Editor’s Note: Train Wreck Earth is a scientific novel designed to educate the public about climate change so that citizens will demand action. Source for this information: Interview with the authors at Dr. Mann’s office, Penn State University, 8/01/2016
At precisely the start time for class, Ian and Nigel and Michael Mann walked briskly into the classroom, and everyone just stopped what they were doing and became silent. The students knew that Michael Mann was the guest lecturer for the day, and most had read the brief resume that Ian had given them last class.
Ian began, “Hello, everyone. Some of you may not totally realize the incredible opportunity you’re being given today by having a private lecture with our guest speaker today, Dr. Michael Mann of Penn State University. But, I assure you, someday, you’ll look back at your college experience here and you’ll put this experience on the highlight reel.
“Dr. Mann (from PSU website) is Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Penn State University, with joint appointments in the Department of Geosciences and the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute (EESI). He is also director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center (ESSC).
“He received his undergraduate degrees in Physics and Applied Math from the University of California at Berkeley, an M.S. degree in Physics from Yale University, and a Ph.D. in Geology & Geophysics from Yale University. His research involves the use of theoretical models and observational data to better understand Earth’s climate system.
“Dr. Mann was a Lead Author on the Observed Climate Variability and Change chapter of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Third Scientific Assessment Report in 2001 and was organizing committee chair for the National Academy of Sciences Frontiers of Science in 2003. He has received a number of honors and awards including NOAA’s outstanding publication award in 2002 and selection by Scientific American as one of the fifty leading visionaries in science and technology in 2002. He contributed, with other IPCC authors, to the award of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. He was awarded the Hans Oeschger Medal of the European Geosciences Union in 2012 and was awarded the National Conservation Achievement Award for science by the National Wildlife Federation in 2013. He made Bloomberg News’ list of fifty most influential people in 2013. In 2014, he was named Highly Cited Researcher by the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) and received the Friend of the Planet Award from the National Center for Science Education. He is a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
“Dr. Mann is author of more than 200 peer-reviewed and edited publications, and has published three books including Dire Predictions: Understanding Climate Change; The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines; and The Madhouse Effect, co-authored with Washington Post editorial cartoonist Tom Toles. He is also a co-founder of the award-winning science website RealClimate.org.
“Let’s give a big Blue Ridge welcome to Dr. Michael Mann. (applause)
“… Thank you so much. I recall coming to this campus about three years ago and speaking to an enthusiastic group up in your Student Union, I think the Table Rock Room. I could tell then that this university has a culture suited to learning the facts and doing the right things, especially in this case, regarding our climate crisis. Drs. Mitchell and Oswalt told me that most of you are senior-level students with majors in Sustainable Development, Appropriate Technology and Anthropology, but that some of you are following other paths but are otherwise gluttons for punishment and wanted to hear about climate change anyway. Bless your hearts, as I’m told you say here in the South when people seem to go astray. Just kidding.
“I’m glad that there is a variety of backgrounds and interests here and I especially hope that those of you who have any heartburn accepting the reality of the science I’m about to discuss will raise your hands and honestly tell me what just doesn’t seem plausible or right to you. I want to know what you think. I want to know what parts of this, if any, do not resonate with you, because so much is on the line for all living things on the planet, we just have to get this right, we just have to educate the public that serious action has to begin on this, and we just have to see this as a common threat that binds us together, not drives us apart.
“So, your instructors asked me to explain climate change to this group in any order I want, and in any manner I want. Nice to be given a blank slate. I have done this a few times and I do have my own means of trying to convey what I understand and believe about this to audiences. Nice to have a group that has some real background on the topic from the get-go. And, once I go over the basics that I think everyone ought to understand, I’ll editorialize a bit and put it into perspective regarding our new President, Donald Trump.
“What I like to start out with when I talk about the issue of climate change is just sort of the basic facts—what do we know based on the science of climate and the science of climate change. There is a misconception, a popular misconception, that the science behind human-caused climate change is somehow controversial, that it is very new, and uncertain and controversial science. And nothing could be further from the truth. The basic ingredient—the scientific ingredient—is the greenhouse effect, and we have known about the fact that certain gases in the atmosphere, like carbon dioxide, have this warming influence. They trap heat and they warm the lower atmosphere and the surface of the Earth. We’ve known about the greenhouse effect for nearly two centuries.
“In fact, Joseph Fourier was the same scientist who gave us the Fourier series of mathematics, the law of heat conduction—how heat diffuses through solid objects. In the early 1800’s, Fourier understood that there was a greenhouse effect, and so over the past two centuries we have essentially just been refining our understanding of the details. But the basic ingredient, the greenhouse effect, is not controversial and it goes back further than evolution. Sometimes I will point out to my colleagues in evolutionary biology that we are still fighting the battle against the forces of anti-science who deny that evolution is real, and our science goes even further back to the early 1800’s. So, the basic facts that there are different gases in the atmosphere that warm the planet is physics and chemistry that goes back nearly two centuries.
“The fact that we are increasing the concentration of the gases in the atmosphere again is irrefutable. We have been measuring the buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere for more than half a century, and from ice cores we can actually extend that record back hundreds of thousands of years. And we know that CO2 in the atmosphere is at a level now that we have not seen in at least 800,000 years where we have solid ice core data. There is tentative evidence that CO2 levels now are higher than they have been in several million years and so we are engaged in this uncontrolled and unprecedented experiment with the one planet that we know can support life like ours.
