A Climate Scientist Discusses Climate Disinformation and Other Fun Stuff

As a follow-up to my August post on climate change, in October I spoke at length with Dr. Brenda Ekwurzel, the Director of Climate Science for The Union of Concerned Scientists.

The transcript of the interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. It will appear as part of three separate posts. This is the longest of the three and mostly focuses on addressing claims made by climate change skeptics and related important questions, such as why we should believe scientists.

I felt it was important to focus on this topic because, while these claims have been clearly debunked, they are repeated often, mostly in conservative media such as the Wall Street Journal editorial page. You’ve probably heard some of these claims and they continue to confuse many people including some who are otherwise well informed. Not helpful!

The interview includes lots of links to supporting background. I’m sure you’ll click on every one. At the end I’ve included a short list of additional readings for those of you who want to learn even more!

By the way, if you prefer to print and read, there is a new print button at the top right above the photo that works much better than the last version.

Brenda Ekwurzel’s path to climate science started at Columbia University when, as a graduate student, she took a paleoclimate class.  At that time Brenda had the opportunity to go to the North Pole on an ice breaker. There, the experience of observing the evidence of rapid climate change firsthand, inspired her to focus on this area of science. She did post-doctoral work at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for two years. Later, as a member of the faculty at the University of Arizona, Brenda’s work included research with students on the changing precipitation patterns in the semiarid Southwest and how that is affecting groundwater supplies, mountain snowpack, and wildfires. Brenda has testified before Congress about climate change and has been widely quoted in the press and appeared on a variety of newsy shows including ABC News, CBS News and Good Morning America, among others. And because she is an equal opportunity expert she appeared on O’Reilly for the conservatives and The Colbert Report for the liberals.

Here is the interview:

The Inspired Rationalist: A recent Inspired Rationalist article reported that there is almost universal agreement within the scientific community that humans are driving climate change. (This finding was based on both surveys of scientists, and multiple studies that looked at the published peer reviewed scientific research.) Is there anything else you would add about the consensus within the scientific community?

Brenda Ekwurzel: People often ask me, “Do you believe in climate change?” I say, “That would be like asking a scientist, ‘Do you believe in gravity?'” For us, it’s not a question of belief, there is enough data that form the fundamental fact that humans are primarily driving the climate since the middle of the last century.

We often point to amazing scientists and one of them, Svante Arrhenius, published a paper in 1896 called On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground. And essentially, he got it right. So, though we can look at recent history, I like to point to the long history and the longer body of literature that forms the foundation of fundamentals of climate change, which are well understood, and which we tend to forget to tell people.

Now, there’s a huge amount of uncertainty on the edges of our understanding. For example, the biggest source of uncertainty is what are humans going to do? What are governments going to do? What are the energy choices going forward globally and what does that mean for emissions? That’s a huge uncertainty. We run lots of studies with different scenarios drilling down deeper and deeper on the specific climate impact.

In other words, it’s very hard to say what’s going to happen in the Bay Area of California. It’s much easier to say what doubling carbon dioxide might mean for the Earth overall. But the details really matter in people’s lives, and so, the big area of research are extreme events because that’s life-changing for people

IR: It occurs to me that non-scientists like me don’t understand how scientific conclusions are established and what is involved in peer review. Why should we be comfortable and confident that it’s a good process?

BE: The scientific method is really looking at whether we can have a consensus. What we do is we try to tear something down and test it and retest it and retest it. As scientists, what we’re doing is checking to see if someone missed something.

Essentially, when we stop writing about it in journals, that’s something that’s pretty much been settled. Journals don’t necessarily want to publish, “Oh, we confirmed what Svante Arrhenius found in the end of the 1800s.” That’s not new. Textbooks or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will remind people of the basics. We spend the rest of the time talking about and publishing on the edge of our understanding.

