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Facing the Heat

Climatologist Stephen Schneider calls for cooler heads as temperatures, and tempers, rise. 

Patricia Pooladi/National Academy of Sciences

Biology professor Stephen Schneider has been on the front lines of climate-change research, and its accompanying political and scientific controversy, for four decades. Since late last year, when climate-change skeptics alleged that emails obtained from scientists’ hacked accounts were evidence of deliberately distorted data, Schneider has been in the thick of the fallout, defending his field from intense criticism and threats.

Schneider, part of a long-serving international panel of scientists that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore, talked with Mike Antonucci about the global environment and his concerns over how climate conditions are explained and debated.

Note: The following is a fuller version of the interview than what appeared in print.

How much lasting impact do you expect from the "climategate" blowup about the credibility of climate-change research?
The primary lasting impact will be that it has delayed climate policy by a year or two—which, if the Congress tips away from Democrats, could delay it by eight or more. A number of countries believe that we should all have collective action to protect the commons. But if the biggest polluter in history, the United States, doesn't do anything, [other countries] can use that excuse to do nothing. I do not believe it'll have any long-lasting impact on the credibility of climate science, because it is fundamentally sound. Unfortunately, the likely coming super heat waves and the hurricanes that will take out parts of Miami and Shanghai, for example, will show that, in a politically tangible way. And nobody will remember climategate 10 years from now.

It's hard to answer your question directly: You're asking me to predict random events in nature, like hurricanes and heat waves, souped up a little bit by global warming and what the political situation is going to be, because who's in charge when these random events happen will determine how they're politically framed. Wish I weren't so cynical and I could tell you that we are rational decision makers, but unfortunately random events have a lot to do with it. I've seen it before.

The 1988 heat waves put this problem out of the left brain of a thousand of us into the right brain of society, and then formed the coalition of industrial liars and spin doctors called the Global Climate Coalition. It spent tens of millions of dollars a year in ads buying megaphones for well-known jokes of the scientific community, who got equal status at the bargaining table with legitimate science and blocked things for 15 years. When the two Republicans in the Gingrich Congress were there, we used to say, 'What's the Republican climate policy? Do little and delay'—as in [former Rep. John] Doolittle and [former Rep.] Tom DeLay. Where are they now? In the dustbin of history.

You've been quoted as saying you're receiving hundreds of threatening emails and that you think scientists may even end up murdered. Can you describe the kinds of threats that you're getting?
I've always had people complain when they don't like me, and that's the way it should be. But they don't complain in four-letter words. They don't tell me that I'm a traitor who should be executed for treason, which according to the police is close to a death threat but not quite beyond the First Amendment. My Brit police friends, who actually had me send them these hundreds of emails, have told me that in the U.K. that would be investigated, but it's not in the U.S. There are some very, very ugly Nazi websites that have a number of us on them; I don't want to mention names. They're the ones who encourage the shooting of abortion doctors, and, let's put it this way, we have some authorities looking at them. They're on a terrorist list. That's pretty scary. Most of the hate emails I get are just ugly.

Do you attribute the vitriol to any one thing more than another?
This is what I call a tempest in a Tea Party cup. Rush Limbaugh went out and shouted, 'Go where they live; go to their meetings; tell their bosses they should be fired. They're un-American; get in their face; go to their houses.' And they did. And then [Marc] Morano, a former communications director for [Sen. James] Inhofe, wrote on his public blog that the climate scientists should be "flogged." These guys are encouraging this kind of ugly, violent behavior. And it all started about a year or a year and a half ago. That's [coincidental] with the deluge of ugly emails.

Why do you think it's wrong to give equal public consideration to most climate-change dissenters?
It is completely appropriate in covering two-party politics, if you [cover] the Democrat to [cover] the Republican. In fact, if somebody didn't do that, they would not [be considered] fair and balanced. It is completely inappropriate, if there's an announcement of the new cancer drug for pediatric leukemia [with] a panel of three doctors from various hospitals, to then give equal time to the president of the herbalist society, who says that modern medicine is a crock. They wouldn't even put that person on the air, so why put on petroleum geologists—who know as much about climate as we climatologists know about drilling for oil—because they've studied one climate change a hundred million years ago?

The reason that we do not ask focus groups of farmers and auto workers to determine how to license airplane pilots and doctors is they have no skill at that. And we do not ask people with PhDs who are not climatologists to tell us whether climate science is right or wrong, because they have no skill at that, particularly when they're hired by the fossil-fuel industry because of their PhDs to cast doubt. So here is where balance is actually false reporting.

What the media needs to do is not to ignore outliers—we should never ignore outliers—[but] to frame where they sit in the spectrum of knowledgeable opinion. The good reporters always did that. They said, 'There are a small number of people, many of whom are funded by particular industries, who make the following point.' That's completely legit, because now the public knows where these guys sit.

