CRU – the British research group that had their security system hacked and their private correspondence stolen – suffered from depression and suicidal idealation due to the barrage of hate mail and death threats he received following the media’s hostile coverage of the incident.

Who goes into scientific research expecting death threats? “[Jones] has done more than almost anyone in the world to improve our knowledge of observed changes in the temperature of planet Earth,” says Santer. “He was not deserving of this kind of treatment.

“So much attention was devoted to some incautious phrases in these emails, rather than to ask, “What kind of pressure has this guy been labouring under and operating under for years now? What sort of systematic attack by Freedom of Information Act has he been trying to deal with?

“Was Phil Jones angry and frustrated? You bet.”

Another long-standing aspect of climate change journalism that puzzles Dr. Santer is artificial balance – when neutrality is prized above all else, even above objectivity and truth. Sometimes the two sides of an issue, especially one of a scientific nature, aren’t equal, and shouldn’t be treated as such. Doing so, says Santer, “reinforces in [people’s] minds the opinion that the science is not settled, that experts are split 50-50 on human effects on climate, and that’s fundamentally wrong. That’s not the way things are. We have a few vocal individuals, who, for whatever reason, have very powerful voices in the media, and that have received attention out of all proportion to the scientific quality of their work.

“These fringe voices now have megaphones,” he continues, “and have means of amplifying their voices and trumpeting shoddy, incorrect science. We’ve seen the rise of the blogs, we’ve seen the rise of these “independent public auditors” who believe that they have carte blanche to investigate anyone who produces results they don’t agree with, and if that individual doesn’t comply with their every request, they indulge in this persecution campaign on their blogs and make your life very uncomfortable. I’ve had direct personal experience with that.

“The irony is that at a time when the public, more than ever, needs sound information on the science of climate change, needs plain English accounts of what we know and what we don’t know, there’s this cacophony, there’s this huge sea of noise – and, unfortunately, the people who shout loudest and contribute to this sea of noise are those who are often least informed.”

So where do we go from here? How do we repair public understanding of a scientific issue that many perceive as a purely political one? How will the media move past polarized reporting that misses the mark more often than not? Dr. Santer offers his two cents.

“I think that the media have to decide, ultimately, whether their goal is making money and satisfying their shareholders, or whether it’s reporting in the public interest, on issues that are of overwhelming importance to our generation and to future generations.

“I would argue that climate change is one of those issues, and the media have a civic responsibility to get it right, to get the reporting right, to get the science right, to devote resources to these issues… and they’re failing. They’re not living up to that responsibility.

“I don’t see an easy way of changing it; I do think that something has to change.”

One strategy could be to build the dwindling pool of science journalists back up. Santer stresses the importance of having such specialized reporters, rather than sending out general reporters to cover complex scientific issues. “Just like you can’t build a computer model of the climate system overnight from scratch, you can’t create a science reporter overnight from scratch either,” he says. “That familiarity with the issues and with the people, and with the right questions to ask. That takes time.”

Our future hangs on information and understanding, as it has ever since our species gained the ability to destroy what supports us. The only thing that can save us from ourselves is ourselves. “If people are to do the right thing about climate change,” says, Santer, “then they need good information, not wishful thinking, not disinformation.

“The sad thing is that many folks don’t want to know about the science at all. They just want to have business as usual and really not consider even the possibility that we might be changing the climate of planet Earth, that they might be culpable in that, and that they might need to think about the future.

“Lots of folks really don’t want to be confronted by the future,” he concludes. “It’s scary.”

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A comment from Steve Bloom several months ago got me thinking about a new kind of post that would be a lot of fun: interviewing top climate scientists, both on their research and their views of climate science journalism and communication. When I emailed Dr. Kevin Trenberth to see if he would be interested in such an interview, he responded with an entire essay that he had written about recent events in climate change communication. Although this essay is unpublished as of yet, he graciously suggested that I quote it for a post here.

It’s no surprise that Dr. Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, is angry about the way stolen emails between researchers were trumpeted around the world in an attempt to make them seem like something they were not. He was “involved in just over 100″ of the emails, and from the looks of things, hasn’t heard the end of it since they were stolen.

One oft-quoted statement of his went viral: The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t. Climate change deniers portrayed this quote as an admission that the world wasn’t warming after all, or even that scientists were trying to cover up a cooling trend. Taken in the full context of the email in which it was written, however, it’s clear that Trenberth was referring to a recent paper of his, which discussed our incomplete understanding of the factors affecting short-term variability in the Earth’s temperature. There were a couple years between 2004 and 2008 that weren’t quite as warm as scientists expected after looking at all the forcings, such as solar irradiance and ENSO. The paper and the subsequent email in no way mean that global warming has stopped. In fact, we’re well on our way to the warmest year on record. “It is amazing to see this particular quote lambasted so often,” says Trenberth.

Another quote, this time from a stolen email he was not even a recipient of, was written by Phil Jones, the director of CRU. I can’t see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report, wrote Jones, referring to several studies that were not regarded very highly by the climate science community, one of which was later retracted. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow – even if we have to redefine what the peer-reviewed literature is!

Dr. Trenberth offers an insight for this comment that was previously unknown to me. The IPCC’s 2007 report “was the first time Jones was on the writing team of an IPCC Assessment,” he says. “The comment was naive and sent before he understood the process and before any lead author meetings were held…As a veteran of 3 previous IPCC assessments, I was well aware that we do not keep any papers out, and none were kept out.” Indeed, both studies were discussed in the 2007 report, offering proof that the private emails of scientists do not always correspond to their ultimate actions.

To date, four independent investigations (five if you count the two Penn State reports as separate) “have confirmed what climate scientists have never seriously doubted: established scientists depend on their credibility and have no motivation in purposely misleading the public and their colleagues.” Referring to the only major criticism that the investigations had for CRU, Trenberth notes that scientists “are also understandably, but inadvisably, reluctant to share complex data sets with non-experts that they perceive as charlatans.”

Despite the complete absence of evidence for scientific fraud, the fact that no papers were changed or retracted due to these emails, and the obvious innocence of scientists like Dr. Trenberth, public confusion over climate change has grown in recent months. Almost everyone who keeps up with the news will remember hearing something about climate researchers accused of malpractice. “There should be condemnation of the abuse, misuse and downright lies about the emails,” says Trenberth. “That should be the real ClimateGate!”

After all this experience as the subject of libelous attacks and campaigns of misinformation, Kevin Trenberth can offer suggestions for other scientists in the same position. He does not recommend debating the conclusions of climate change research in the public sphere, as “scientific facts are not open to debate and opinion because they are evidence and/or physically based.” He has learned, like so many of us here at ClimateSight, that “in a debate it is impossible to counter lies [and] loudly proclaimed confident statements that often have little or no basis.”

“Moreover,” he adds, “a debate actually gives alternative views credibility,” something that climate change deniers haven’t earned. He and his colleagues “find it disturbing that blogs by uninformed members of the public are given equal weight with carefully researched information backed up with extensive observational facts and physical understanding.”

Much of the online climate change community has lost faith with climate journalism in recent months, and Dr. Trenberth is no exception. He asserts that the mass media has been “complicit in this disinformation campaign of the deniers”, and has some explanations as to why. “Climate varies slowly,” he says, “and so the message remains similar, year after year — something not exciting for journalists as it is not “news”.” He also notes the stubborn phenomenon of artificial balance, as “controversy is the fodder of the media, not truth, and so the media amplify the view that there are two sides and give unwarranted attention to views of a small minority or those with vested interests or ideologies.”

“The media are a part of the problem,” says Trenberth. “But they have to be part of the solution.”

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