Regarding peer review, first, you usually don’t publish by yourself, you have co-authors. They’re checking you as part of the process. Then, it’s sent out for independent peer review. You usually do not know who it was sent to. They send you comments and often reject the paper outright or ask for improvements and it might be reconsidered. So, it takes a while to get a paper to publication.

Peer review can fail because there are only a few people reviewing. So, then it goes into the larger scientific community and when they see a paper that looks funny to them, they want to try to replicate the results. If they can’t, they do their own studies and publish their own thing and either confirm or raise questions about the original study. You have many more studies getting into the mix, publishing lots of peer-reviewed articles that are sent out to people who are experts in the field in different aspects. Over time you might have 50 to 100 to 1000 articles on a topic. Then, it stops being written about because it’s settled.

In the case of climate change, it’s a vast topic and an area of more and more precision. It affects people’s lives so drastically and it’s probably the biggest thing that’s going to happen to humanity. We’re still publishing vigorously on climate change. Not the fundamentals but the more refined things such as on extreme events, sea level rise inundation of particular points on Earth given different scenarios.

IR: Skeptics point to a petition signed by 30,000 scientists way back in 1998 that stated there isn’t any convincing evidence of human activity that will impact the climate.

BE: Scientific American debunked that years ago (George Musser, Scientific American Oct 1, 2001).

One thing that’s interesting is when you look at the list of skeptics it’s a very tiny list and they’re used over and over and have a big platform. Yet there are thousands of scientists around the world. Basically, you don’t get to know them as well.

There is a deep bench of scientists who understand the basics of climate change who, more and more are being consulted. But that fair and balanced approach of always having some other point of view in a media article, absolutely gives the impression of doubt, which there is none of on the basics of climate change.  In fact, historians have uncovered documents that discuss this “playbook tactic” of sowing doubt through emphasizing uncertainty.

IR: That’s a common problem in many debates, where you have an overwhelming amount of evidence on one side and a tiny bit of shaky counter-evidence that gets equal or substantial exposure creating a perception of equal legitimacy.

The skeptic community also has a strategy of attacking the credibility of scientists. So, you hear arguments about scientists being subject to groupthink or that most scientists are liberals, so their research has a political bias.

I remember a specific editorial in The Wall Street Journal years ago that claimed that there was career risk for scientists who present research that undermines the conclusion that climate change is driven by human activity. Granted, the WSJ editorial page has a long history of very one-sided, coverage of climate change, but how would you respond to that?

BE: The scientific community looks at the arguments that are proposed, and then, they share data willingly and check each other, and then, publish and counter publish in measured logical arguments. If you’re on the receiving end of that, perhaps it feels that it’s groupthink. But it’s basically the scientific method. You’re going to weed out poor thinking when you catch mistakes that were made. It makes a lot of sense.

For example, there are some famous scientists who admitted an earlier mistake. They got better computer models. They take in the new evidence and they go wherever the science takes them. That is being a good scientist.

Most scientists participate in the evolution of science through implementing the scientific method. Most scientists depend on their colleagues to make sure that they’re double checking and cross-checking what they’re doing. They come up with better numbers, increase confidence, lower the uncertainties, whatever it is. We all want that and it is part of the rough-and-tumble of science. If you’re thinking that you’re being personally attacked, there’s nothing personal about it. It’s all about the science.

IR: There’s been a pretty vigorous and well-funded attack on the science and the scientists, and it’s been going on for many years. I’m curious about the impact that’s had on scientists and what it’s like to have to constantly defend and deal with bogus counter-arguments that have been widely reported.

BE: It’s very hard to keep debunking the same misrepresentations that are out there. The fact that the debate is on basic science means that we are delaying action during this slow phase of climate change. But, we’re about to take off like a rocket if we don’t significantly reduce emissions very quickly.  Every delay in action is a success for people who do not want some of the changes in energy choices that might happen.