“So, that’s all you really need to know. Now, for some people there is a misconception that the science of climate change is based on the fact that the Earth is warming up. That’s not true. The science is based on simple theoretical considerations that tell us when you increase the concentration of gases—these greenhouse gases in the atmosphere—the surface has to warm up. What we wouldn’t be able to explain, therefore, would be if the Earth were not warming up in response to the loading of greenhouse gases by industrial activity and our activities. And indeed, it has warmed up. It has warmed up about a degree and a half Fahrenheit already, and there’s at least another half a degree Fahrenheit if not more in the pipeline from carbon we have already burned which is already in the atmosphere and continues to warm the planet.
“When you look at the impacts of climate change, you have to ask what impact will this warming have, is this warming having, and is it likely to have in the future. When scientists study the impacts of climate change, they consider the effects on food or water or land, sea level rise, land available for human habitation, human health, and our economy, to name a few. Regardless of what dimensions of impacts you look at, what scientists who study the impacts will tell you is once we warm the planet by more than about 2 degrees Celsius, about 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit, that’s where we start to see some of the worst impacts.
“We are already seeing bad things happen. This past year the warmest temperatures on record, 2016, (consider update to this) beat the all-time record for the warmest year on record. We have seen the strongest hurricanes in both hemispheres on record, and the warmest oceans. Warmer oceans mean more moisture in the atmosphere, moisture that is available for storms to form heavy rainfall events or what we call floods. We have seen unprecedented flooding in the United States in several locations, Arizona, in South Carolina and in a number of states we have seen so called thousand year floods. West Virginia had thousand year floods, floods that shouldn’t happen naturally once in more than a thousand years. Yet they are happening all over the country now. That’s because of the loading of the atmosphere with more moisture due to warming of the oceans which we can also measure. So we are seeing more extreme flooding events.
“Interestingly enough, the devastating nor’easter in Washington, DC the winter of 2015—the largest snowfall total on record for the Washington, DC area—had a climate change imprint. Some people think that there is a contradiction: ‘well if it is warmer, how can you get more snow?’ Well, it is getting warmer, but winters will still have periods of subfreezing time. Winters will still be cold. Even as we double the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we will still have cold winters over a large part of the United States. It is just that the length of the winter will be shorter, the cold will be less extreme, and will see more warm extremes in the summer. But we will still have cold winters and Washington, DC will still get more snowfall, and if it is cold enough to get snowfall you will actually get more of it.
“Because, again, the warmer the oceans are, the more moisture that is available. And when we have that historic nor’easter that blanketed Washington, DC with several feet of snow, the oceans off the east coast were the warmest they have been at that time of year. And that meant once again that there was more moisture in the atmosphere for that storm to entrain as it strengthened, and it ultimately takes that moisture off the ocean inland to where it is cold and it forms precipitation—not in the form of rain, but snow—and you get more snowfall. People who think that the record snowfalls that we have seen in Boston and Washington, DC and other areas along the East coast that they somehow are a contradiction, when it comes to climate change, they are just the opposite.
“Yes, do you have a question?”
“Thank you, Dr. Mann. Yes, my name is Daniel and I’m from the Buffalo, New York, area and I wonder if what you’re describing has a similar effect on what we call ‘lake effect’ snows?”
“Absolutely. Places like Buffalo, even Syracuse, have seen record snowfalls. Once again the lakes are open for a longer period of time, and the relatively warm lake temperatures are exposed to the atmosphere warming the air as it travels over the lakes. So you get bigger lake effect snows and you get a longer season. Lake effect snows tend to stop mid-winter when the lakes freeze over, and increasingly the lakes will not be freezing over and that means we will have the potential for lake effect snows over an increasingly long duration through the winter. Thank you for your question. And, if anyone else has questions as I go along, please do as Daniel did and stop me.
“So, we’re seeing heavy rainfall events, heavy snowfalls, sometimes devastating snowfalls. We’re seeing more droughts. Now you might say well if we are getting heavier precipitation events how can it be that we get more droughts. Well, what the models predict and what we are seeing happening is that the individual rainfall events become heavier, but over a large part of the world they become fewer and far between. So, while you get more rainfall when it rains, especially over the summer, those rainfall events become less frequent and so you get a longer period of time of low or no rainfall, you get warmer soils, which mean more evaporation of whatever moisture the ground might have.
“And that is a prescription for worsened drought. Like the drought we have seen in California, the worst drought on record. And when I say on record, the paleo-climate scientists who study tree rings to reconstruct the past history of rainfall and drought in that part of the world say that the data that they have goes back at least 1200 years and indicates that this is the worst drought on record back for 1200 years.
“I have some colleagues who are not convinced that the unprecedented drought we are seeing in California bears the fingerprint of human activity. I, myself, feel it is very unlikely to be a coincidence that the worst drought on record in 1200 years coincides with a period where California has also seen the worst temperatures on record. That means there is more potential evaporation of the moisture. So even if you want to debate the relationship between climate change and the lack of rainfall due to storms being pushed northward of their normal tract, we think there is a climate change connection there and there are a whole bunch of details involved in that.
“But even if you neglect that side of it—just the warmer soils in the summer, then think about the lower snowpack, earlier and less snowmelt, which is part of it that freshwater runoff from the spring melt of snow in the Sierra that helps provide California with the water that it needs. So you have got less snowpack, less snowmelt and warmer soils, and you combine that with the fact that these storms have been migrating northward of California, and you end up getting the worst drought in at least a millennium. And you also get wildfire, like the Fort McMurray fire.”
When Michael mentioned Fort McMurray in Alberta, Nigel jumped in to describe one of his keen interests, the Tar Sands in Alberta, and the big fire there in 2015. “Michael, I was going to ask you about that, that’s over a million acres at this point. My non-profit climate newspaper, The Climate Times, wants to do a story about that fire. So we have hired someone to really look into it.”
