Climate Scientists Discuss Efforts To Educate Public About Global Warming
Monday, February 21, 2011
What can the scientific community do to better educate the public about the affects of climate change? We speak to a pair of scientists who are participating in the "Climate Conversations" series at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center.
Dr. Andrea Cook and Dr. Eric Fetzer will be participating in the first presentation of the "Climate Conversations" series at the Ruben H. Fleet Science Center Tuesday night at 5:30 p.m.
What can the scientific community do to better educate the public about the affects of climate change? We speak to a pair of scientists who are participating in the "Climate Conversations" series at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center.
Dr. Eric J. Fetzer, research scientist with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Dr. Andrea Cook, program manager for Climate Change at the California Center for Sustainable Energy
CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to these days on KPBS. There's no controversial among mainstream scientifics about the fact of climate change, but doubts and confusion persist among the general public. Those doubts have been fueled by the corporate resources of energy company, but they also arise because the science of climate change is complicated. A series of lectures begins this week at the Ruben H. Fleet Science Center to engage people in the subject of climate change, answer some questions, and stimulate discussion in our community. I'd like to introduce two people taking part in this week's climate conversations, doctor Eric Fetzer is research scientific with NASA's jet propulsion laboratory in Pasadena. Doctor Fetzer, good morning.
FETZER: Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: And doctor Andrea Cook is program manager for climate change at the California Center for Sustainable Energy. Dr. Cook, good morning.
COOK: Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: Now, we're inviting our listeners to join the conversation. What is it about the science of climate change you find most confusing? When you speak with a person who thinks climate change is a hoax, what do you say? Give us a call with your questions and your comments, the number is 1-888-895-5727. That's 1-888-895-KPBS. Doctor Cook, what are the goals of the climate conversation series at the Ruben H. Fleet science center?
COOK: The goal is to teach the public about climate change and give them a forum to be able to ask questions and to learn more about it, and it's a small -- it's a relatively small intimate format where we can really talk to the public.
CAVANAUGH: Now, what kind of conversations do you get more frequently from members of the public about climate change?
COOK: You know, the audience tends to be filled with a lot of contrarians. So it is, you know, a lot of talking about, well, what is weather and what is climate. And what do they -- you know, how do you differentiate between the two? Because people say, well, it was cold this weekend, you know, ha ha. Global warming types of things and not just really understand that climate is a really long-term phenomenon, whereas weather is short term.
CAVANAUGH: Right. I wonder, I'm gonna ask you this again to both of you, but just topographically, does it surprise you, your still getting questions like that?
COOK: At some level, yes. But the thing I try to relate it to is, you be, people didn't know that the earth was round, and they thought it was.
Q. Flat. And they thought it was flat and they thought it was flat. And only those that were trained to see the horizon could tell that there was a curvature to the earth. So climate change scientists see it really easily. But lay people don't, necessarily. And it's sort of, like, once we went to outer space, and we could take pictures of the earth, and it was round, the controversial ended 'cause you could see it. It didn't defy your experience. If you're standing on the surface of the earth, it doesn't look round?
CAVANAUGH: Right, right.
COOK: And so a lot of people don't have that trouble experiencing it, so it's harder to believe. Even though it is round, even though there is climate change. That doesn't mean people can relate to it on a daily basis.
CAVANAUGH: Doctor Fetzer, you're gonna be [CHECK] and fossil fuels of what are the main themes that you're gonna explore in this lecture.
FETZER: Well, we hear so much about global warming, and yet the warming aspect of climate change is only a small component. We're interested or concerns about things like sea level rise. This is a very obvious manifestation of any warming we have had over the past seven or so. Changes in rainfall patterns, those are very important, those have a direct effect on a large number of people. These sorts of issues are really what matter if you're concerned about climate change. Warming is only a small part of it. But it's global, and the concern is global, not necessarily local. It gets back to questions about Andrea's points about the defense between weather and climate. We're inned in, sort of, global scale very large scale very long-term changes. This is where humans do affect climate. And you can -- we don't talk about climate change in my backyard, we talk about climate change globally. And this is what I'm gonna try to convey.