Some scientists have received physical threats to their being and they’ve had to take precautionary measures in their home and when they go out in public. But then they quickly learn that you don’t want to give up your freedoms and if you give into that it’s really challenging. Others have become quite famous because it gave them a very big platform to tell the larger story of “Why is someone harassing me? Perhaps because I raised something that was very disturbing that made it very clear the dramatic changes that are happening are unprecedented over a longer time-period.”

At The Union of Concerned Scientists we have communication specialists work with some scientists who were having issues, helping them to be more effective at crisis communication, not be afraid to talk about what’s going on, and not be as personally disturbed because if you’re being harassed that means your science matters.

IR: How common is harassment for a higher profile scientist?

BE: It’s rare for scientists overall, but for some who are high profile, it’s almost a daily, weekly occurrence at critical points in history.  For example, we noticed an uptick in harassment around the time that the U.S. House of Representatives passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, which never passed the Senate.  Stolen emails from scientists resulted in a plunge in public polls for confidence surrounding the science of climate change.  Multiple subsequent international inquiries into the email exchanges found the science still stood firm, yet the public’s confidence had been shaken and it took years to restore the trust.

IR: One of the most common points the skeptics make is that the climate has changed before and has changed dramatically in the history of our planet. They say given that history, to the extent that there is climate change now, it’s likely a natural occurrence. Can you address that?

BE: I started learning about climate change by studying past climates through the deep history of time, the archive in ocean sediments, in geologic rocks, in all types of evidence on Earth. We can go through Earth’s history and find the major drivers of climate change in the past and compare them with how those drivers are acting today. And through this we understand just how sensitive Earth is to an overload of carbon in the atmosphere. It’s highly sensitive and it can change fast. Because we know this, we know that we’re in a very dire situation.

When change has occurred in carbon dioxide over millions of years, lots of life forms on Earth and the ocean survived. When it’s happened over hundreds of thousands of years, things shift and we see that there’s consequences.

Today, we’re talking about transformation that could happen much faster, in just two centuries. Basically, we’ve already had almost a century of change, but most of it happened in the last 30 years. We’re going into uncharted territory. That’s why we need models. The rate of change is so fast.

IR: Has change occurred this fast in the planet before?

BE: For the case of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which has been both much higher and much lower in the past, we do not have a record of it changing as fast as today.

IR: Can we measure the impact of the natural variables in the environment that have been causing the climate to warm or cool during this period of climate change? What direction are these natural factors pointing toward in terms of whether we should be warming or cooling?

BE: Energy balance of Earth is how much radiation is going in (e.g. from the sun) and how much is going out (e.g. longwave infrared radiation).  We know without a doubt that there are large incoming and large outgoing energy flows that are practically equivalent. The part that’s out of balance is the ancient carbon we’ve extracted – coal, oil, gas – that has not been in contact with the current carbon cycle for thousands and millions of years.  After that’s been injected into the system it’s put Earth way out of balance.

We can measure the current energy imbalance fairly well. We could measure it even more accurately if the CLARREO Pathfinder could be funded and launched to be installed on the International Space Station to test instruments before launching the full CLARREO mission.   According to NASA scientists CLARREO would provide ‘unambiguous climate change measurements at an unprecedented level of accuracy.’

IR: I want to make sure I understand what you’re saying. We know about the human-caused carbon emissions. But are you saying that in terms of the natural forces that are also at work, that those are in balance, so there’s no indication that they would be causing the planet to either warm or cool during this period of time? And if it’s the case that we can eliminate nature as a driver of climate change, that leaves us with human activity as the culprit.

BE:  The answer is yes.

All living things are part of the carbon cycle: animals breathe in oxygen, digest carbon and release carbon dioxide and methane while terrestrial plants and marine algae, kelp, sea grass, and so forth take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen.  Over the past thousand years everything was essentially in balance.

Over the past half century human factors are overwhelming natural influences, primarily solar energy.  Scientists measure the solar energy which is pretty constant since the sun spots are tiny wiggles compared to other drivers of climate change from human activities over this time period. We’ve overloaded the atmosphere with fossil fuel activity. One wild card natural factor is volcanic eruptions.  Of course, scientists are measuring those as well.  Hence relevant natural and human factors are incorporated into calculations.