“Excellent. Yeah, well in my view there is a climate connection there. The fact is we have seen a tripling in the extent of wildfire in the past 30 years in North America. When I say that the impacts of climate change are no longer subtle, when you see a tripling of wildfire, you don’t need fancy statistics to tease the signal out of the data. It is staring you in the face.”
Then Ian spoke about his trip to the Arctic with Nigel in ’04. “Yes, and we were stranded a day somewhere up in the middle of the Yukon because our bush pilot couldn’t fly because the fires were so great that they didn’t have the visibility. Worst fires at that time than had been in decades.”
“Right. Well, and what if those wildfires in Alberta had reached the tar sands, which they were at the very edge of? You talk about your feedbacks. That is a huge potential feedback right there. The warming, causing very dry conditions, made a great set-up for a big fire, ironically, right where they are trying to harvest more fossil fuels to continue to add to the warming.”
At the momentary pause, Jake raised his hand.
“Yes, over there.”
“Thank you, Dr. Mann. I’m Jake and I’m from the Raleigh area. … While we are talking about weather, and current weather phenomena, I have a friend who calls all this global weirding—the idea that lots of things are changing in ways that aren’t just warmer temperatures. For an example, is there a connection between the smaller and smaller ice cover in the arctic and some of the more extreme weather we see in other parts of North America?”
“Thank you, Jake. Good point. I think there is an emerging body of evidence that strongly suggests a connection between Arctic ice cover and weather patterns a long way south of there. And in fact we have an article that is soon to be submitted to the peer-reviewed literature based on work that I have been doing in looking at what we call polar amplification. So you melt the Artic, you melt the sea ice, and you get even more warming because that ice is no longer there to reflect sunlight back to space. You get what we call positive feedback.
“I’m sure you’ve already talked about feedbacks in this class. But the term ‘positive’ should not be mistaken as a good thing, even though it sounds like one. It is an amplifying factor and it is a vicious cycle and you get even more warming because you melt away the ice. And it is part of why climate models tend to predict more warming at the higher latitudes that at the mid latitudes and lower latitudes.
“And the work that we are doing builds on a body of evidence, a number of papers that have been published in leading journals over the last few years, in particular by a group at the University of Potsdam in Germany—Stefan Rahnstorf and his collaborators. And what they have shown is that it has to do with some pretty complicated atmospheric physics. There are some real physics involved here that when you change the variation of temperature with latitude, then you actually change the winds in the upper atmosphere. The strength of the jet stream is closely related to the variation of latitude with temperatures and what we call the gradient between the cold north and the warm south in the northern hemisphere. And what happens is that because of that polar amplification, you reduce that gradient.
“That’s one way to think about the impact of that, so there are some pretty complicated physics that you have to do to do it right and to get quantitative about. But if you want to get qualitative about it, think about it in the same way as you would think about it if you had land that is gently sloping versus land that is sharply sloping. The sharper the slope when you have running water, the more direct that the flow of the water is going to be in a straight line. As you lower the variation in the topography that is when you get meandering rivers, the flatter the topography, the more meandering a river gets. It’s sort of the same thing with the jet stream. The flatter that temperature gradient, because of global warming and polar amplification, the more the jet stream seems to get locking into these meandering patterns for weeks or even months at a time.
Review the original for this paragraph: “Well, it is these very persistent anomalies in the jet stream that lead to extreme and persistent weather anomalies. If the jet stream gets locked into a configuration that means one place is getting dumped on with rainfall while another place continues to be deprived of rainfall. And so, as well as the fact that the jet stream brings warm air with it to the south and cold air to the south, so it helps to generate temperature extremes as well if you get these very persistent meanders in the jet stream. Where the jet stream wanders far south and stays there during the winter and the southeastern US say you are going to get a very warm winter like you had this winter. (not sure about this wording) In fact we had a warm winter for the entire US because the jet stream was far to the north and the warm air was being brought up from the south. So as the jet stream travels north it brings warm air with it, and as it travels south in the northern hemisphere it brings cold air with it, and you can generate these temperature extremes.
“So, what we are finding in our work is that there is definitely a relationship between the pattern in warming caused by greenhouse gases and the favorability in the gradients in temperature to these very persistent meandering patterns in the jet stream that are giving us the 2003 European heat wave, the 2011 Texas drought, the 2012 Pakistani floods, the Russian wildfires—all that were related to a very persistent meander in the jet stream.
“So, the basics of it qualitatively are what I just described, and if you want to get a quantitative answer you sort of have to do the physics. And there are a lot of interesting physics in it and I enjoy that part of the science—doing the hard math and the hard physics—to get an answer. But the bottom line is that, yes, even my own work now in this area reinforces the sense that I have from the existing body of research that there is a connection, and that’s beyond the obvious connections. The obvious connections are warmer atmosphere holds more moisture so you can get a more extreme rainfall event, that’s a given. The hotter temperatures are the more extreme the heat waves are going to be. That’s a given. You don’t have to do fancy physics to get that. But we think on top of that some of these other extreme events may be favored by this more subtle connection, which to come back to your original question, Jake, is indeed tied to amplification of warming in the arctic—which is happening ahead of schedule.
“And here is another important point, because the critics like to say the climate models—we can’t trust them, their predictions are alarmist, they are an exaggeration. Well if you actually look at what the models have predicted and what is actually happening we are losing sea ice in the arctic faster than what the climate models predicted. And that means that the polar amplification is greater and happening more quickly than the models had predicted. And so the increase in extreme weather events tied into that it is a nasty surprise. It is something that we would not have predicted based on the models, but we see it playing out. And, retrospectively, we can say, ‘oh, yes, we now see how this is related to changes in the climate that are human caused but we could not have predicted it beforehand.’ It is certainly a cautionary tale.”
