Scientists Must Tell The Climate Change Story
What if the world faced a calamity that scientists predicted and that science might help prevent...but the general public just didn't understand it? And at the same time, what if powerful political and business interests found it profitable to convince the public that all the scientists were lying?
That, according to climatologist Richard Somerville, summarizes what's happening regarding the subject of climate change. And he believes it's crucial that scientists start doubling their efforts to educate the public and policymakers before it's too late to preserve the ecosystems we rely on.
Guest: Richard Somerville, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Scripps Institution of Oceanography
This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you are listening to These Days on KPBS. What if the world faced a calamity that scientists predicted and that science might help prevent but the general public just didn't understand it and at the same time powerful political and business interests found it profitable to convince the public that all the scientists were wrong. That according to climatologist Richard Somerville summarizes what's happening regarding the subject of climate change and he believes it's crucial that scientists are doubling their efforts to educate the public and policymakers before it's too late to preserve ecosystems we rely on. I'd like to welcome him. My guest Richard Somerville is distinguished professor emeritus at Scripps institution of oceanography, Prof. Somerville, welcome to These Days.
RICHARD SOMERVILLE: Thanks, Maureen, it's a pleasure to be here.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now we invite our listeners to join a conversation. Has anyone explained to your satisfaction how scientists know man-made climate change is taking place. What would you need to hear to convince you. If a psycho with your questions and your comments. 1-888-895-5727. Now Prof. Somerville we just heard a news report you published an open letter in the journal science it's been described as a call to action for scientist to talk to the public about climate change. Haven't scientists been doing that already?
RICHARD SOMERVILLE: Yes I think the scientists have been doing that but we need to do more of it and we need to do better. You know there's an international negotiations opening today in Cancun Mexico in the nations of the world will try to find a solution to the climate problem is becoming urgent and the science has something to say about that. You can't wait 50 or 100 years printer to do something in five or 10 years or it won't be possible to limit global warming to moderate levels.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do you think there's been some how a lot of urgency among scientists in trying to communicate this message with the basic science of climate change to the general public.
RICHARD SOMERVILLE: I think there are many people infiltrated the media bear some of the blame and the politicians to do and as you said there are powerful interests arrayed against us. There's a disinformation campaign very much like the one that big tobacco ran years ago trying to confuse people about the connection between smoking and disease.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now what are some of the inaccurate incorrect ideas that you come up against when people talk about climate change.
RICHARD SOMERVILLE: I think for many people it's hard to believe that carbon dioxide, that's a colorless odorless tasteless gas that is produced every time we burn coal or oil or natural gas, comes out of your tailpipe it comes out of your chimneys, that this gas can change the climate. But it can and we've known that for 150 years. This is science that's been explored for a long time and people know that climate has changed naturally before mankind had any influence on it. We didn't cause the Ice Age is for example but I think what many people haven't yet realized is that a lot of climate science has made new advances in our understanding. We know what caused the Ice Age's greatest changes in the Earth's orbit around the sun and that is too slow and too weak to be happening now. People say the sun can vary and cause climate change and that's absolutely right but in the selenite era we've been able to measure what the Sun is doing and we can measure its effect on climate and it's 10 times weaker than carbon dioxide so the science itself which is complicated which is a recent which is changing all the time has made advances that I don't think it penetrated into public and political consciousness very well.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: A lot of times when you discuss climate change with people they say well you haven't been keeping records long enough, you simply don't know whether or not the climate is actually changing based on the available data.
RICHARD SOMERVILLE: While it's true we haven't been keeping records longer than back into the middle 19th century, so before that we have to rely on proxy data, tree rings and things like that, but we know a great deal from the proxy data so we can see a good deal about what kind of natural climate change has occurred and as I said we've got a lot of good detective work and can now separate out man-made climate change from natural climate change.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Prof. Richard Somerville he's established professor emeritus at Scripps institution of oceanography and he recently published an open letter basically in the Journal of science that's been described as a call to action for scientists to talk to the public about climate change. We are taking your calls with your questions and your comments. 188-895-5727. I'm wondering Prof. Somerville is a general misunderstanding about climate change, is it rooted in a generally poor grasp of science itself?