CAVANAUGH: I am speaking with doctor Eric Fetzer and doctor Andrea Cook, and we're talking about a series of lectures that's going to be beginning at the Ruben H. Fleet science center called climate conversation it is of the next one takes place Thursday night at 530. And we're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Peat is calling us from Carlsbad, good morning, Pete, and welcome to these.
NEW SPEAKER: Hi, good morning.
NEW SPEAKER: Hey, I just have a question about, basically, the effect of water in the atmosphere. Because as I discuss global warming with all my friends, you know, it becomes apparent that there's CO2, and there's meth 18 in the atmosphere in huge amounts. And methane seems to be there naturally. It's much more reactive than CO2, and water is the same. Can you just touch on the effects of water and methane in the atmosphere and how big of an effect they are compared to CO2.
CAVANAUGH: Go ahead.
FETZER: Yeah, I'm happy to talk about that. Water vapor in the atmosphere is sort of my professional expertise, so it's something I pay close attention to. In fact, water vapor has been increasing in the atmosphere. You can think of water vapor as being an amplifying knob. If you increase carbon dioxide, there'll be a slight warming because of that, the natural system responds to the amplitude by carbon dioxide by amplifying its effect. And that amplification is a factor of 2 or 3. We've seen that over the past 20 or 30 years, as [CHECK] and its own green house effect has increased concomitantly or in proportion. So we have a very well understood mechanism where water vapor acts to amplify carbon dioxide, it's well observed, it's well understand theoretically. And we see this in climate models of that's one of the reasons we have so much confidence in climate models over the next country or so, we know that water vapor feedback effect, positive feedback effect is so effective and so real.
CAVANAUGH: So the water vapor increases as a result of this CO2 in the atmosphere and then that increases the effect of the CO2?
FETZER: Well, it does an indirect thing, the CO2 increases the temperature, the water vapor increases in response to temp.
FETZER: And then that increased water vapor has its own Greene house effect.
CAVANAUGH: So you just have this compound effect.
FETZER: This compound effect. And that effect is roughly 1 to 2.
CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, doctor Fetzer, what's a jet propulsion expert at the [CHECK] how does this fit into your job.
FETZER: Well, it's interesting, as a professional climate scientist, I'm interested in understanding those sorts of mechanisms like the one I just described that contribute to climate in general, not just humans' impact on climate. Because it's fundamentally, it's a very complicated system. We don't understand it in extremely fine detail the way we do many other things like automobiles, say. And so the challenge is to simply understand the natural system and then understand how that natural system responds to human activities.
CAVANAUGH: We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. If you've got a question about climate change, that's 1-888-895-KPBS. You know, some people say they believe that the climate may be changing because they believe what the scientists are saying about the climate models and so forth, and they can see to a large extent, you know, the ice sheet melting, and water levels rising. But they challenge the idea that humans have anything to do with this. What is our evidence that this is human induced climate change? Let me go to you first, doctor Cook.
COOK: I see the clearest evidence is called the Keeling Curve, and the Keeling Curve measures the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over time. And you can see it any up with the industrial revolution. It's a real clear pattern of increasing levels of CO2 with fossil fuels, which is a very big source of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And to me, it's abundantly clear.
CAVANAUGH: Did this warming phase start before fossil fuels, doctor Fetzer.
FETZER: Yeah, well, the increase in carbon dioxide actually started about 1800. Actually, slightly before the industrial revolution, but not convince dentally, about the same that there was widespread clearance of forests in north America and similarly inure Asia, so we humans have sort of been playing with the climate and the so called carbon cycle for at least two centuries of that change is detectable, back about two centuries.
CAVANAUGH: I see. So the people who say, yeah, well, the climate changes, I mean, you had this warm period at the beginning of the middle ages, then you had this cooling and so forth, and obviously nobody was driving cars then, they're not grasping what.