This point about the models was a hot button for Ian, and he jumped in. “But doesn’t it point out that the models which have been created now for quite some time, as time goes by, the remaining variables that have much uncertainty around them are becoming fewer and fewer. I believe that clouds are something people are still trying to totally get their arms around, but most all of the other factors are pretty well nailed down. Is that a safe statement?”
“Yeah, you’re right. The basics are pretty well nailed down. The greenhouse effect is nearly two centuries old, and the fact that we are going to get a warming. But precisely how much warming is going to depend on things like clouds and other factors we are still refining. But even at the lower end of the projected warming, we are talking about more than enough to take us into that dangerous more-than-two-degree-Celsius-3.5-degree-Fahrenheit territory, even at the lower end of the predictions.
“But, yeah, there are some remaining uncertainties. And the theme here is what you would hope from the standpoint of avoiding catastrophe, if you are an optimist and as the uncertainties collapse, maybe we get lucky and it turns out that the truth is at the low end of the uncertainty range, the low end of the warming, the low end of the ice loss, and the sea level rise.
“But, if you are trying to be even-handed, you might say ‘well, let’s just assume that the uncertainties are reduced and we sort of end up in the middle of the uncertainty range and that’s probably what we would expect in general.’ As it happens we instead find ourselves in sort of the worst-case scenario where, as we reduce the uncertainties, what we are finding and what is collapsing is the low end, not the high end. And what we are finding is that sea ice is melting faster than the models projected it to. The ice sheets—the Greenland ice sheet, the West Antarctic ice sheet—are less stable than we thought. We are losing large parts of those ice sheets, certainly in the case of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which is the most vulnerable to warming, much earlier than we expected. The models said that those ice sheets would probably be stable through the middle of this century, but the satellite measurements are telling us that we are losing substantial ice now from the Greenland ice sheet and the West Antarctic ice sheet.”
Ian followed up: “Isn’t Greenland pouring an enormous amount of fresh water into the Atlantic?”
“That’s right. And that’s happening faster than expected, which means that the North Atlantic is freshening faster than we expected, which potentially is behind another nasty surprise that my colleagues and I published about last year—the conveyor belt ocean circulation pattern that helps regulate the climate of the North Atlantic and parts of Europe and parts of eastern North America. That ocean circulation pattern appears to be slowing down faster than the climate models predicted it to, because the ice is melting faster. So, if all of these things in the model get them wrong, then there is sort of this cascade effect. The model is going to get a bunch of other important things wrong. And what is happening is, much to our chagrin, the models appear to have gotten it wrong in such a way that those things are happening faster than we expected them to.”
Then, Nigel reinforced Michael’s last point and said, “Ian has been looking at all these results and he has been harping on this idea of worse-than-predicted outcomes for two or three years.”
“I could see a sense of recognition there.”
Ian confirmed, “This is not an exaggeration. I have probably read 10,000 articles or papers in the last 10 years, and it seems like every time some empirical information gets published in fact, the results are worse than the models thought it might be by this point.”
“Right. And, you know part of why that’s true? You guys are probably familiar with the work of Naomi Oreskes. And James Hansen, the climate scientist, has also written on the issue of scientific reticence. He wrote that there is this intrinsic conservativeness in the world of science, that scientists don’t want to be alarmists, they don’t want to be coming out ahead of the pack, and they feel safe being in the middle, especially when there are bad actors looking to discredit us and malign us and to vilify us. There is a very strong tendency to understate rather than overstate findings, and sometimes that tends to get encoded even into the assumptions that are made when it comes to uncertain aspects of the climate models. I am not the only one to believe that to some extent those factors have led the climate change community to be overly conservative—certainly in the way that we talk about impacts and what we say about the impacts.”
“Dr. Mann, my name is Chloe, and we read about the precautionary principle in one of our introductory classes. It basically said that if I am wrong and you are wrong, and we all could be wrong, and we just don’t know, and it really could be bad, it isn’t ‘Hey man, live it up.’ Until we understand all the science and all the variables, then logic says we ought to be playing it safe. And if people don’t react that way, then shame on them.”
“Yeah, well, as George Bush famously said, ‘Fool me once, shame on me; fool me twice—well you ain’t going to fool me again.’ So, the fact is it is antithetical, right? There is this bias towards conservativism when it comes to scientists talking about the projects and even in the way the science is done to some extent. Well, that is entirely an antithetical to what society demands. When the potential costs are as great as they are, we err on the side of caution of not perturbing this system—the climate system—that we don’t understand perfectly, when we don’t have a planet B to go to if we screw this one up.
“The cost of damaging the climate catastrophically is effectively infinite, because we all rely on the stability of the climate and there will be no economy if we don’t have a livable planet. There is an infinite cost to destroying the planet, and when you talk to experts in the arena of climate change economics and cost-benefit analysis, the leading enlightened academics in that field will tell you that indeed the precautionary principle is codified in proper cost-benefit analysis because you can show that the impact of uncertainty is asymmetric. Much like you said, about the precautionary principle, what if the changes that do happen end up being smaller than we predicted and we acted to mitigate with even more vigor than we otherwise would have? Well, arguably there are lots of good things that are going to happen anyway from that and the cost at worst is going to be minor having done that. But the cost in underestimating the impacts is much, much larger.
