Spinning The Facts
Jennifer Bauduy is the associate editor at TomPaine.com.
Jonathan Overpeck, a professor of geosciences, directs the Institute for the Study of Planet Earth at the University of Arizona in Tucson. His research focuses on the science of climate change and variability, and how climate/variability affects natural and human systems. TomPaine.com's Jennifer Bauduy recently spoke with him about global warming and why it is minimized in the press.
TomPaine.com: The United Nations Weather Agency has just announced that it's likely 2001 was the second warmest year on record, since records have been kept. What do you make of those findings?
Overpeck: It's too early to say for sure whether 2001 is the second warmest ever, but it sure looks like it's one of the top ones. The UN release is consistent with what's going on -- that we are experiencing a string of record temperatures since 1990, and that there seems to be a dramatic warming trend that's even steeper than what we saw before the 1990s. I think the scientific community is pretty sure that humans are having a real role in causing much of that warming.
TP.c: You've said in the past that the scientific community knows much more about the earth's warming than is revealed in the press. Can you elaborate?
Overpeck: I think a lot of scientists really want to be focused when they talk to the press. They don't want to lose credibility by being wrong. They don't want to speculate. I think that's a very important part of science, but at the same time the whole issue of climate change is very politicized. A lot of what is being said to the press and reported by the press is not accurate. People with political interests are saying things that are out of context or are not accurate.
I worry that scientists aren't taking this responsibility seriously -- to make sure the public understands the truth with regards to our climate. Scientists aren't used to doing that; they're not used to getting involved in political issues. I think a lot of scientists are worried that their speaking out might be misinterpreted by people who control the purse strings way up, say for example in Congress.
TP.c: You say some scientists might be afraid to speak the truth about global warming. What would you say is that truth?
Overpeck: Hundreds of scientists involved in the UN-sponsored Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change agreed that the earth is warming and that much of this warming is due to humans; and that this portends continued warming for the future. Yet when you read the press, it appears as though there is a lot more uncertainty than there really is. That's because politically motivated spokespersons are confusing the public with inaccurate statements.
The climate scientists who know what's going on generally don't like to speak in political contexts where what they say might get distorted. I think that's a problem. They don't want to get involved in political issues; they want to do their science. Yet the public needs to know what's the good science, and what the scientists are saying.
TP.c: You say climate change may be worse than most think. In what way?
Overpeck: That's my own personal view, based on my own personal science. What gives me a different perspective is that I study climates over hundreds of thousands of years using paleoclimatic proxies for climate such as tree ring records, ice core records, coral records and sediment records. When you look at these records you get a sense that the climate system is more sensitive to a change in climate forcing than many of my colleagues believe based just on the last 150 years of observed climate record. An example of climate forcing is a big increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases -- exactly what we're getting.
TP.c: What kind of changes may occur?
Overpeck: This year the [Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change] released its third major assessment report. In that report, hundreds of authors and reviewers from many countries in the world agreed that the earth is likely to warm between 1.4 C and 5.8 degrees C (2.5 F and 10.4 F) by the end of this century. That's a fairly big range.
It's hard for me to imagine, given the warming has been about 0.8 C degrees since the industrial revolution, that it's only going to warm another 1.4. When I look at my paleo data, I get the sense, from various sources of inference, that the warming is more likely to be at the higher end than at the lower end.
TP.c: What may be the consequences?
Overpeck: What the IPPC is suggesting is that sea level rise will be at the most 80 centimeters by the end of this century. When you look at that last interglacial period 130,000 years ago, you see melting of ice sheets and a resulting sea-level rise that was more rapid and dramatic than what the IPPC suggests.
I'm not saying: 'Here is what's going to happen.' I'm trying to get everyone to realize that it's just as possible that the warming and the sea level rise could be at the high end of the estimated range than at the low range. What I see happening with a lot of my colleagues, as well as what's reported in the press, is that people tend to be emphasizing the smaller amounts of change, and that's not good science. Most people in the press are talking about the low end, down in the 1.5 degrees C range by the end of the century. We don't have any indication that the warming is going to be smaller than larger. Indeed, when you start looking at the paleoclimatic record you see plenty of evidence that it could be larger.
TP.c: Why do you think there is a tendency to emphasize the low end?
Overpeck: I think scientists don't like to be alarmists, and they also don't want to be involved in conflict or political debate. But that is not serving the public, and it's the public who pays for the science. The public wants to know what really could happen. You can always find one scientist who disagrees with the consensus, whether for money, politics or their science. And often, the press will give that one scientist as much weight as the hundreds he or she is disagreeing with. This does not serve the public well.
TP.c: International governments are taking steps to curb carbon emissions in order to slow or reverse global warming. But Washington appears indifferent. How do you explain this?
Overpeck: It's not my area of expertise to talk about policy decision-making, but given the strong evidence of the worst or most important environmental challenge mankind has ever faced, I'm just amazed that the leadership in Washington doesn't want to act -- especially amazing when you factor in that leaders in other countries around the world all want to act.
What I worry about is that there is the mistaken view that the only way that we can respond to this is by hurting our economy. I've been around long enough to hear that same argument used against acting to prevent acid rain, pollution of the Great Lakes, phasing out of phosphates, and against fixing the ozone hole. In each of those cases we acted and it didn't hurt our economy.
That other nations of the world are going to act on the global warming issue indicates to me that it's almost the reverse that is true. The new economy will have a different energy context than our present economy. The countries that are going to act on that first are the ones that are going to have the upper hand. The United States will be left behind.
TP.c: Do you mean in terms of developing alternative or renewable energy sources?
Overpeck: Alternative energy, conservation strategies -- we haven't even started to really try and develop sophisticated technology that could save us a lot more. I think that when you develop new technology and act on the greenhouse problem, you are also cleaning up the air and making the air less toxic to breath. You are also reducing our dependence on foreign oil. There are a lot of other reasons why we should act. Another reason might be that the rest of the world should see America as a cooperating superpower rather than an uncooperative superpower.
TP.c: What are the consequences if we don't act?
Overpeck: In terms of climate, what we are talking about is perhaps precipitating climate change that is highly undesirable and highly unpredictable. Therefore we can't plan for it, and by the time it happens, we can't stop it. That could include climate change that could put our water resources in jeopardy, that could flood many of our coastal regions, that could cause a mass extinction of biodiversity. These things are all quite possible.
TP.c: Would signing the Kyoto Protocol make a difference?
Overpeck: The Kyoto Protocol as it is now designed certainly wouldn't stop a lot of climate change. But what it signifies is the nations working together for the first time on this problem in a meaningful way. I think we would see a series of agreements over the next decade as science, technology and decision-making improved our basis for action. We would see an era of development in which a more effective international strategy for dealing with the problem was put into place. I think that most people don't see Kyoto as sufficient to solve the problem, but rather as a positive first step.
TP.c: What will it take to get the U.S. government to take action?
Overpeck: What I do think will end up happening is that Mother Nature will throw us some kind of climatic catastrophe that, while not 100 percent due to global warming, is the kind of change that will be made more likely by global warming. An example of that would be a major hurricane hit on Miami, or a major multi-year drought. I think that would force action. If we had a two-year drought in this country -- a two-year drought can cost billions of dollars, and if we had a couple of year-long droughts -- I think the American public would all of the sudden realize: 'Hey, we have to take this seriously.' It's just a matter of time before Mother Nature throws us one of these things. It's too bad we can't act now, rather than react down the road.
Published: Jan 15 2002