IR: Are the proposed budget cuts and the impacts on the various governmental agencies that are involved in the data collections a big worry?

BE: Yes. The proposed budget targets seem like a scalpel to remove climate-related science. Many members of Congress understand the importance, especially when their constituents weigh in, and are likely to not allow such severe cuts. Weather over time forms the climate of a region. Weather and climate go hand in hand and we would have a blind eye for weather prediction if we were to cut out some of these things that are labeled climate.

We have to pay attention to the budgets. After a big budget cut, even if later restored, it is to less than what it was, so there’s still erosion of the scientific information.  For example, eliminating critical satellites that would replace those reaching the end of their life in time to avoid a gap in coverage, would result in calibration issues forever afterwards.  Or consider severe cuts to research programs that threaten to displace scientists who know how to deal with the immense amount of data pouring in each day from sensors in space, lower atmosphere, soils, ice, and the ocean. It could take years to restore that knowledge as agencies would be forced to ‘reinvent the wheel’ so to speak.

IR: Isn’t there also influence in terms of how each of those agencies is run and the execution of their mission including data collection?

The signals come from the top on what the priorities are, so it very much matters who’s in charge of agencies. For example, just on the solution side, Congress blocked the President’s budget request to zero out funding for ARPA-E (the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy) which promotes and funds research and development on advanced energy technologies. The idea is to build upon the successes of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). These include breakthroughs in precursors to GPS, the internet, and the world’s first weather satellite.

ARPA-E is the same idea. If there are breakthroughs to harness energy from the Sun or geothermal or whatever, or a better electrical grid or more resilient storm ready type of grid, there are economic benefits that go way beyond a few failures along the way like Solyndra, because it’s very cheap to conduct research that private industry would be unlikely to embark upon.

Any threat to zero out those types of programs is very troubling. Who would want to stay at an organization and have that be your portfolio knowing that every year it might be zeroed out? How are federal agencies going to retain talent? Are you going to entice the top people to rotate from industry into the agency and out again to run that program, which has been a tradition?

IR: That’s another related worry or consequence of this, the quality of people on the science side that are going to stay in government agencies when there’s an attempt from the top to undermine their work.

BE: Oh, we’ve seen lots of people leave, including people with knowledge that is classified in the Department of Energy. (IR: this last link is to a fascinating investigative report by author and journalist Michael Lewis on developments in the Department of Energy.)

IR: Going back to the  rapid rising average temperature that we’ve experienced, isn’t there a strong correlation between increased carbon emissions that have occurred in recent decades and the warming we’ve seen?

BE: The Industrial Revolution began more than 250 years ago, yet over the last 35 years more than 60% of industrial carbon emissions have been released.  We recently published in Climatic Change, findings that around half the global average temperature rise between 1880 and 2010 can be tied to 90 coal, oil, gas and cement companies.  About two-thirds of this is due to recent origin (1980-2010).  This is just a different way of saying that we have really altered our world.

Is it the activities we’re doing or is it the historical choices we’ve made about how we power those activities? A big aspect of the story are the influential decisions that were made such that the global economy continues to be dominated by fossil fuel in 2017. As scientists we can calculate the consequences of that trajectory. It’s so large that it’s quantifiable for specific companies.  Add to this that many fossil fuel companies knew the harm of their energy product by 1980 and historians say some companies knew even earlier.

IR: Another argument that has been made on the part of climate change skeptics or climate deniers, whatever you want to call them, is that climate models aren’t reliable so why have confidence in them?

BE: First and foremost, models are calibrated with historical data. Scientists would never go forward in time if they weren’t calibrating with historical data.  These models put both natural and human causes into the mix.  The best match of modeled predictions to the actual observations happens when the model includes the human contribution of carbon dioxide and methane. If those are excluded it’s not as hot and the seas aren’t as high as observed.

