A Conversation with Gavin Schmidt

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.

16 thoughts on “A Conversation with Gavin Schmidt

  1. Excellent interview, Kate. Schmidt is remarkably stoical about the organised nature of the campaign to denounce what he personally is doing as being motivated by financial self-interest or some supposed covert attempt to install worldwide socialist governance via the UN… I am not even directly involved but find myself getting so frustrated with all these conspiracists. I will have to book myself in for some anger management therapy…

    Incidentally, you may be interested to hear about an event that took place in London (UK) yesterday – I certainly would (i.e. why on earth has it not been reported in the news?) – The Health and Security Perspectives of Climate Change – How to secure our future wellbeing.

  2. That’s it in a nutshell.
    Dr. Gavin Schmidt knows what he is talking about.
    Unfortunately, more words will not improve things.
    Action is the only remaining option. The decisions are in fact allready made for us.
    Action on a personal level is the best option for the time being. Eventually the rest of humanity will be forced to follow suit.
    On the other hand I am pessimistic right now, have been and will be for a while yet.

  3. Dr Schmidt is so excellently mild.
    “But then you’ll see movement north of crops that were grown further south.”
    That’s not an option for much of the world’s population, and what happens when you run out of “north”?

    “You have to deal with the other changes – in nutrient balances, water availability, soil quality.”
    Yes, drought (Dai 2010: Drought Under Global Warming for instance), floods, general bunching of rainfall into briefer, heavier rains, and how deep are Canadian soils? Have some areas been scrapped by ice sheets to recently?

  4. It seems from this interview that Dr. Schmidt cannot visualize the severity of Climate Change by 2070; neither can I. But I would wager that a 5°C rise in global temperature could cause up to half the inhabited land to become unbearably hot and force mass migrations and starvation. Furthermore, global food production is heavily dependent on hydrocarbon-based fertilizers, hydrocarbons that are being depleted at alarming rates. Shrinking arable land and growing population do not a rosy forecast make.

  5. Jack, obviosuly you must surely mean “climate change denial“? However, if not, you have clearly not read the item on Daily Climate yesterday (kindly linked to above by richard pauli). Go on, be strong and courageous – and give your cognitive dissonance a break – and see if you can actually allow yourself to read it…

  6. People outside the “magic circle” of climate change argumentation are amenable to learning. They are really interested and have noticed that things are getting weird. A careful conversation avoiding overstatement and explaining some of the uncertainties, especially if contextualized in terms of the listener’s interests (sports, for example) seems to work very well at getting people thinking.

  7. Jack Savage’s brain is clearly on permanent leave. He thinks he can ignore reality — a reality discovered by the painstaking efforts of thousands of domain experts over the centuries — by simply slapping a bunch of random words together.

    And as Martin Lack above points out, Dr. Schmidt (however well intentioned) has chosen to sidestep the fact that there’s a very deliberate, calculated, well-organized, and well-oiled effort to spew bullshit about climate science and climate scientists (see this Heartland ‘Institute’ diagram for a prime example, if you’ve not done so already). I think this isn’t a good idea — we should Pay Lots Of Attention To That Man Behind The Curtain, so to speak.

    The Occupy Wall Street movement, in a really big way, blew open the lid concealing the powerful forces that were spreading nonsense about the financial crisis. No longer can the Bank of America, Rupert Murdoch, or Glenn Beck simply keep pumping out nonsense to obscure the real problem.

    We can, and should, do the same thing with misinformation about the climate crisis. Expose the forces behind the misinformation.

    — frank

  8. Thanks for your kind words, Frank. If you have not visited the ‘About’ page on my Blog, and not come across it before, you should read the 2008 article, entitled ‘The organisation of denial: Conservative think tanks and environmental scepticism’, by Peter J Jaques et al in the journal Environmental Politics. Totally legal, free, PDF download available here.

  9. I thought that one of Richard Pauli’s links above was so important that I thought I’d OCR the image linked too, which was of a table of alternative words that scientists could use to better communicate their ideas. I hope the formatting works.
    Terms that have different meanings for scientists and the public
    Scientific term Public meaning Better choice

    enhance improve, intensify increase
    aerosol spray can tiny atmospheric particle
    positive trend good trend upward trend
    positive feedback good response, praise vicious cycle, self-reinforcing cycle

    theory hunch, speculation scientific understanding
    uncertainty ignorance range
    error mistake, wrong, incorrect difference from exact true number
    bias distortion, political motive offset from an observation
    sign indication, astrological sign plus or minus sign
    values ethics, monetary value numbers, quantity
    manipulation illicit tampering scientific data processing
    scheme devious plot systematic plan
    anomaly abnormal occurrence change from long-term average

  10. Woops, formatting was nowhere close. I’ll separate them using hashes

    Terms that have different meanings for scientists and the public

    Scientific term#####Public meaning#####Better choice
    enhance######### improve##########intensify, increase
    aerosol########## spray can#########tiny atmospheric particle
    positive trend#######good trend#######upward trend
    positive feedback#####good response, praise#####vicious cycle, self-reinforcing cycle

    theory##########hunch, speculation#######scientific understanding
    error ##############mistake, wrong, incorrect#####difference from exact true number

    bias############distortion, political motive#####offset from an observation
    sign###########indication, astrological sign#######plus or minus sign
    values###########ethics, monetary value#######numbers, quantity
    manipulation#########illicit tampering#########scientific data processing
    scheme##############devious plot###########systematic plan
    anomaly#############abnormal occurrence######change from long-term average

  11. I’m indulging my sense of hyperbole here:

    Pete Dunkelberg wrote: “That’s [moving north] not an option for much of the world’s population, and what happens when you run out of “north”?”

    Big Trouble in Little Greenland

    And Martin Vermeer added, “or out of “south'”

    Murder at McMurdo.

    As I said, those lines are blatant hyperbole. But there’s a valid point to them. It is that when large numbers of people face shortages of resources they need to survive, conflict is likely.

  12. Despite one commenter’s call to avoid overstatement (we’ve been too careful for too long — it seems time to be evocative), I think Gavin made one booboo when he said, “…[I]f we allow that to happen, we’ll end up living on a different planet ….” There’s a good chance no one will be living on this different planet.

    Just as it’s next to impossible for people to picture the world without themselves in it (except for George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life), nor can we picture this planet without our species living here. But we have it in our power to decimate the biosphere. (All is not lost, though. A science teacher pointed out to me that those little organisms that live near the deep ocean vents will no doubt carry on living here.)

    Why do we keep pussyfooting around, not giving people the full picture? With persistent drought in the world’s grain baskets already, we’re heading for more crop failures, exorbitant food price hikes, food shortages and widespread famines. It’s not alarmism when you sound the alarm on something that is truly alarming!

    And yet, and yet. It’s not about optimism or pessimism, it’s about keeping on doing whatever we can do. If our children were pinned under a car, we wouldn’t give up trying to save them as long as we had one ounce of life left in us. Check out this link for the “super powers” that fear gives us: http://blog.greenhearted.org/2011/02/latest-synthesis-of-ice-core-data.html

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