But now, given the new media business-driven model, where they fired most specialists and the only people left in the newsroom are general-assignment reporters who have to do a grown-up's job, how are they going to be able to discern the north end of a southbound horse?

How do you respond to the perception that scientists are friends of the left and enemies of the right?
Scientists get associated with the left not because they're really in the left. It's because they have a particular belief system that is more likely embraced by Democrats: people not on the far left—because the far left is just as crazy radical in its deep belief as the far right—but middle-center left. [There is a] great American divide. The deep red states, the ones who want to teach creationism as if somehow belief was science, when science is method, are in what I call the faith-trust value system, where evidence that overthrows deep faith is somehow a real violation of their deep ethics. Those of us in science come from a completely different paradigm—much more likely in California, especially coastal California, and New York and the deep blue states—which I call doubt-test, where no matter how cherished our beliefs, if you have enough evidence kicking you in the face to the contrary, you change your mind. That is blasphemy to certain groups. This is in my view a fairly dangerous value dichotomy because in the end, if you absolutely cling to absolute values, then all you get is subjugation and violence. That's where we end up with wars and with radical movements that cannot compromise and kill first.

Scientists also create some of their own trouble because we're a very snooty, elitist bunch, and we believe [in] a very high-knowledge entry barrier before you're even entitled to have an opinion over technical issues. Part of that entry barrier is high because we're so incompetent in explaining things simply. You really do have to know what you're talking about before you have an opinion on facts, but you also have to explain the facts simply. If you use metaphors, you can get the average person in an hour to know what they need to know to make a good value judgment.

This is often framed as a two-sided debate. Are there other perspectives?
In climate science, or any other complex system, there's no single best answer because there are multiple possibilities with different likelihoods. So what honest scientists do is frame the problem as a bell curve.

We know we have a rough 10 percent chance that [the effect of global warming] is going to be not much; a rough 10 percent chance of 'Oh, My God'; and everything else in between. Therefore, what you're talking about as a scientist is risk: what can happen multiplied times the odds of it happening. That's an expert judgment. The average person is not really competent to make such a judgment.

But then there's risk management. What do we do about it? How do we deploy scarce resources in society to deal with climate vs. health, vs. housing, vs. global development? And the answer is, that's not a science judgment. That's a value judgment. And that value judgment can only be made well if you understand the what-can-happen, what-are-the-odds part.

So what I'm trying to do is get media and the political world to stop framing climate change in "either/or" terms, when we're really looking at a bell curve of possibilities. It's like buying insurance. How much of your family income do you want to spend on insurance? The more insurance you have, the safer you are if the house burns down or you get sick. But if the premium is more than you earn, you can't pay it. I keep using these metaphors to try to make people understand this is just like managing risk in our personal lives. But climate risks occur at the level of the planet, where there is no management other than agreements among willing countries.

Does the so-called democratization of media make it easier or harder for you to get your message across?
Let's start with how it makes it easier. Now everybody can get information instantly. When I started, nobody talked about [global warming]. Now we're getting all this pushback, [which] means that we've made some progress. You have to have that long-term perspective. So the blogs help spread the word.

Here's the blog problem: We build up a trust [based] on which blogs just say what we like to hear. At least in the old days when we had a Fourth Estate that did get the other side—yes, they framed it in whether it was more or less likely to be true, the better ones did—at least everybody was hearing more than just their own opinion. What scares me about the blogosphere is if you only read your own folks, you have no way to understand where those bad guys are coming from. How are you going to negotiate with them when you're in the same society? They're not 100 percent wrong, you know? There's something you have to learn from them and they have to learn from you. If you never read each other and you never have a civil discourse, then I get scared.

It's fractionation into preexisting belief without any chance of negotiation and reconciliation. I don't want to see a civil war, and I worry about that if the blogosphere is carried to a logical extreme.

In Science as a Contact Sport, you wrote that continued delay in effectively addressing climate change might tip some conditions in the environment into a place that's difficult to reverse.
What you couldn't reverse would be if Greenland keeps melting at an ever-faster pace—we get five meters of sea level rise that lasts for 10,000 years. Even if this reversed in 10,000 years, that's effectively irreversible on any meaningful civilization time scale. So that's what we worry about. We call them tipping points.

What do we know? We know for sure that there are thresholds in nature. The obvious one that everybody knows is 0 degrees Celsius, 32 Fahrenheit: Ice starts to melt. So that's a tipping point. Of course it can melt even colder than that if it's in the sun, so there's always complexity. But we know that if species live in the top of the mountain and it gets too hot for their physiology, they're going to have to go up. If there's no up, they go extinct. We can move them to taller mountains. But then we make them an invasive species, and we're playing ecological God, which we may very well do.