FETZER: Well, I think that -- okay, science is not static. We had a certain understanding of so called paleoclimate, what happened 500 years ago in climate. There's been continuing research on that, and it now appears that our current era, the last decade or two, is actually the warmest in thousands of years. That question of the medieval warm period is being laid to rest. I think credible scientists actually asked the question somewhat blindly, was it warmer than or today? And we've concluded that it has been remember warmer today than 500 years ago. So we clearly had in a sense, a smoking gun. We see this remarkable increase in carbon dioxide that Andrea mentioned, we see an increase in the [CHECK] and we fully understand the physical process that connects those two. And this is why, I think, that science is so strongly argued.
CAVANAUGH: We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. John's on the line from Rancho Peñasquitos. Good morning, John, welcome to These Days.
NEW SPEAKER: Hey, good morning, [CHECK] back in the '70s, one of the scientists observed that you can look back from, say, the Apollo missions, and he would say, hey, what's that fuzziness in the photo when I looked back in the earth? And he realized that, oh, my goodness that must be ice that's coming in from outer orbital regions, the stuff that comets are made up. And this ice is being pulled into the gravity. So how do the climatologists account for increase in ice gain as a result of -- purely from gravity from outer space? And then the second question has to do with, there was a UCSD scientist who talked about the implications of increased photo voltaic production, because apparently some of the chemicals that are used in photo voltaic production are also green house gas -- they give up a lot of green house gas, so I just wanted to know whether you guys have [CHECK] and wondered what the result of his pulling the alarm bell on the photo voltaic production was, and I'll listen to my answers off the air. Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: John, thank you very much. Anyone want to take that ice gain from outer space question?
FETZER: I'm gonna grab that onebecause I was in graduate school in the 80s, and that when this question came up. There was some research done with an instrument that looked down at the earth, and ultraviolet, so a very shortwave length, basically the sunlight that would cause sunburn. And there was a decrease in the so called backscatter, the amount of ultraviolet reflected back from earth, and there were some researchers who argued rather passionately that that was because there were these microcomets that would fall into the upper atmosphere and would affect the way that ultraviolet light was backscattered to the satellite that observed it. That has never really gained traction in the science community. That's been -- those results have been scrutinized for over 20 years now, and it hasn't been shown conclusively that what we saw was ice falling into the planet, it could have been so called instrument noise, those detectors are very complicated, complex instruments, and it's certainly in the '70s and '80s when these were developed, they were less sophisticated than they are today. So I think that science is still open on that issue of infalling ice, and as for the second part of the question, I don't know anything about the photo voltaic production.
COOK: Well, I work at the California center for sustainable energy, and we do do a lot of solar work. We're more programmed implementers than we are the research scientists who build the solar panels. And there's often a lot bit of trade off between one technology and the other. And in this case of producing electricity without the side effect of the carbon dioxide, I think the trade off is in the benefit of going with solar energy as an alternative form of energy. People say the same thing about mercury and CFL, compact fluorescent light bulbs, and it's a very small amount, and is it there? Yes. But there's also a ten times energy savings that can outweigh in terms of the CO2 effect. And I would take it in that bend. I don't know this particular person. So I can't comment.
CAVANAUGH: So it's a trade off between the two. And you think the so called green energy really outweighs the energy -- the global warming impact of the other two.
CAVANAUGH: Of the older technologies.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. Charles is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Charles. Welcome to These Days.
NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. I've got a very basic scientific question, and that is in science theories have to be falsifiable, correct? And if I had a theory that all cars were green, and I saw a red car, that would falsify my theory and prove me wrong. Is there anything for man-made global climate change that is falsifiable?
FETZER: Well, it's -- all scientific hypotheses are falsifiable. And I'll just -- this is sort of a personal comment. I saw a commentary that said that global warming was an unproven hypothesis. You don't prove hypotheses correct. It's impossible. You can only prove them wrong. So the question about falsification, science is fundamentally about falsifying hypotheses. [CHECK] create a body of evidence that says, it's likely to be right. And we're currently in a situation where we have gone well beyond reasonable doubt, shall we say, I think to use a similar analogy, where we have to make decisions on juries, and there's a lot of similarities between a jury decision and how science is done. Especially climate science. And I think we're well past the reasonable doubt phase of humans' effect on climate. So we haven't proven the hypothesis correct 'cause we never will. Yet all the tests we've done suggest that it's very strongly positive effect.