They’re not perfect, but we have more than enough information to make decisions because the confidence range of those models is understood. Specifically, they lead to a clear and highly confident conclusion that human activities are the dominant cause of observed warming since the middle of the last century.

IR: That begs the question of just how accurate the forecasts have been. Can we look back at what was modeled and predicted some decades ago and see what has played out and whether the reality reinforces the confidence we can have in the modeling?

BE: Over and over either the observations fall within the model ensembles confidence range or models underestimated the pace of change in some climate indicators (e.g. Arctic summer sea ice decline).

IR: So, there’s a range of possible outcomes the models forecast, and the actual warming has been within that range but below the forecasted mean.

BE: Right. We have low emissions scenarios, medium emissions scenarios, high emission scenarios.

The underestimation is because we’ve underestimated human capacity for belching out emissions of carbon. As scientists we tend to be optimistic about humans making decisions based on the science.   Instead, we keep proving that collective net inaction is a choice that leads to high emissions. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere keeps going up.  We’ve gone away from those early scenarios.

I fully expect that with each advancing year of inaction, the science outlook is going to get worse and worse, and we will have lost precious time.  However, it does not have to be that way if everyone does their part starting with honoring the Paris Climate Agreement.

IR: To the extent the models have underestimated, you’re saying that it’s been mostly because the human activity part of it, our fossil fuel emissions, have exceeded expectations. Are there other related observations?

BE: Most underestimates of change come from surprises in the polar regions to the pace of emissions.  The ice is responding much faster than expected for many scientists.  Although a few have expected fast changes in the Arctic and the Antarctic.

IR: Those are the two biggest variables – the emissions being higher than expected and the rate of melting of the ice sheets?

BE: Yes.

IR: What time-period are we talking about with respect to the model forecasts that were underestimated? How far back?

BE: The early climate models began in earnest in the mid-1970s and have improved through time.  There’s an interesting graphic showing the different drivers or components that we used in the early models compared with components in models today. We keep track of ourselves too. What did we get right? What are we getting wrong? We have a fully transparent record for all to see.

For example, we used to overestimate the consequence of tiny particles called aerosols and now scientists better understand these among many other critical climate drivers (see figure 1). Some of these things that used to be very difficult, we now have much more data and improved understanding.

Figure 1.  Source: Intergovernmental panel on climate change fifth assessment report working group 1 figure 1.13.  In addition to increased horizontal and vertical resolution over time, the complexity, and range of processes has increased (illustrated by growing cylinders) in climate models. FAR = first assessment report; SAR = second assessment report; TAR = third assessment report; AR4 = fourth assessment report; AR5 = fifth assessment report.

IR: One last follow-up on forecasting. There are people that say, “Oh, back in the 1970s the scientific community was worried about an upcoming Ice Age. That didn’t happen and now they think the earth is warming.”  Was there a strong expectation of a cooling earth in the 1970s?

BE: People were very worried about nuclear winter at the time. It was a big focus and there were investigations about when the next ice age might be. This ice age idea was covered during the 1970s in Newsweek and other media that became the focus of contrarians.  Meanwhile, scientists kept investigating with the scientific method, published more peer-reviewed articles, and concluded that another ice age was not a concern.

One pattern that has been documented is that old stuff that scientists have debunked and moved on from, keeps being repeated by climate contrarians. It can be confusing for the public when a climate contrarian brings up the fact that scientists once were lacking sufficient information to assess a situation correctly, ignoring the fact that we’re increasing our understanding. Why not just share with the public what we all understand right now?

IR: It must be frustrating to have to deal with this stuff repeatedly. And here I am asking you the same questions!

BE: I appreciate it because a lot of people hear all this and it’s very confusing unless you study it for decades as scientists have. But that’s the goal, to confuse all of us. In fact, my social science and communications colleagues tell me, even if you debunk an argument, people don’t remember if it was proven or disproven a few weeks later. They often remember the original very compelling frame.