“So we call that a heavy-tailed distribution, even of the uncertainty is symmetric. If you look at the distribution and the probability for damages, it does not look like that at all. Here’s the low side and here’s the heavy side. It falls off very gradually, which means there is some sizeable likelihood of impacts and costs that are many times larger than our current best estimate. We can’t preclude changes and impacts that are much larger than what the models currently predict on average, so if you do the cost-benefit analysis right, and you do the economics right, it tells you to act. It tells you that uncertainty is a reason for even more concerted action because of what the economists will call the heavy-tailed nature of the distribution, the probability curve of impacts and costs.
“So, that’s right, the intrinsic conservativeness and reticence that is sort of intrinsic in the way scientists talk about and do the science is at odds with what a proper cost-benefit analysis tells you. It tells you that, in fact, you want to weigh in on the side of caution because of the potential for the impacts. And that means from a practical standpoint that as a communicator—as a scientist or anyone trying to communicate the impacts of climate change—it is extremely important for you to emphasize some of the impacts that may be low probability by our current estimates, that seem relatively unlikely that they will happen, but if they were to happen they would be so catastrophic that it makes sense to take them into account. It is like fire insurance—it is why we purchase fire insurance. I actually looked this up at one point, it is something like 25 percent of us at some point experience some sort of house fire but even that, that’s 25 percent, but nearly 100 percent of us buy fire insurance because we know even if it is relatively unlikely that we will ever experience one, if we did, the costs would be so catastrophic to us and to our lives that it makes sense to invest now in the form of insurance. So think of this climate change mitigation, reducing carbon emissions, as a planetary insurance policy. Now we have covered mitigation. … Over there, do you have a question?”
“Yes, Dr. Mann. My name is Sharon, and I think of myself as a pragmatist, and my mind goes to solutions. So, are you going to go into things maybe that we should be doing?”
“Yes, absolutely. Thank you, Sharon for that question. It is a perfect segue. … So we’ve now come to understand why even the most conservative economists who study this problem will tell you that uncertainty is a reason for action, and not a reason for delay, and it certainly is not a reason for inaction. So what are those actions—what measures can we take to avoid catastrophic warming of the planet? It turns out that to avoid the 2 degrees Celsius, 3.5 degree Fahrenheit dangerous level of warming, is going to require quite concerted action.
“We basically have to rapidly—and that means now—transition away from a fossil fuel driven global economy towards a renewable non-carbon energy economy. The good news is that is literally already happening and the market is naturally taking us in that direction. And the free market folks will just say, ‘well, just let the market solve it.’ There is a small grain of truth in that. The market will move in that direction, but it won’t do that nearly fast enough without a proper price signal.
“As my colleague Richard Alley is fond of pointing out, and I think he got it from somewhere else but I always credit him with it, ‘the stone age didn’t end for want of stones’. And the fossil fuel age won’t end for the want of fossil fuels. If we were to exhaust the available fossil fuels, even the provable fuel reserves that are on the sheets of the fossil fuel companies right now, we could raise CO2 concentrations to quadruple the preindustrial level, or beyond. So running out of fossil fuels isn’t going to solve the problem (emphasis added). And ultimately, as they become more scarce and more expensive, and other energy sources like solar and wind and geothermal become relatively less expensive, the market will move in that direction.
“The problem is, without a price signal to the market that reflects the damage that the burning of fossil fuels is already doing right now, you won’t move there fast enough. You certainly won’t move in that direction fast enough to avoid the dangerous 3.5 degree Fahrenheit warming. To do that you need a price signal, you need to put a price on the burning of carbon and there is a very worthy policy debate to be had about how we do that. In my view there is an equal place for conservatives and progressives at the table talking about how we do that. You have some conservative Republicans, like Bob Inglis, a former congressman from South Carolina who articulates a conservative approach to pricing carbon. He prefers a revenue-neutral carbon tax that would offset, for example, income taxes, and conservatives in general tend not to like income taxes. So, you could lower income taxes a certain amount while introducing a carbon tax so that you would keep the overall taxation of the American people constant.
“But you would just shift the emphasis of the taxation towards what you are trying to eliminate. I think that it is great that he is out there advocating for that approach. There is a worthy policy debate/political debate to be had about what sorts of mechanisms we put in place to incentivize that transition away from fossil fuel burning. And as a scientist I don’t feel that my role is to try to prescribe that policy debate. But scientists do have a role in setting the ground rules. We have to accept that there is a problem and there is a cost of inaction. We can quantify that and any discussion about policy has to be predicated on an acceptance on what the science has to say about the problem.
“Where I have problems, where I am troubled, is that we have too many politicians today—mostly from one of the two major parties, mostly on the Republican side of the aisle—who reject that there is even a problem and who simply want to bury their heads in the sand. If you don’t want to, if you are sort of ideologically opposed to regulating carbon, if you are say in the pay of the fossil fuel interests, and you are working as advocates for their cause and you are opposed to any price on carbon, well, the simplest way to justify that is to claim there is no problem in the first place. But it is not an intellectually honest position and I think we have moved past the point where we can tolerate in our politics such a bad faith stance. I do think there is a worthy debate to be had about what sorts of policies we put in place to solve the problem, but there is no longer a place for any debate about whether there is a problem.”
Nigel had been following the lawsuits against Exxon to penalize them for their allegedly willful hiding what they knew about climate change decades ago. “Is this why we are seeing the Exxon concerns now?”