RICHARD SOMERVILLE: I think that's a factor. Many people are not as well informed about science as they would be in an ideal world. Something like half of the American population doesn't know that the earth goes around the sun every year for example. That is polling data and that's not unique to the United States. (Inaudible) science goes by. People have a vague impression of it but they don't know it in any detail. And I think also we've got a false impression of what scientists do. You know they wear white coats, they sit in laboratories they torture small animals. That's not really the case. So when we say science is found or discovered or establish something I think many people aren't really clear about what has been done to make this happen and so we need to do in educational job I think that has to do with how scientists are portrayed on TV and in movies that has to do with the media always wanting to present both sides you might say, fair and balanced thing, let's hear the alternative viewpoint. So we've got in educational job to do and it's not just climate scientists we in the open letter have called upon social scientists who understand how people make decisions for example to participate in this as well and scientists are not trying to tell the world what to do and particular check climate scientist just want to tell people what we've learned that's relevant to policy. We don't want to prescribe policy we want people to take the scientific findings mixed them in with their own priorities and values and come to their own decisions but take the sides into account.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In one of your accompanying essays on the subject of trying to get more people to have a baseline understanding of science so that they can understand the climate change a little bit better you talk about some graduating MIT students and a couple of documentaries that were shown that they didn't understand how a small seed becomes a huge tree, or they didn't, they weren't able to say correctly why the seasons change. Now how does something like that happen?
RICHARD SOMERVILLE: I think people learn these facts as things to be memorized for an exam in school and it's not really part of their daily experience. So people have learned in class all through education that photosynthesis happens and that respiration happens, but when they ask out of this little acorn become a mighty oak tree waiting times it doesn't occur to them that most of the mass of country was carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the tree is processing. We see that as part of climate change when we measure carbon dioxide in the northern hemisphere we see the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide go down every spring because plants are putting up leaves and photosynthesize and transferring the carbon dioxide changing into plant material and we see the level go back up every fall. So for scientists is this part of the data we are looking at all the time and we can make many inferences from measuring it but I think many people don't run across that in their daily lives.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right and if it's not taught correctly in school to get people engaged and have them understand in a way that does make sense for their daily lives that is just information we lose as we grow up.
RICHARD SOMERVILLE: I think that's right and it's a great shame because science is one of the great developments of modern humankind predictable the changes in our lives that have come about everything from pharmaceuticals to jet planes because scientists have made discoveries and we've come to a much more profound understanding of the natural world and of human crimes influence on and I think it's just a large educational test. It's not going to be just teaching things better in schools. It's going to be how science is presented in the media. It's going to involve how science is portrayed in movies and television. It's going to have people going to science museums and seeing exhibits. It's just a huge huge task requiring many many kinds of specialized expertise and that's what we are calling for more emphasis for in our letter.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And I'm speaking Prof. Richard Somerville taking your calls at 188955727. Let's return specifically to the subject of climate change which is what your open letter to scientists published in the Journal of science is really all about. You just a moment ago explained how we know that this is, the climate is not changing because of the same reasons that it changed during the Ice Age. Because we know that there is a fluctuation in the way the earth is rotating and we have satellites now and we can pick that up and there is no such fluctuation. That's a very clear explanation to something that comes up again and again and again and again in this climate change discussion. So where is the disconnect there? Why can't people grasp that?
RICHARD SOMERVILLE: Why will I think of something that you don't come across in everyday life. After I say just take thousands of years to happen. Takes 10,000 to 100,000 years for the world to go into an Ice Age were once it's in it to come out of an Ice Age and we know from the geological record that this has happened several times and it's a fairly recent discovery now fairly well established now scientists think this is exactly what's happening that those ice ages are triggered because the Earth's orbit around the sun changes. So for example it's not a perfect circle, it's an ellipse and becomes more elliptical and less elliptical in a practical way. Then a funny thing happens. We also know what the composition of the agent atmosphere was through the amazing good luck that there is little bubbles of ancient air trapped in ice in Greenland and Antarctica and we can drill down, corgi ice, dated it, analyze it in the laboratory and tell you much carbon dioxide was in the atmosphere hundreds of thousands of years ago. And we find that although the ice ages are triggered by changes in the Earth's orbit, once they started carbon dioxide amounts change too. We are still learning the details of that but it involves the ocean so as the world warms, carbon dioxide comes out of the ocean for example into the atmosphere, raises levels and the same thing happens naturally as is happening today. The greenhouse effect is strengthened because there's more of this unity, this harmless gas that does affect the way the earth radiates and that augments and you might say amplifies the climate change that was triggered by deorbit. This is an incredible piece of scientific detective work and there are now many chains of evidence to persuade specialists that this is exactly what's happening. And furthermore we can know how long it takes and we know what the magnitude of the changes are and that's just too slow and too weak to be responsible for the climate change that we are seeing today where the world has warmed by something more than a degree Fahrenheit over the last century. That is remarkable. The Earth's orbit has not changed perceptibly in that short time at all. So that's part of the signal, part of the evidence for our ability to say that the climate change we are witnessing today and expecting in decades to come is overwhelmingly man-made.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And as you say it is detailed but it's straightforward. It doesn't involve any mathematical formulas. People can grasp an explanation like that.