It’s very challenging for us to spend time debunking. And now at the highest levels, some of this information could be trotted out again. We need everyone out there telling their friends and family what’s understood with the best available current evidence versus what’s not true.

IR: Some people say climate change might not be bad. It could even be good. Will Happer, a controversial physicist from Princeton, talks about improved agricultural yields. That’s far from a mainstream argument, but as far as I can tell he is a credible scientist, at least, in terms of background. And you hear simplistic arguments questioning the idea that CO2 is harmful given that we exhale it. Can you address the idea that there could be a lot of net benefits from climate change and we’re just looking at the negative side too much?

BE: Yes, there are a few benefits and there are dire consequences that many, many more people would feel.

It’s like toxicology. A glass of wine isn’t harmful, but you get too much of it and it becomes a toxin. As “only the dose makes the poison” according the father of toxicology – Doctor Paracelsus.   Atmospheric CO2 is good for ensuring a liquid ocean on Earth, but too much of it has dire consequences.

For example, CO2, yes, that is what plants need. But they don’t need extreme temperatures or extreme water availability changes associated with climate change. Plants don’t thrive with too much rain when they don’t need it, or too little rain when they need it most. Water availability can tip the balance for many crops if you don’t plan for it and start growing in different areas or find other ways to control water availability. And there’s a limit to how far up the mountain a species can go and how far poleward.

Climate change can be a threat multiplier according to the U.S. Department of Defense.  It is still under investigation if the drought was natural or if climate change tipped the balance among many factors leading up to the Syrian civil war.   Evidence is mounting that heat stress and associated strain on farm income is already influencing rural migration in Pakistan.  As extreme events become more severe and unprecedented, temporary migration away from disaster areas can occur. As a recent example, students from Puerto Rico going to school in mainland United States after Hurricane Maria.

IR: There are even challenges to the basic climate data. Holman Jenkins, a columnist at Wall Street Journal is a vocal and regular climate change skeptic. He recently wrote a column that charged that the claim that the last decade was the hottest on record is based on skimpy evidence. He has raised the question of the data and how the data is interpreted.

Is there any question about the validity of the record setting heat in recent years? Is there any reason to question the reliability of the data or its interpretation?

BE: Scientists at NOAA, NASA, the UK Hadley Met Office and Japan all find that global average temperature has increased and the last 3 years were the hottest on record (since 1880). These are independent institutions who can double and triple check the data.   Now we have greater coverage in data from satellites so the land and ocean combined temperature record is stronger than ever.  The year 2017 is running to be a hot year as well.  In fact, 16 of the 17 warmest years occurred since 2001.

IR: I think this guy’s argument, if I remember correctly, had to do with the variability of measurements. If you factored in the variabilities, the supposed hottest years were not hotter than other years. I think he said 2015 was essentially the same as 2010 if you factor in the variability even though the mean was hotter. So, he was also challenging the supposed records set in individual years.

BE: What we find is that the trend is more like stairs with periodic landings.  The temperature records like a stair-step, you go up, and then there’s a landing, and then it goes up, and then a landing, and so forth. This is the way the natural cycles interact with human factors to create the wiggles within the longer-term upward net increase. If one just focuses on one of the several year landing time periods that is classic cherry picking while ignoring the longer-term multi-decade increase (figure 2).  Ironically at the time, the landing was the hottest decade ever on record.  What is remarkable is that it stayed so darn hot despite natural cycles that should have made it cooler if the atmosphere did not have excess CO2.

IR: Yeah. That’s cherry picking … the argument that there’s no warming since 1998 it’s partly based on picking the right year to start the measurement.

BE: Right. 1998 was an El Niño year (which are hotter). They were comparing an El Niño year with a bunch of La Nina years (which are cooler) in the 2000s. You have to compare apples-to-apples. When we compare the 1997/1998 El Niño to the recent El Niño we’re going up.