“I think so. I think the parallels are becoming disturbingly apparent between what the tobacco industry did decades ago hiding the health impacts of their product. They could have come to the table and said, ‘Look. We want to own up to our responsibility. Our product was doing damage and we want to try to right this.’ And I think they would have been embraced if they had come forward and tried to work with health officials, public health experts, in fixing the problem. But instead they doubled down on a campaign of doubt and deceit. And now we are learning that what ultimately came to light is that they had identified the problem even before most scientists. They knew back in the 1950’s that their product was killing people and they chose to bury that in their internal reports and fund a public campaign to discredit independent scientists who were coming to the same conclusion.
“What we are now learning is that the fossil fuel industry did the same thing. Some of Exxon-Mobil’s internal documents have come to light, thanks in substantial part to the investigative work of a news media organization, a new Pulitzer Prize winning organization, Inside Climate News. Due to their investigative reporting over several months they uncovered these internal documents that showed that Exxon-Mobil’s own scientists were telling their own executives that the impacts of what they were doing could be catastrophic. That is a word from their own report. Just like, this is a phrase from the internal tobacco documents: ‘Doubt is, in effect, our product’. They were literally marketing doubt. Hence the term ‘merchants of doubt’. It comes from an internal Brown and Williamson tobacco document that was released as part of the settlement with the attorneys general in the tobacco litigation back in the 1980s and 1990s. That was a phrase from their own documents, ‘Doubt is our product”. They were trying to market doubt about the health impacts of their product.
“Now we know that Exxon-Mobil, and presumably a number of other fossil fuel interests, were doing the same thing. And I think there was a level of maturity that was required in our understanding of the health impacts of smoking cigarettes and tobacco products, there was a certain level of maturity that was necessary before we were willing to hold them accountable when that happened in the 1980s and 1990s. In half a century we got to the point where we were willing to call out these bad faith actors because it was becoming impossible for them to hide the impact their product was having. I think it is not coincidental that we are at the same point now with the issue of fossil fuel burning and climate change where people can now see with their own eyes the unfolding impacts of climate change. As I said before they are no longer subtle, and I think we have reached the point now that there is a recognition that this really is a problem, and we are willing to hold accountable those who in bad faith attempted to hide the problem for their own narrow short term self-interest.”
Ian was so engrossed with Michael’s perspective and knowledge, that he just naturally assumed that he and Michael were having a private conversation, and he jumped back in with another follow-up question. “Michael, it reminds me a little of my reading of the Civil Rights Movement. It took a long time, more and more awareness, more and more things happened, and there came to be sort of a tipping point at which you could see on the evening news little old women, grandmothers, Black people being knocked down by fire hoses and snarled at by dogs, and we finally said ‘That’s enough’.”
“ … It is interesting. I am an armchair psychologist. I have friends and colleagues who are psychologists, and I try to learn from them. I think there is a certain type of denial that causes what the psychologist call cognitive dissonance, that we have to hold these two internally conflicting viewpoints simultaneously when you sort of know in the back of your mind that there is a problem, but you also recognize that acting on that problem is going to be tough, and it is going to be difficult, and you want to avoid it. So, there is this internal conflict and it is there and eventually the dissonance becomes too great and you can no longer hold those increasingly conflicting viewpoints and I think that is what happened with civil rights, it happened with tobacco, and it is happening with climate change.”
“Yes, Michael, but the thing about civil rights and tobacco, as egregious are they were, they could just go on and on. The thing about climate change is that apparently there are some external deadlines which we do not control.”
“And, Ian, you are right. I’ve made the point before in my book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars. I make the point that we look back with revulsion at the CEOs of the tobacco companies and they got up and all testified that there was no impact when their own internal research showed that there was. They lied. There is no other word for it, and those lies were responsible for millions of deaths. The denial of climate change will probably be responsible for an order of magnitude larger number of deaths. It is more subtle, it is more difficult to take that tally, but when you look at the numbers and when you make some reasonable assumptions, far more people will have died by the denial by the fossil fuel industry of climate change than died from smoking tobacco products. So, denial has a direct toll which can be measured in not just economic cause, but in human lives.”
When Michael made those statements, everything stopped for a moment as this reality soaked in. Ian’s frustration level with a broken system in Congress rose to the boiling stage. Nigel took the opportunity to move the conversation to mitigation.
“Michael, I’d like to ask you a question that, for a little bit, let’s us talk about mitigation. In 2018 there is a meeting of the ICCP scheduled to try to say, ‘Ok, last time we said 2 degrees—wait—we’d better do it at 1.5 degrees, and maybe in 2018 we can get our heads together and decide what type of mitigation would actually hold us at 1.5 degrees’. Presently it ain’t there. The Paris agreement, COP21, just didn’t seem to get it done. So you are involved with this group. What do you think about this 2018 conference and its chances of really making a difference in terms of how the nations are going to look at it?”
“Yeah, I am somewhat involved. I often find myself somewhat optimistic relative to some of my peers when it comes to my assessment of our prospects of avoiding a 2 degree Celsius warming of the planet which has been agreed upon as a conservative estimate of where we reach dangerous interference with the climate system. When it comes to even more restrictive target of 1.5 degrees Celsius, I lose some of that optimism. When you do the math, the numbers are just that much more complicated when you take into account that we have warmed the planet already 1 degree Celsius and there is another half of degree Celsius or so already in the pipeline. 1.5 C has no room for policy, there is no margin. At 2 degrees Celsius, you’ve got a margin. You have half a degree Celsius to work with, and we can do that. To avoid 1.5 degrees Celsius, we would need very strong mitigation, a dramatic transition away from fossil fuel burning to renewable energy, non-carbon energy, and most likely an active capture and sequestration of CO2 in the atmosphere. We would literally have to draw some of the CO2 back out of the atmosphere, most likely, to avoid that target with any degree of likelihood and of confidence of success.