CAVANAUGH: I think underlying in Charles' question was the idea that scientists just are not going to take anything into account as something that would wide out the notion of climate change, human induced climate change. And I'm wondering can you imagine any kind of scenario, something that you might find that would be, like, a smoking gun, that you would say, no, we've obviously been misinterpreting the data.
FETZER: Yeah, there's a very strong mechanism that we all look for, and this is sort of the holy grail of climate research right nu. And I mentioned earlier this positive feedback from water vapor, where you put carbon dioxide in, it causes a slight warming, you get more water vapor in the atmosphere, and you get a commensurate increase in this warming, that's a so called positive feedback, and that's really what a lot of climate scientists are looking for, and have been, frankly, for several decades, as a negative feedback, something that would off set the effect of carbon dioxide. There's nothing that we see in the natural world that comes close to offsetting the positive feedbacks. And I think a lot of people, it's Nobel prize material if you were to come up with this sort of mechanism. But the simple fact is [CHECK].
CAVANAUGH: We're taking your calls about climate change. My guests are doctor Eric Fetzer and doctor Andrea Cook. The number is 1-888-895-5727. You can also go on-line at KPBS.org/These Days. Bruce is calling us from La Mesa. Good morning, Bruce, welcome to These Days.
NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. I was just wondering if your guests could confirm something they learned about, the actual carbon dioxide that we're putting into the atmosphere, that the type of carbon dioxide that's created by burning of fossil fuels is different than the kind of carbon dioxide that might have naturally been put back into the atmosphere, let's say, by forest fires or burping cows and such.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that, Bruce. Andrea?
COOK: Yeah, I can certainly take this one. Yeah, carb on [CHECK] carbon 12, 13, and 14. And it has a half life, this radioactive carbon, of about 5000 years. So as that carbon decays, it has about a 50000-year-old signature of age. So if you're burning fossil fuels, you're gonna find very little of the radioactive carbon. Because the fossil fuels are millions of years old. So if you're out there and you can measure the amount of the different isotopes in the atmosphere, you can tell its origin. And we did some studies at Lawrence Lynn more national lab in the [CHECK] basin where there's been a lot of concern over whether people should be able to drive their cars in there or not, or whether it should be public transportation to cut back on the fossil fuels in there. And we did some samples on the air and the carbon dioxide in there, and found that most of the carbon dioxide in there was from fires from a modern source, and not the old source. So you can tell by the -- by radio carbon dating the carbon in the carbon dioxide.
CAVANAUGH: That's amazing. I want to -- I started this out, I said there's virtually no controversial among mainstream scientists about the fact of climate change. But there is controversy about the rate of climate change and about the form various scenarios, various models people might have on how this is going to proceed. What are some of those debates that are currently raging?
COOK: Well, the debates, if you call them that, there's an uncertainty in the amount, is it gonna be two degrees increase, is it gonna be three degrees? Is the ocean gonna rise 16 or 18 inches? These kinds of things. Just like when we get weather, and it says we're gonna get [CHECK] it might be a little bit les and it might be a little bit more.
CAVANAUGH: I see.
COOK: So it's not really a debate, it's gonna rain. But how much? There's variability in that.
CAVANAUGH: There are a lot of people who deny climate change. You kind of grab onto these inconsistencies or these -- the idea that we don't know exactly how much rain is gonna fall in a certain place at a certain time. To basically try to challenge the whole notion of that. I we think saw that in Amsterdam, was it, when they had the climate change last year? I'd like to get your reaction to that. Is that, do you think, making people even more confused about the subject?
FETZER: Yeah, I think there is a concern, and there's an opportunity unfortunately to confuse things, because it's complicated, it's not everything is understood in detail. Carbon cycle, we don't understand where 30 percent of the carbon dioxide that's produced goes, does it go into the ocean? Does it go into the plant life? We still don't know that sort of thing. An interesting historical note, there was a panel concluded in [CHECK] we'd increase the surface temperature by 2 to 5 degrees Celsius, so roughly did you believe that. 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Well, certainly that number hasn't gone down in the last 30 years, so there's still a lot of questions about the exact response of this natural system so that carbon dioxide increase, but there's no controversial at all that it's going to warm. But where the rainfall patterns are gonna change, whether California's gonna get more rainfall or less, is something we still don't know. [CHECK] but we do not know if it'll be less water over all in the form of rain or snow.