One of the big tipping points is [whether] you could flip the Gulf Stream and knock it out. Probably not anytime soon. But if we continue on the path that we've been on for 150 years, we probably could. And it could last for hundreds of years, which is effectively irreversible on the human time scale.

We know that there are probably hundreds of tipping points. We don't know precisely where they are. Therefore you never know which ones you're crossing when. All you know is that as you add warming, you cross more and more of them.

The biggest oxymoron in science is this dangerously wrong-headed phrase: exact science. The only exact science is not even 100 percent exact. It's stuff we've studied so long we know it to be true. If I let the pen in my hand drop, it's going to drop. Unless the 1024 molecules in the room by sheer chance gang up and block it from dropping for a microsecond, that's going to work. But when we're talking about systems—like how the climate works, health in your body—where there are many, many unknowns and where there's no controlled experiment except to perform it on yourself, then there's a dangerous outcome.

What makes climate different than, say, laboratory science? In medicine, you do a clinical trial; you give half the people the drug, you don't give half the people the drug. At the end of 10 years, you have some "objective data" about the probability the drug works. You don't know where you are in the bell curve, but you've got something. How do we do that in climate? What is the objective data on how warm it's going to be, and how many species will go extinct in 2050?

Well, there will be objective data—it's called wait till 2050 and measure it. And that is not a zero-risk experiment. That's why there are so many physicists and meteorologists who don't like climate science: 'Oh, it's not real science because you can't do controlled experiments.' You can't do controlled experiments on the future. What are we going to do, wait for it then apologize to posterity that we did nothing to slow it down?

You have long searched for federal politicians you could consider steadfast allies in defending the science behind climate change. What are you encountering from the Obama administration?
The Obama administration is an incredible breath of fresh air with regard to their belief that science is an enterprise worth listening to. They understand it doesn't talk in absolute truths, and the president has speaking in his left ear several times a week [science adviser] John Holdren and [Energy Secretary] Steve Chu and once in a while [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's] Jane Lubchenco. I know for a fact, because these are very good friends of mine, that they talk to him more than once a week.

But he also has in his right ear Rahm Emanuel and Larry Summers and the economists, who are saying, 'Watch out what you do politically and be careful of the economy.' So he's hearing both sides and he has the capacity to actually understand these arguments.

But the people talking in his right ear are reminding him that he has no agenda if he loses the Congress, so of course they're pressuring him to be very careful about not hooking up too much with the scientific agenda that's going to threaten coal miners and auto workers, even though they're producing pollutants that are very dangerous to the climate. So the president is trying to navigate between Pollyanna and Cassandra, and it's not an easy job.

The bad news is the Congress is starting to act like the media. They're looking like they're such a deeply broken, short-term-focused institution that the average Senator defines the national interest by the powerful constituencies in the state. How about the country? Planetary interest? Not even on the radar screen. So what we end up with, often, is the best Congress that money can buy.

And what does the Supreme Court do? It now authorizes full expenditures of private money on what's effectively political advertising, so they just put a higher burden on the literacy and the snifter of the American public. You really have to watch out for all these claims, myth busters and truth tellers. As members of Congress start sitting there and looking over their shoulder at who's funding their campaigns, it's pretty bad.

How hopeful or pessimistic are you about the environmental future?
I like answering questions like that with stories. Scientists found an ozone hole over Antarctica, which led to the Montreal Protocol that banned 50 percent of ozone-depleting substances in 1987. And when Susan Solomon [of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] led the expedition to Antarctica that proved to a high degree of confidence that it was human pollutants that were doing it, one year later we had the London extension that banned 90 percent of the substances—and the chemical industry supported it. Wow. The glass is half full. We reacted quickly and strongly.

Or I could be a pessimist and say we knew 15 years earlier that these chemicals would likely disturb the ozone layer. What did the chemical industry do? They vilified the scientists and denied the science was "proved." They surreptitiously worked out substitutes, because they knew all along that the problem was likely real, and they tried to block policy, to maintain market share. So the glass was half empty.

I really trust this generation of kids to make a difference. I know we can invent our way out of some of the problem. What we have to do is convince the bulk of the public, that amorphous middle. We're never going to convince that 25 percent who absolutely believe it's a conspiracy against American religious and economic freedom, and that this is some UN plot to take away our hegemony. And we don't need to convince the other 25 percent that is already convinced. It's that 50 percent in the middle that will listen to an argument, that is not immoral or deeply ideological, but that's a little lazy and ignorant, often quite frightened. We have to get to them to create a tipping point for a majority. And that can be done. My fear is that it's going to take a hurricane to take out Miami or fires in the West before they finally wake up. I just hope that it's milder crises sooner, and not more extreme events later.

Correction: The figure "1024 molecules" corrects the previous misprint "1,024 molecules."

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