“And, so what that means to me is that there is some subjectivity to what we define to be dangerous interference with the climate. If you talk to people in low-lying island nations now in Kavalina, talk to people in Alaska, if you talk to people in California right now, you talk to the people who lost their homes in super-storm Sandy, for many people dangerous climate change has already arrived. There is no question about that, so when we come up with some number, what we are really saying is how much damage are we willing to accept, how much danger and damage and loss, what’s an acceptable level. And there is this political consensus that has developed when it comes to 2 degrees Celsius and it really is as I said, subjective. But what I can certainly tell you, what is objective, is that two degrees Celsius warming isn’t nearly as bad as three, and three isn’t nearly as bad as four. But 1.5 would be better, and even with 1.5 degrees Celsius there will be damage.
“You know, the resulting climate changes will be devastating for some people, and most of those people are the people who had the least role in creating the problem in the first place, like people in developing nations. So there is this ethical conundrum there as well.
“So, in the end most likely we will need policy agreements that go well beyond what’s currently on the table. So in 2018, if there is going to be serious discussion about stabilizing at 1.5 degree Celsius, well, unfortunately, what’s happening is the likelihood of stabilizing below these targets is diminishing as time goes on as we don’t act, and at the same time it is fundamentally inconsistent with the idea that we can strengthen the target as time goes on. They are going in the wrong direction, and it is getting harder and harder to mitigate at level and yet, it seems politically expedient to hold off and say for the time being we will mitigate at 2 and then later at 1.5 and maybe eventually… “
Nigel added sarcastically, “What is wrong with this picture?”
“The picture is, you know, these two things you talk about, cognitive dissidence, and there is a certain level of cognitive dissidence. The idea that we can adhere to stronger and stronger, we can put off those difficult negotiations, but it doesn’t work that way. We commit to more and more climate change as time goes on, so 1.5 degrees Celsius is slipping away and in my view if we haven’t made substantial progress before 2018 and the two years before then, the only policies that will get us there will be policies which make use of as yet untested—at least at the scale we are talking about—untested technology to actively take CO2 out of the atmosphere.
Taking CO2 out of the atmosphere was a hot button for Ian. He’d heard about some really radical ideas called geoengineering that people have dreamed up so that we don’t have to stop carbon at the source by using renewables. “Well, let me ask you about geoengineering.”
“Sure. A type of geoengineering is direct air capture, literally sucking the CO2 out of the atmosphere, but you are fighting the laws of thermodynamics and economics when you do that.”
“Because you are using energy to do that, right?”
“Yeah, you are trying to take a diffuse gas and increase its concentration greatly, which is going against the laws of thermodynamics, and so it is energetically very expensive to do that and financially very expensive to do that. On the other hand, allowing more—allowing catastrophic warming, may be far more expensive than even doing that so you would still do it. You would still do the direct air capture as expensive as it might be because the alternative is unacceptable.
Ian shared what he had heard someone describe geoengineering as: “It is like taking more Lipitor even though it is expensive because you are otherwise going to have a heart attack.”
As the class was winding down, Nigel jumped back in. “I had a follow up to my 2018 question. There are a number of reputable scientists, including certainly Bob Howarth and Drew Shindell who…
“He’s a good friend of mine. He was at my wedding, and I was at his first son’s bris.”
“Well, he has become a pretty good friend and correspondent with me (still talking about Shindell or Howrath?) and I sense that, this I am concerned about. They are saying that unless we can essentially immediately, maybe by 2018, stop methane, and there are ways to do that, Howarth has actually written reports on how to do it with the agricultural methane and as well as of course fracking pretty much has to say gone because it is a tremendous threat. But those scientists are pretty much adamant that if you don’t want 2 degrees then you have to at least do the methane thing. What is your opinion?”
“Yes, so it starts to get into some of the really difficult nuances of the problem, because it is one thing to talk about limits and thresholds as if they exist for perpetuity, when in fact the problem is sort of a time-dependent problem. So, in reality what’s more likely than we will stabilize warming asymptotically well below 2 degrees Celsius, is that it is more likely that any threshold for stabilizing long term warming below 2 degrees Celsius is going to involve an over-shoot. Where we exceed 2 degrees Celsius and then it comes back down, is that an acceptable scenario? Well, it depends on what sort of impacts you are talking about. Some of the longer term impacts like the committed sea level rise are going to be more sensitive to the long term increase in CO2. Because that CO2 is in the air.”
“And you can’t stop CO2.”
“That CO2 is in the atmosphere.”
“And CH4, aka methane.”
“Whereas methane has a shorter lifetime in the atmosphere. So, one scenario would be an overshoot where methane builds up enough to warm the planet more than 2 degrees Celsius but we are keeping the CO2 low enough to stabilize the long term warming below 2 degrees Celsius. So that’s not as ideal scenario at all. But then you have to ask yourself, are you posing an even greater challenge to the models? Because you are asking them not just to say what are the impacts if we sustain the warming at this level, you are asking what’s the impact if you warm above 2 degrees for a few decades and then you bring it down. Then you are asking not just the climate models, but the impact models to capture all of these very dynamic real world effects, competition when it comes to ecologic impacts, all sorts of things that.
“It goes from being an equilibrium problem, which is a simpler problem scientifically, to a time dependent problem, which is a much more complicated problem. And again, what in the end I would argue, maybe that is where you come down, you have to come down on the side of caution. If we in the end—precaution, precaution, that we probably don’t even want a temporary interval of warming above 2 degrees Celsius. Because we don’t know what that will set in motion. We don’t know what a decade long period of 2.5 degrees Celsius global warmth could do. We just don’t have nearly as much confidence, because again the uncertainty tells you to avoid it because some really bad things could happen which we can’t rule out. So my view is that for this reason natural gas in unlikely to be the bridge to a fossil fuel free future, a safe bridge to fossil-fuel-free future that some proponents have built it up to be. I think there are too many uncertainties and with those uncertainties comes precaution.”