CAVANAUGH: Another thing that people who deny the existence of climate change point to is the fact that it is being called climate change more often now than global warming. [CHECK] nobody can see that it's getting any warmer. How do you answer that?
FETZER: Last year was declared the -- a tie for the warmest on record with 1998. So we are clearly continuing to warm. There is natural variability in the system over five it ten years. We think we understand what that variability is, but we clearly see -- on top of that general variability, we see this cheer trend upward.
CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call. Allen is calling us, he's on the five. Good morning, Allen, welcome to These Days.
NEW SPEAKER: Hi, good morning. I was wonder, I was gonna ask your guests about [CHECK] being deployed out of.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. So doctor Fetzer?
FETZER: Yeah, I've paid some attention to the geoengineering because -- well, a little history. The first somewhat serious proposal, [CHECK] coincidentally won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for the work on the ozone hole. So he got a lot of attention. The idea is you would release sulphur compounds into the atmosphere, and they would form these aerosols that would reflect sunlight back into space, and that would cool the planet. There's a lot of research going into this. The concern, of course, is that there will be unintended consequences. The last, if you will, experiment that was performed was the eruption of Pinatubo volcano in 1991, and there was a widespread drought in the tropics following the Pinatubo eruption, and that drought has been attributed to the eruption itself and the cooling that came from those stratospheric aerosols. So we're -- I think as a climate scientist I'm reluctant to say, yeah, we can start to geoengineer the planet unless of course we can reverse it quickly.
CAVANAUGH: I wonder, Andrea, do you think this message about climate change is getting through? I know you've been doing some outreach to 5th grade classes, and to kids in grade school, and to the younger generation. Is this message getting through? And will it get through in time?
COOK: Well, the kids don't have as much resistance to it as the adults do. They embrace it, they can see the waste, they can see some of the behaviors that could be altered. And so kids can aren't very resistance to it. And they want to know what they can do. Most of them are scared. Most of them see it as true, and that it's coming. Will it be fast enough? You know, it takes all of us. And so it's on its -- it's on its way now, and it's gonna take all of us to slow it down. Concentrations are still rising. And it's not just the kids that are doing it, for sure.
CAVANAUGH: Just briefly, if you could, tell us what's gonna happen tomorrow night during this talk.
COOK: Well, it's -- Eric's gonna give a 45-minute talk, and then we're gonna break into groups with different discussion questions. So we'll break into 3 or 4 groups depending on the attendance, and have them talk about certain climate change issues amongst themselves. And then we'll talk together about them, and see how the opinions or it is understandings vary from circle to circle, and then have experts there to help people understand, and let them chew on it, let them think about it, let them try to work it out. So it's quite hands on, in terms of minds on. The so it should be exciting. I'm looking forward to it.
A. And doctor Fetzer, I saw you wanted to say something just a minute ago, and I sort of cut you off.
FETZER: Oh, I can't remember what it was, frankly.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I think you're gone have a lot to say tomorrow night.
CAVANAUGH: Let me tell everybody that doctor Andrea Cook and doctor Eric Fetzer will both be participating in the first [CHECK] and people are very much welcome, and encouraged to attend. Doctor Fetzer and doctor Cook, thank you so much.
COOK: Thank you.
FETZER: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: And there are a lot of people who wanted to get involved in this conversation. We didn't have any time to get to their call it is of please go on line with your questions and comments at KPBS.org/These Days. There's bye-bye breaking news while we have been having this discussion, Libyan jets fired live rounds at antigovernment protestors today, that's according to al-Jazeera, the TV network quoted witnesses, no independent verification has been made. The alleged attack came as protestors celebrated in the streets of the country's second largest city. Protestors claimed they had taken the city in bloody fighting. Now, we are going to preempt the second hour of These Days to bring you live coverage on Libya from the BBC. And that's coming up next.