Figure 2.  Source: NOAA (https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cag/time-series/global/globe/land_ocean/ytd/12/1880-2016?trend=true&trend_base=100&firsttrendyear=1880&lasttrendyear=2016)

IR: Another argument that is commonly made is that it is too costly to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, especially if done too quickly. One recent Wall Street Journal editorial claimed that the long run cost of climate change itself isn’t so bad from a global GDP growth standpoint, and that it would be a lot less expensive to adapt. (The editorial was written by people affiliated with a libertarian think tank that is strongly anti-regulation.)

If people understand and believe that we are looking at catastrophe on our planet, mitigating that risk is the most important thing to focus on. But there is still the reality of the economic impact of any mitigation. You’re not an economist but how do you respond to this point?

BE: Evidence keeps mounting that the cost of inaction is high. The report The Economic Case for Climate Action in the United States by Bob Watson, Jim McCarthy, and Liliana Hisas was recently released. They estimate that $240 billion a year or 40% of current economic growth of the US economy could be economic losses from weather events, including health damages due to air pollution caused by fossil fuel energy production.  A report by the EPA suggests that under the high emissions case, “almost 1.9 billion labor hours across the national workforce are projected to be lost annually by 2090 due to the effects of extreme temperature on suitable working conditions, totaling over $160 billion in lost wages per year. More than a third of this national loss is projected to occur in the Southeast ($47 billion lost annually by 2090).”

Ground level ozone, cardiorespiratory risks, asthma, are part of the health burden from burning fossil fuels, which are not part of the price we pay for them.

What we also see is that people are having to adapt to climate change. For example, for just New York City, the cost is estimated be about $19.5 billion for them to develop and implement their climate action plan.

IR: I find myself wondering how the costs of climate change are modeled out. As you point out, there are so many potential eventual consequences like huge migrations of people resulting in a massive number of refugees, triggered by some regions eventually becoming uninhabitable. And there are potential conflicts that could be triggered when countries’ food and water sources are stressed. I know the Pentagon is concerned about these things.

BE: The other thing is when you imagine the future without fossil fuels, our options are actually fun! We can move around in cars with fast electric motor acceleration at the same time we would have a lot less pollution. We could do all sorts of amazing renovations with our buildings that are typically energy inefficient right now. And we’d be more comfortable perhaps and we’d be healthier.

It reminds me of the London fog in Britain, the famous pea soup. It ended up killing thousands of Londoners that tragically elevated awareness of the health burden cost of burning coal to heat their buildings.  Soon afterward clean air measures were enacted.  At what point does a community, a state, a nation say it’s worth having a healthier life for its citizens?  Any visitor to London today would see that there’s a lot less suffering compared to when they were so dependent on coal to heat their homes. Remember that at the time people, including political leaders, did not envision that it would be better, because they were so locked into the false dichotomies of the day.  It is not a stretch to think that perhaps our society today is similarly limited in our vision of the future, the limited current thinking of a world unimaginable without fossil fuels.

IR: There’s the argument that it’s the developing world that’s now the primary driver of fossil fuel emissions. So, some question why the US should work to reduce our emissions if we’re not confident that the developing world will do its part. That’s begs the question of, how the developing world is doing. China and India obviously are two that come to mind. Can you briefly talk about what’s going on in those countries? I know they still rely on a lot of dirty energy, but my understanding is they’re also moving towards renewables at an increasing pace. What level of confidence should we have that they will do their part?

BE: China and India are among the many nations to commit to the Paris Climate Agreement.

Renewable investments in China are reported to be surging. We should be asking if the US might lose a competitive edge economically in these industries that are critical going forward. It’s nice that we can buy these technologies but are we the ones creating them and selling them to the world? Or are we the ones buying them from other parts of the world? This gets back to that earlier conversation about our research and development and ARPA-E.

As noted in the EPA report I mentioned, the faster the world can move away from fossil fuel energy sources the better for the US economy, health and well-being. It’s really, critical for the United States given the impacts that we are going to feel, that we encourage our own participation in the Paris climate agreement. As more people have access to energy around the world, we better make sure that it’s clean energy.