RICHARD SOMERVILLE: That's right and I think it ought to be uncontroversial. I think it's very important that people separate out science and policy. After all it's one thing to learn what we found out about the climate, there aren't any Republican or Democratic thermometers. The ice doesn't have an agenda. It's another thing to decide what if anything the world should do about it. That has to do with your economic convictions, your political leanings, your ideology, your values your risk tolerance and many other things but it should be informed by science and I find that many of the people who today who question the signs or contrarians or skeptics there are various terms are in fact not really interested in the science and usually not very knowledgeable about it but they are concerned about the policy implications of climate is changing and will that involve taxes on carbon, government interference with free markets, United States ceding sovereignty by signing treaties, things like that but instead of saying I oppose those policies they instead prefer often to say I don't believe the science. The science is compelling, the scientists are competent, they don't know what they're talking about is controversial, other experts disagree. So they attacked the science rather than straightforwardly expressed their concerns about policy. I'm trying to get people to separate that out. You know we ought to have politics free science and have that informing the policy. That's what the intergovernmental panel on climate change the organization that writes these huge reports that won or shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 tries to do, to present the science to assess it, to say what we know and what we don't know in a way that's relevant to policy but not prescriptive of policy.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break when we return we will continue talking to Prof. Richard Somerville about the science of climate change and begin taking your calls at 188-895-5727. You are listening to These Days on KPBS.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, you're listening to These Days on KPBS. My guest is Prof. Richard Somerville. He is Prof. emeritus at Scripps institution of oceanography and we are talking about the science of climate change and why Prof. Somerville believes that it's urgent that scientists begin to speak more directly to the public and policymakers about the science of climate change. We are taking your calls at 188-889-5727 and let's go right to the phones. Chris is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Chris and welcome to These Days.
NEW SPEAKER: Hi. I guess the professor, what he was talking about just before the break regarding policy versus science assertively to do what I was going to comment on. I don't question really the science, what I question is I guess what you call the cost-benefit analysis that comes from it. You know you could have climate change that is really bad or maybe not that bad really don't have a lot of faith in the analyses that are done that say this is going to be catastrophic. On the other side, you could, we have all the solutions that cost a ton of money and you don't know if we spend all this money what we are actually going to get in the end. It seems to me the logical solution is to go with where we know we will go get the most bang for our buck so if there are going to be rising ocean levels and see more malaria because of warmer temperatures and more mosquitoes maybe we should be investing money in what are known and proven and relatively cheap solutions to those problems as opposed to just throwing all this money into cutting carbon emissions which will then you know, maybe it works, maybe it doesn't.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's get a response, Chris and thank you for the call. So this kind of goes into the realm of policy which you don't want to go into but let me ask you Prof. Somerville, (inaudible) see that climate change will affect the ecosystem will affect the climate that it relies on?
RICHARD SOMERVILLE: I think the caller made a good point and I'm happy to separate policy of sides in the way that he described the role of science there is to tell you how much good sea levels rise and how fast could this happen if sea level is your concern. And there are many concerns of course because climate change means changing patterns of precipitation and changing storm tracks and changes in hurricanes and on other kinds of things beside sea level but he's right sea level will rise in a warming world pretty rose naturally during the changes coming out of Ice Age is for example by a lot incidentally. By something like 300 feet. It's not just a little inch or so and we now think that by the end of the current century when children being born today will still be alive in many cases that sea level on business as usual that is to say if we don't reduce our emissions of the greenhouse gases might rise by a couple of feet or more. Maybe 3 feet or more. Maybe more than that. And that's because we know more now about sea level rises so that for example in the last IEEC report a smaller amount was predicted based on thermal expansion of the ocean. The ocean takes up more volume as it heats up. But now we know that ice from Greenland and Antarctica, for melting glaciers on land but the size sheets too are also contributing to sea level rise and our best estimates of sea level rise are higher. So that could be taken into account in exactly the kind of analysis that your caller thinks. In many cases incidentally you can do both. You can adapt to a changing climate because some climate change is inevitable. It's already happening and you can also do mitigation. You can do things to reduce the rate of climate change. And some of the ways to do that are very pleasant, energy efficiency and energy conservation often have negative costs. It saves you money if you could switch your card today for identical credit twice as many miles to the gallon. So I think both courses are worth considering in both need to be informed by the science.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me take a moment, when we see sea level rise I think there are some people who think well we will have to build a little bit further back from the coast. What are the consequences of the rising sea level.