“So what would you do?”
“If I had to place my bets, I am going to go with folks like Mark Jacobson at Stanford. I’m sure you are familiar with his Climate Solutions project, and there are some celebrities like Mark Ruffalo who have sort of worked with them as well in publicizing this effort. So, they have this plan for all 50 states, a demonstratively plausible pathway to meeting essentially 100 percent of our energy demand from non-carbon energy by mid-century. In the modeling that Mark has done he’s shown that that plan would limit warming below the 2 degree Celsius level and this is not using magic as of yet not invented technology. It is simply deploying existing technology. It makes the incredibly conservative assumption that there will be no technological improvements in solar cell technology or wind or anything else.
“But maybe grid management?”
“But that’s not like inventing something new. It is a matter of managing the resources that we have.”
“Yes, and I think the experts would tell you there are huge economies of scale involved that come from doing that. Unless we start doing it now, we are not going to figure out the possible efficiencies. You just start doing it rather than waiting until it is perfect. Will we wait for 30 years until we have a perfect adaptive smart grid technology? No, you start doing it now and you figure out what’s working best and you learn along the way. And that has always been true of technological innovation.”
Nigel continued, “Bob Howarth said exactly what you just said.”
“Well, I try to learn from people. Like I said, my expertise is in the physical science of climate change, but because I have decided to be a communicator for the larger surrounding issues, I have felt it is incumbent upon me to try to learn from the experts. The idea that you can’t speak about something, like, ‘Oh, I’m not a scientist,’ which is the refrain that we have heard from so many politicians who just really don’t do anything about climate change. Well, you are not a doctor but it doesn’t mean that you take cyanide tablets every day. You are not a physicist but you know not to jump off a cliff.”
Nigel and Ian and the students all chuckled at Michael’s examples of the ridiculous nature of our politicians deflecting their responsibilities. Ian then said, “Michael, now would you kindly speak to Donald Trump’s likely impact on the efforts to save the planet.”
“Sure. … update this through publication date Of all the potential actions in Donald Trump’s presidency, none will have more long-lasting effects than those on climate change. Just four days after the Paris climate agreement went into force—the first comprehensive global deal to reduce heat-trapping pollution—the U.S. elected a president who has called climate change a hoax, and vowed to ‘cancel’ the Paris agreement. Trump has said he would block the Clean Power Plan, which would reduce utilities’ heat-trapping gas emissions and is at the heart of the U.S. commitment to the agreement. And he promises to reinvigorate the fossil fuel sector, just when global energy production is moving rapidly in the opposite direction, toward clean, inexpensive, renewable sources.
“Not only would this agenda be disastrous for climate, it would actually undermine Trump’s ability to achieve his own primary goals. First, climate change is not like other issues that can be postponed from one year to the next. The U.S. and world are already behind; speed is of the essence, because climate change and its impacts are coming sooner and with greater ferocity than anticipated. Last year, 2016, was the hottest on record by a large margin, and 2015 and 2014 had set the previous records. Extreme weather events such as heat waves and heavy downpours are becoming more frequent and severe, as are related fires, droughts and floods.
“Warming is also causing sea level to rise at increasing rates. At high tide, ocean water stands in the streets of coastal cities such as Miami and it taints groundwater. The coastal threat of increasingly destructive hurricanes is growing, too. The costs of these increasingly common events are reaching into the billions of dollars. Most frightening is that there likely are tipping points in the climate system—thresholds beyond which unstoppable feedbacks kick in. We don’t know exactly where such points-of-no-return are until we’ve passed them. Every year that we delay action we increase the risk of crossing dangerous thresholds and commit our generation and our children’s to more devastating outcomes.
“Second, because emissions anywhere result in climate change everywhere, we are part of a community of nations that must work together to tackle this global problem. The U.S. has always prided itself on being a leader, not a laggard. We were one of the first nations, along with China, to ratify the Paris Agreement, which is part of a larger international treaty signed by George H.W. Bush in 1992 (the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change). The Paris Agreement has rules, which we agreed to, including that once in effect, no country can withdraw from the agreement for at least four years. If our new president were to pull out, our country would be an international outlaw, with consequences for our status among nations. We would also be relinquishing the leadership that prompts China and other nations to reach for more ambitious emissions reductions. Instead, the U.S. would become a dangerous impediment.
“Finally—and perhaps this is where all Americans can find common ground—the clean energy revolution is well underway. The rest of the world is no longer debating climate change, it is moving on with a rapid transition to carbon-free energy. Do we want to be left behind in the great economic revolution of the 21st century? Or do we want to compete in the clean energy race, improving our international competitiveness and making our nation greater? Do we want to buy solar panels and wind turbines from China, or do we want to manufacture and sell them to China and everywhere else?
“If the U.S. is to accomplish what Trump says he wants for our nation—economic growth, job creation, improved infrastructure and international respect—then we need to lead the world in clean energy research, development and deployment. In doing so, we’d also be keeping our air and water clean, making our businesses more efficient, improving our health and protecting our children’s future. Surely, these are values we can all agree on.”
Ian then said the inevitable, “We are out of time for the class, but I know Michael will stay for a few minutes if any of you have any follow-up questions.
“Let’s show our appreciation for this incredible lecture and sharing of knowledge. Michael, we are very grateful.” (applause)