IR: There are also common-sense questions that are important to ask. When the average person hears about a few degrees of warming or a few feet of sea rise, intuitively, that doesn’t seem so threatening. Can you explain why it is? Obviously, it could be a lot more than that over the long run.

BE: Right. Totally get that because we experience a higher swing of temperature in each day. It’s the bell curve. It’s not the mean that’ll get you, it’s the extremes. You imagine that bell curve and you just shift that center by one degree (Figure 3). The shifting of that fat tail has a big impact on the extremes. The heat waves we’re now seeing would have been extremely rare in the past and now they are a new normal. And we can experience a heat wave, or an extreme flood, an extreme precipitation event on a scale that is just beyond our generational memory.

We’re a warm-blooded human being, a creature that likes to stick around a certain temperature and when we get one degree hotter or two degrees Fahrenheit hotter, we’re sick. One degree really matters with our own health and it matters to this planet.

Figure 3.  Shift the average and the old extreme becomes the new normal and new extremes break records.  Source: IPCC SREX Report 2012. 

IR: So, because of the shape of the curve with that fat tail, a one-degree increase in average temperature means many more incidents of these extreme events.

BE: Right. What used to be very rare, we might now have it every other summer or something like that for a heat wave or an extreme precipitation event. And what wasn’t even on the chart before is now possible.

IR: It seems like there are strong feedback loops too. So, for example, if you have a little bit of warming, you get more ice melting, and you lose the reflective impact of that ice. That loss causes more heat to be absorbed by the planet.

BE: Yeah. There’s lots of amplifiers out there in the ice, in the cryosphere, etc. They’re big, and especially in the Arctic, that’s why it’s often referred to as “Arctic amplification”. Two degrees Celsius of the global average temperature is the goal of the Paris Climate Agreement. Even that renders the Arctic in a dire way because it’s warming around twice as much as the global average. We’re getting precariously close to losing Arctic summer sea ice.

IR: And over the long term we’re not talking about a few feet of sea rise. We’re potentially talking about a massive increase in sea rise that would impact most of the coastal cities in the world.

BE: All eyes are on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the potential destabilization there that might influence sea level rise decades hence.  Closer to home, the known risks from mountain glaciers and the outlet glaciers from the major ice sheets are enough to make communities around the U.S. take measure to prepare.  The report – Rising Seas Hits Home – makes the case that chronic flooding thresholds can be crossed where normal routines become impossible in many coastal communities in the US.

The next and considerably shorter post will be up in a week or so and continue the interview with Brenda. It will focus on the current state of our understanding of climate science.

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Links to four additional readings:

  1. The Climate Deception Dossiers is a Union of Concerned Scientists report about the fossil fuel industry’s attempts to confuse the public about climate science. http://www.ucsusa.org/global-warming/fight-misinformation/climate-deception-dossiers-fossil-fuel-industry-memos#.Wg4d62hSxeU
  2. How the Wall Street Journal Opinion Section Presents Climate Change is a report by Climate Nexus. Executive Summary: An analysis of 20 years of the Wall Street Journal’s opinion pages on climate shows a consistent pattern that overwhelmingly ignores the science, champions doubt and denial of both the science and effectiveness of action, and leaves readers misinformed about the consensus of science and of the risks of the threat. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/534ec657e4b03c887dde2641/t/
  3. The Merchants of Doubt is a book, documentary and also a website. It’s a project of two historians of science who use documents and other evidence to show how a small group of compromised scientists took part in efforts to confuse the public on the dangers of climate change, tobacco use, DDT and acid rain. http://www.merchantsofdoubt.org/index.html
  4. This Union of Concerned Scientist report concerns the use of the news media to spread disinformation about climate change. http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/solutions/fight-misinformation/news-media-helps-koch-brothers-exxon-mobil-spread-climate-disinformation.html#.Wg4eu2hSxeU