RICHARD SOMERVILLE: Well you know beach erosion here in San Diego, the cliffs of North County for example saline intrusions into estuaries, greater risk of flooding into Mission Valley, the certainly the loss of speech because beaches have very shallow slopes solarize a few inches can lose you a lot of peaches and more damage, more vulnerability to storms that come ashore. So if that is the consequence. I think sea level rise in Southern California is a concern but so for example is water shortages. We're going to have more water stressed because our sources of water here are not local rain by and large, they are the river system, the Colorado for example in the snow from the Sierras. Well it's not rocket science but in a warmer world there's less snow and rain it was so more water earlier in the year for flood control for examples of there'll be less availability and there are a lot of dominoes from that for example water stressed means not just higher water rates and conflicts between agricultural and urban use of water but also means greater risk of wildfires so those consequences of the policy process can work through once they are informed by science and now we can put our numbers on those things to a degree that we couldn't do just a few years ago.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's take a call. I'm speaking Prof. Richard Somerville and we are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Eleanor is calling from Hillcrest. Hi, Eleanor and welcome to These Days.
NEW SPEAKER: Oh yes well I'm very concerned about the media. Most people get their information from the media, TV in particular. And when a weatherman who appears to the authority and has some credibility as a meteorologist makes a very disparaging remark recently about Al Gore and his predictions about global warming and he is predicting on television that we are going to have a cold snap and he says hospital much for Al Gore, I think people tend to believe these things. They don't read papers therein that she stays and certainly not scientific articles. So I think that we need to make sure that the correct information is coming across to us because in the long run it is going to influence policy because we vote for people who influence our policies.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you Eleanor, thank you for that and I want you to perfect respond Prof. Somerville and I would like you to also tell us how that sort of makes you feel when you see snippets of people on various media decrying the science of climate change.
RICHARD SOMERVILLE: Well I think the caller made a number of very interesting points and one of them was her quite correct remark that the same unqualified person who doesn't do climate science, who doesn't have degrees in climate, doesn't publish research on income isn't familiar with the research literature is also somebody who prefers to disparage Al Gore. There is a perfect example of mixing your political preferences with scientific facts. And Al Gore is not a scientist, but he is a prominent figure in a polarizing figure. In fact if you can tell me how somebody voted in Bush versus Gore can probably tell you what they think about an inconvenient truth, Gore spoke at movie.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And unfortunately you could probably tell us how they feel on climate change.
RICHARD SOMERVILLE: Well I think that's right. As I said the politics and policy gets mixed in with the science. The message and the messenger become conflated but I've got a bunch of D&D rules. You know you wouldn't take medical advice from somebody who's not a doctor but has bought himself a white coat and a stethoscope and set up an office. You can tell a quack or a charlatan and medicine from the credentialed physician who is board certified and has a license to practice medicine and dispense drugs. And I think you want to use some of that same kind of discernment and deciding you take your climate advice from. So I have a great respect for television weatherman for example which the caller was speaking about. I've got degrees in meteorology, I can make weather forecasts. I think it's an extremely important function and the people who do it well are very skilled at it, but you know you wouldn't ask a cardiologist for advice on dentistry. So you've got to keep separate in your mind the fact that a person can be very skilled in making weather forecast for tomorrow while presenting them on radio or TV and yet not be very familiar with climate change science which is something quite different. Climate deals and averages longer time scales different physical processes, the ocean and the eyes as well as the atmosphere and so on. So it's not the same thing at all. In so the rear weatherman on TV who is doing research and publishing in peer-reviewed journals and going to climate science conferences and is aware of the technical literature. I think you ought to have your climate advice from somebody who is credentialed and experienced in the field and who doesn't cherry pick evidence. It considers all evidence in a balanced way. Isn't trying to express a political viewpoint and it doesn't have a EU might say delusion of grandeur.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call someone called Laura Saldana is on the line and good morning welcome to These Days.
NEW APEAKER: Good morning I want to thank you for an excellent program and I want to quantify for the listeners were saying where is the best cost-benefit analysis for climate change because the state of California has done that indirectly looking at energy, the largest single use of electrical energy in California is to move water from Northern California to other areas because we don't have as much rainfall here and we don't have local water. Fire fighting has increased from half $1 billion a decade ago to over $1 billion a year because of wildfires. Three quarters of our state firefighting costs are to fight wildfires. And that's 75% of those costs. Strictly because of these increases in fires we seen just in the last five years. So the cost of climate change in terms of the drier state with more fires and less water is costing us already billions of dollars and that doesn't even get into our agricultural losses because of lack of water. So I want to reassure your listeners that the state is quantifying climate change caused and is very daunting and the policymakers are working to manage into the future because it's already costing us billions of dollars.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Assemblywoman Laura Saldana thank you so much for that. Prof. Somerville would you like to comment?
