I Won, We Lost
Hi, John. Remember you had me on your show a couple years ago? I was there defending the scientific consensus on human-caused global warming. You, of course, are a climate change skeptic.
We mixed it up for a half hour, took a couple calls. I had a good time. We even made a friendly bet. If in 10 years it turns out that all those reams of evidence backing the science turn out to be wrong then Planet S and our sister paper in Regina, prairie dog, would apologize to you and all the other science skeptics out there. And we’d make you Mayor of both Prairiedogtown and the Planet of Saskatoon.
Well, now I hear you’ve taken to Twitter this summer to reassure everyone that the heat waves and wild fires we’re experiencing — again — are just weather. And weather is not climate. What you’re trying to imply is pretty obvious: that climate science isn’t proven just because we can open a window and see evidence of its predictions.
And generally speaking, you’re right. Anecdotes aren’t evidence. Weather isn’t climate. But in this case, the anecdotes and the evidence track pretty much exactly. Just as we’re getting an increase in reports of extreme weather events, we’re also setting new records for global average temperature.
In fact, since I was on your show, climate science has only gotten stronger. It’s essentially a certainty that the globe is warming, that people are a prime cause of that warming, and that if we do nothing to cope with this warming the results will be catastrophic.
And you don’t even have to take my word for it, because I phoned up arguably the most famous climate scientist in the world, Michael E. Mann, the director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, and a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union.
Mann is known as one of the people behind the famous hockey-stick graph which showed the spike in temperatures starting at the outset of the industrial revolution. You know the one. Your pals in the climate-denial-o-sphere have been trying to punch holes in it for a decade, but its conclusions keep being reconfirmed.
Mann says I’ve already won our bet — eight years ahead of schedule. I’ve included the interview below. He talks in fairly general terms about the evidence, but if you have me back on your show I’d be happy to discuss some specifics.
Of course, I’m not an expert on any of this stuff. But then again, neither are you.
Where we differ is that science is on my side.
INTERVIEW WITH A CLIMATE SCIENTIST
Michael E. Mann is a professor of meteorology, the author of over 140 peer-reviewed articles and two books, Dire Predictions: Understanding Global Warming and The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines. He has also received more death threats than any scientist should.
PS: What’s the state of climate science today?
MM: The science only gets stronger over time because that’s the way science works. We continue to refine hypotheses, test them with new data, extend our understanding. That’s the nice thing about science.
I think we’ve arrived at a point now where the models that we use are quite a bit more sophisticated than the climate models we used decades ago.
More important than that, the data is coming in. It’s showing exactly what the models predicted: increases in certain types of weather extremes, warming of the globe, warming of the oceans, warming of the land, the dramatic retreat of arctic sea ice, a loss of ice from the major ice sheets, increase in sea levels.
PS: Is there a piece of evidence that really leaps out at you? Something you’d like to show people and say, “Look at this!”
MM: It’s hard to think of one thing. I literally say that to myself every day. For example, the day before yesterday, a large piece of the Petermann Glacier broke off of Greenland, a piece larger than Manhattan. [Twice the size, in fact.] A major chunk of ice.
I could point to the most recent June measurements that showed the largest retreat of sea ice as of June in the history of records. Or I could point to the fact that, thus far this summer, all-time records for warmth in the U.S. are running at a ratio of more than 10 times what we’d expect from chance alone. Or I could talk about the fact that just in the last week NOAA [the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration] announced that basically we have now achieved a new record for the magnitude and extent of drought in the U.S. — and that’s including the Dust Bowl.
You can see why it’s hard to point to any one thing, because when I think about the events of just the past few weeks, I immediately think of at least a dozen things.
PS: Okay, that shows the globe is warming. But it doesn’t necessarily prove humans are causing it. Do you have the smoking gun on that yet?
MM: Yeah. We’ve had it for 20 years. When the IPCC [the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] in 1995 in the second assessment report concluded that there is a discernible human influence on the climate, they weren’t just making that up. And the IPCC is a very conservative organization. So when they make a statement like that, you better believe there’s a whole lot of science to back it up.
That was the juncture at which the scientific community could collectively say that not only is the globe and the climate changing, but we can see the hand of humans in the changes we’re seeing. And again that’s back in 1995. With everything that’s happened since, the scientific community has come to much stronger conclusions.
PS: Your inbox must fill up with a lot of nonsense from climate science deniers. Are they bringing up anything new that we should be on the lookout for?
MM: Well, it’s usually just a recycling of some previously discredited talking point. They’re very good at that. It’s the zombie approach to climate change denial. Some of these myths don’t die no matter how many times you strike them down.
Frankly, they’re on the ropes right now with the events that are unfolding. They appear very shrill and completely without credibility when they’re denying the reality of climate change when we’re literally seeing it out our windows and on our TV screens. What you’re seeing now is climate change deniers on the defensive. Rather than being on the offense and attacking the science, they’re crying out in their shrill voices, “No, there’s no relationship at all between what you’re seeing; don’t believe those extreme weather events. Listen to the talking head denying climate change rather than your lying eyes.”
PS: With all the nonsense around the Climategate hacked e-mail scandal and the rise of denialism around the Copenhagen climate summit, have we lost too much time now to turn things around?
MM: This is part of why I characterize the hacking of the e-mails and the campaign to discredit climate scientists as a crime against humanity: because of the huge opportunity costs that that might have [produced] for us. Basically, that set us back arguably at least two years. It was used to thwart any progress in Copenhagen in 2009 and it’s obviously not a coincidence that this manufactured controversy emerged right before the Copenhagen summit. Its intent was to sabotage the Copenhagen summit, and arguably cost us at least two years in terms of agreeing on some serious commitment internationally to deal with the problem.
And the opportunity cost is huge, because with every year of delay it gets that much more difficult to find a way to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations below levels where we will truly see the most dangerous impacts.
We’re not yet at the point where we should be giving up hope of stabilizing the climate below that threshold of human impact, but we’re getting closer and closer.
PS: How long do we have?
MM: We tend to think of something in the range of 450 ppm of CO2 where we commit ourselves to two degrees Celsius [of] warming relative to pre-industrial levels. [We’re currently at 395.77 parts per million.] If you look across the board at the projected impacts, that’s the red zone — that’s where we start to see the worst impacts and where we commit to potentially catastrophic changes in the climate. And to not cause 450 ppm at this point, we need to bring emissions to a peak within literally the next year or two and begin to ramp them down dramatically. We say this year after year, and with every year that passes it turns out we’re not even stabilizing emissions.
Globally, especially with developing nations coming online with the fossil fuel energy infrastructure, we’re nowhere near the trajectory we need to follow to avoid 450 ppm.
PS: On a petty, personal level, can I safely say I won my bet with John Gormley?
MM: Yes. I think it’s fair to say that you’ve won the bet. I’m sure you’ll put the money to good use. Maybe you can buy carbon offsets or something with that.
For the record, there was no money involved in my bet with John Gormley.