Faculty Q&A: Gavin Schmidt, Climate Scientist

Interview by Record Staff

Gavin Schmidt talks about the politics of climate change. (6:12)

Gavin Schmidt is a climate scientist and climate modeler at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Columbia’s Earth Institute. GISS is located at Columbia University. He is an adjunct senior research scientist with the Center for Climate Systems Research, and a blogger for RealClimate.org.

Q. We’re at a moment where the politics of climate change have been changing in ways that are worrisome to those who value the role of science in public policy. Why do you think that is?

If you take any political issue where there is some scientific component, one often finds that the depth of feeling in the public doesn’t correlate with how well understood that topic is. We saw the same thing with health care, genetically modified foods, vaccines. Most people who have an opinion about these things actually haven’t looked into it and don’t have a deep understanding of what’s going on. So when it comes to climate science, it’s not surprising that most people don’t actually know the difference between the ozone hole and climate change, and don’t have good sources for getting comprehensive information.

Q. How harmful is it to the research mission when you have people in a public role attacking climate science?

It’s dangerous when politicians start to use scientific themes to further their political goals. Real science takes the information that is out there and tries to come up with the best explanation for what’s going on. The politicized science that people like Cuccinelli in Virginia are engaging in is completely different; they’ve already made up their mind and they just look for things that support it. That kind of picking and choosing what science you want to believe, depending on what political goal you want to achieve, is the antithesis of what science really is. It sends a chilling effect across the whole of the academy. The University of Virginia is very aware of the ramifications of this and is fighting this all the way to the Supreme Court in Virginia, and I wish them all the luck.

Q. Does the current polarized debate, much of it “anti-elitist” in tone, make it harder for scientists to win public arguments outside the academy?

It takes a long time to become a scientist, and one of the reasons is because it’s hard. It’s hard to set aside prejudice and wishful thinking in order to see the world as it really is and to examine that world more critically. Science is always about nuance, it’s always about trying to step forward in a provisional way, one step at a time. It’s the collective information that science has produced that allows us to improve technology, to understand environmental threats, to understand the universe. The debates within science are always about small issues revolving around stuff that’s really cutting-edge. So when there’s a new paper in Nature or Science that is deemed to be of public interest, the real issue is not the subject—it’s a subtle point that has been worked out in the literature for years and years, and this may not even be a final accounting. Can that kind of approach survive when thrown into a political mosh pit? Of course not. You’re not going to educate the public in the middle of a highly partisan political dog fight. We saw that with health care. The amount of misinformation and deliberate disinformation about health care reform was stunning to behold, and people were getting very, very angry about things that they didn’t understand. Climate change is like that and worse, because it’s less immediate.

Q. Do you see the current challenges to climate science as a temporary conflict or something more long lasting?

The day-to-day attacks on scientific integrity, the accusations of misconduct and malfeasance, these must be dealt with. People need access to real information. There needs to be pushback when people are abusing their authority, as in the Virginia case. Just because there’s a growing awareness of the problem doesn’t mean that you can expect everything to work out nicely in the end. It will work out, I hope, because lots of work has been done to combat misinformation and put good information out there and help educate the public. But I don’t think there’s any guarantee that society will do the right thing in the long term unless in the short term we keep pointing out exactly what can be done and how that might help.

Q. Give us some examples of things that scientists believe might work to solve the problem of climate change that are both good policy and good politics.

A lot of the problem we have in developing climate policy is that it’s perceived to be different from other kinds of policy. The key to moving forward is to actually focus on things that can be done and how they might be done. Science says, okay, let’s talk about carbon dioxide—what effect is carbon dioxide having on the atmosphere? But that isn’t necessarily the science that’s very useful for policymakers. One of the things our group has been working on in the last couple of years is trying to assess the net impact of a policy—not just for climate but also for air pollution, public health, water resources. We’re not talking about pie-in-the-sky targets; we’re talking about policy options that are on the table now, like increasing the CAFE standards for mileage [federal regulations to improve fuel efficiency]. They decrease carbon dioxide, but they also decrease nitrous oxides and black carbon. And what’s the net effect on the climate going to be once you take into account all those other things? What you find is that there are a lot of policy options that are positive across a number of different criteria that policymakers care about. Policymakers don’t only care about the climate; they care about the health of the population, congestion, clean water and clean air. And so often times I think that the climate sciences have been perceived to be saying, “CO2, CO2, CO2, CO2,” which is right, but lacks nuance.

Q. Does a long-term problem like climate change—where both the risks and the benefits may appear distant in time—present a special risk to a society that tends to address issues in response to an immediate crisis?

Historically we’ve dealt with environmental issues on a piecemeal basis. We’ve dealt with acid rain, dirty rivers, oil spills, but we haven’t really thought about it in a holistic way. It’s only been in the last five years that the big modeling groups have started to put these things together coherently so that you can ask good questions like, “If I change this, what impact is it going to have on climate, air pollution, public health, ecosystems and water?” Since the science has moved forward, we can ask more interesting questions. And it turns out that those questions are the questions that policymakers have probably been asking all along, and we’ve been only giving them partial answers. I’d like to think that if we can give them more complete answers, then the people who actually have to make decisions are going to pay more attention.

Q. When you look at the overall climate change debate in 2011—the long-term scientific consensus on one side, the skeptics and the politics of the moment on the other—where do you see it going?

It’s tempting to just focus on the loudest voices but it’s fundamentally distorting. There is real information that we can supply as an academic institution, and we should be doing that. We can’t cut ourselves off from that to pursue our academic pursuits. Wherever I go, whether I’m on a bus or at a party or just walking down the street, and people find out that I study climate change, they have questions. They’re not getting the answers from TV, from talk radio or any of the other mainstream ways that information is being transmitted in this society.

Q. How should academic researchers get the facts out?

We have to find new ways to get information out there. That involves writing books, blogging, trying to be on TV, talking to local high schools, making yourself available for interviews and panels. The number of people who are trying to muddy the waters is actually very small. The number of scientists and people who know much better is very large. And if every one of those people went and did one public thing, we’d completely swamp the forces of confusion.

Q. Do we have some successful models of collective action on environmental issues?

I see very positive lessons for the climate change issue in the international agreement to ban ozone-depleting substances [the 1987 Montreal Protocol]. Science noticed a problem, saw that CFCs [chlorofluorocarbons] were building up in the atmosphere, were going to get into the stratosphere and were going to start to deplete the ozone when certain chemical reactions started to happen, and the scientists mobilized. The first approaches were pretty ineffectual—let’s stop using spray cans. That was great but it didn’t really change very much. I think it took them five go’s at it to get to the point where they said, “Oh, you know what? We can actually ban these chemicals and move forward in reducing the number of ozone-depleting substances.” Climate change is more complicated. There are many more emitters, there are many more causes, but then there are a lot of things that we can do including energy efficiency and improved mileage standards.

Q. Does it worry you that it has become impossible to enact a clean energy bill or agree on an international climate treaty?

I think there are grounds for optimism because the governments of every major country in the world are talking about this as if it’s a serious problem. If I go to brief [Congressional] staffers, people who work for the state or the city, people at the EPA, I don’t need to explain to them why carbon dioxide is a problem. Nobody calls me up anymore and says, “Hey, is that global warming thing a real problem or not?” They’re asking me questions like, “If we’re going to incorporate black carbon into a regulatory mechanism associated with carbon dioxide, how might we do that?” And that’s where the science that brings all these things together can actually be useful to policymakers. People are asking us much, much more nuanced questions than they were five years ago. 

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