RICHARD SOMERVILLE: I think the caller has that much more clearly and better than I could. These are economically serious issues. And sometimes people will try to belittle climate change by saying well you know we are talking about a degree or two or three of warming, G.I. Ward moved here from Denver and I ordered a lot more than and I kind of like it. They are mixing two things together. When we talk about the planet as a whole warming up by a few degrees it's like you're having your body having a few degrees of fever. It's a symptom is not the fact ER a few degrees warmer than makes you sick is a symptom of what could be a very serious illness. And again just as in medicine the more you warm the higher the fee for the more likely the illness is serious printing very many useful medical metaphors. It can be expensive to take action and one of the callers mentioned that, but as we know if you are faced between a choice of surgery which could be risky and costly and not doing anything you know and/or physician tells you it's also not without risk and not without cost to do nothing. So you have to take these issues very seriously and all of the thoughtful analyses that has been done and shown that the costs of climate change are very high. And there are many more losers than winners. Sure in a borderline agricultural area there might be a longer growing season or something like that, but also the damage to agriculture, two other climate sensitive parts of the economy and as we've just heard, the cost of firefighting and water moving are high and those need to be considered carefully in formulating policy.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You mentioned that part and parcel of your argument, you are open letter to scientists is that there is a well-funded and effective disinformation campaign which is also working against the science of climate change, getting up to the public in an adulterated form. Who benefits from such a campaign.
RICHARD SOMERVILLE: The disinformation campaign is funded by a combination of certain fossil fuel interests, Exxon Mobil funded for a long time. That's a well-documented. And you might say conservative political interests. That is to say, the people who might be imposed on political or ideological grounds to some of the policies that might be put in place. So if the elected tobacco industry and has been documented now. There is a good book out merchants of the doubt by my colleagues never rescues and Conway the documents the similarities the same playbook was used and in some cases some of the same players were used. The tobacco industry at some point had a famous slogan doubt is our product. The idea was to create the impression that scientists disagreed and that the science was immature and uncertain and that's simply not the case. There are always outliers in science. There's always somebody who thinks separately. Most people think they are Galileo and will overturn conventional wisdom by their genius are simply wrong. In this case there is still research to be done. I can't tell you yet exactly what the temperature in San Diego will be 50 years from now, but we know the basics very well. And that's very firmly established and I think once again parts of the media have I think been trying to show both sides to, let's hear the opposing view after all, when you do a story about aids you don't say AIDS which some scientists think is caused by HIV and you go find the rare person who thinks that it isn't although such people exist. I think we've got to get on the page now where we realize that climate science while it still has things to learn just as your doctor has things to learn about medicine is now mature enough, capable enough, competent enough to be useful in the same light that your physician's advice is useful when it comes to your health.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So what kind of a campaign would you like to see scientists embark on to get out the word on climate science?
RICHARD SOMERVILLE: I think it has to be multifaceted. I think there are organizations already, climate Central is the name of one of them that are producing good television segments. I would like to see the next documentary film be made not by Al Gore, but by a genius filmmaker, the Lucas's and Spielberg's of the film world for example. I'd like to see more classroom materials but Atlantis even translated into other languages. There are parts of the world were concerned about climate change is very much week and just beginning. People are not well informed at all. I'd like to see the social scientists involved. There are people who study how people make decisions and what kind of risk management is appropriate for things like this. And I'd like to see people get informed so that they could tell the politician who wants their vote that this is important. Nobody wants to leave the damaged planet to their kids. And yet this is not high on the priority, the expectations for the conference beginning today in Cancun are low. Neither China nor the US which together produce more than half of the greenhouse gases that are out there these days have been willing to make commitments. The current Congress is less willing than its predecessors to make commitments. You know to be elected on the Republican side to the house in the last election when Republicans took control itwas almost a litmus test to get conservative for tea party support you had pretty much to say that you don't believe climate science. We have to get past that. The science itself is not ideological and a lot of things are known and it's silly to say we should ignore something like that. Make your own decision about policy, but come to grips with what science is teaching us.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Prof. Somerville, thank you so much for speaking with us today.
RICHARD SOMERVILLE: It's been a great pleasure.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: My guest has been Richard Somerville distinguished Prof. emeritus at Scripps institution of oceanography. If you would like to comment there are several people online and I apologize we couldn't get to your call you can go online though KPBS.org/these days. Now coming up we will talk about some of the hottest high-tech gadgets for the holidays. That's as These Days continues on KPBS.