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Gavin Schmidt: The emergent patterns of climate change. Credit: TED talks
Credit: TED talks
INTERVIEWS
15 October 2015 12:16

The Carbon Brief Interview: Dr Gavin Schmidt

Roz Pidcock

Roz Pidcock

10.15.15
Roz Pidcock

Roz Pidcock

15.10.2015 | 12:16pm
InterviewsThe Carbon Brief Interview: Dr Gavin Schmidt

Schmidt has been the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies since June, 2014. He is the principal investigator for the GISS ModelE Earth system model. In 2014, he gave a TED Talk on the “emergent patterns of climate change”, which has been viewed more than one million times online. He was one of the founding scientists of RealClimate.

  • On the so-called slowdown in global warming: “This so-called ‘slowdown’…it’s really not clear that that ever existed.”
  • On the IPCC: “It sets up weird incentives to have certain publications come in before weird deadlines that really don’t make any sense. I don’t think that that is sustainable…I’d much rather that the IPCC was directed towards specific questions that the policymakers want answered.”
  • On the chances of staying below the global 2C target: “Two degrees is not totally out of the question, though I think it is not likely that we will make it.”
  • On BECCS (bioenergy carbon capture and storage): “I think people should be investing in how to do that on a scale level, but, obviously, it’s not going to happen unless there’s a significant carbon price, which, obviously, as you know, does not yet exist.”
  • On his use of Twitter: “I use it to put out interesting context that I find. I occasionally get into arguments with people. It’s mostly fun. It’s not a moral crusade.”

CB: We’ll kick off with something topical. So NASA has just announced that Arctic sea ice has reached its annual minimum, and is the fourth lowest on record. What is the significance of this, do you think? And how does it fit in with what we know about global ice cover?

GS: So, the thing to remember is that the ice in the Arctic is undergoing a long-term decline, and while there are ups and downs in any one particular year, the main thing to be looking at is the trend, and the trend has been solidly one of decline for the last 30 or 40 years, and that’s very, very significant. The loss of extent is something like 10% per decade, for the minimum. That’s really very large, and they’re already seeing huge impacts from that change in climatology in the Arctic – in terms of the biology, the ecosystems, people living there, erosion… Everything is being affected in the Arctic by this, and this year’s change is exactly on trend.

CB: Is there any good news at all with Arctic sea-ice? There was a NASA study that suggested that, perhaps, older, multi-year sea ice was recovering a bit since the 2012 low. Is that happening?

GS: So, what you are seeing is, again, some of that inter-annual variability that is driven by, you know, the vagaries of the weather in any particular summer season. It’s not in any sense a recovery, but, obviously, once you have a really exceptional year – the one you had in 2012 – anything after that is going to look like it’s a recovery, but the long-term trends are very, very dramatic. The sea-ice thickness has gone down by over 40%, the amount of old ice – so this is the thick, ridged ice that’s been around for multiple seasons – has gone down to historic lows. So, it’s not going down to the extent where it’s all going to disappear this year or next year, but the decline is very significant and is steady.

CB: Antarctic sea-ice has shown some quite unusual behaviour this year, tracking quite high for the first half and now dropping below average. Is that El Niño, or is there something else going on there?

GS: So, there is an El Niño response in Arctic sea ice. We’ve set up a kind of dipole pattern upon either side of the Antarctic peninsula, and we’re already seeing a weird pattern there because of the way that the ozone hole and the winds associated with the changes in the ozone have projected on to the sea ice as well. I think the key in the Antarctic is that there’s a lot of internal variability that we don’t have a great handle on. I mean if you look at the simulations of Antarctic sea ice they’re not very good. And so our ability to attribute changes in the sea-ice component of Antarctica is actually quite poor. So we’ve seen, you know, years that have been quite high, years that have been again below average, but the overall trends are much smaller and less significant than the ones in the Arctic. And, actually, that is predicted. It is predicted that the northern hemisphere and the northern pole region is going to respond faster than the south, basically, because there’s more land in the Arctic higher latitudes than there is in the Antarctic.

CB: So, what is NASA doing to keep track of how ice cover is changing and what are perhaps some of the challenges that you face?

GS: So, all of these records come from satellites – microwave soundings – so the microwaves allow you to see through the clouds, to see what’s underneath. They’re not perfect, so you have to work a little bit to make sure you’re looking at exactly the same thing every year. But NASA is continuing that series. There’s a whole series of satellites that’s been going since 1978, and that series will continue. Our ability to monitor that is really a function of NASA’s investment in earth orbiting satellites.

CB: Your own research background includes palaeoclimate. So, what lessons about our future climate can we learn by looking into Earth’s past? And, perhaps more importantly, are we learning those lessons?

GS: I think there’s still a lot of work to be done, which is why it’s interesting scientifically. But what we can do is we can go back in time and, while there isn’t something that’s a perfect analogue for where we’re going to be, there’s been lots of examples of where the climate has changed for all sorts of reasons – the changes in the orbit of the Earth, big volcanoes, the main ice age cycles themselves – and that gives us an ability to test our understanding in these kind of new circumstances. And if we can get that right – if we can understand what was going on then – we can have more credibility in projecting out into the future. For instance, in the early Holocene – so that’s about 6,000-8,000 years ago – the orbit of the Earth was such that northern hemisphere summers were actually warmer than they are today, and that had impacts on Arctic sea ice that we can pull out of the palaeo record. And we can also test our models in those circumstances: what happens in the models to Arctic sea ice when you change the orbit like that. And what we found, actually, is that the models that respond more appropriately – and quite significantly – in that early Holocene period are also the ones that have an earlier reduction of sea ice going into the future. So, that kind of gives us some indication that the models that get the past right are predicting a slightly faster decline in sea ice going into the future.

CB: So what inspired you to take the route that you did through climate science? And who or what continues to inspire you now?

GS: I started off as a mathematician and the only thing I cared about was doing interesting math problems. And that kind of led to Oxford, where I did a maths degree, and I didn’t really know what to do with that afterwards, so I kind of bummed around for a while. Then when I came back from that I was looking for more of a challenge, and I just went to the maths department at University College London and said: “Oh, maybe I could do a PhD?”, and they said: “Woah! No, you can’t just come in here, walk in and expect to do a PhD – there’s a process, there’s applications – it’s all been decided months ago!” So, I was like: “Oh, I’m terribly sorry.” And then they said: “Well, you might want to go and talk to that guy over there.” So, I went to talk to that guy over there, and it turns out he’d just had something funded and he was looking for graduate students and he said, basically: “Oh, when can you start?!” So, I said, “Oh, in a couple of weeks.” So, I just walked into that. And he turned out to be working on problems associated with ocean circulation, and as I got into more applied mathematics – problems that have a real-world connection – what I found was that people were more interested. You could talk about these things and you could actually do things that people cared about. And as I’ve gone from theoretical oceanography to simple models of the climate and now to much more complex models of the climate, what I find is that I’m able to answer and explore questions that more and more people care about. And so that’s really what drives me. Instead of just imagining a spherical cow and making some great theory about that, can you make things as realistic as possible? And, actually, have a real connection to the phenomena and the patterns of change you see in the real world?

CB: What do you think are the biggest unknowns about future climate change? Where are the biggest surprises likely to come from?

GS: I think the first thing to acknowledge is that there will be surprises. We’re moving into a regime of climate that we have not experienced as humans, most ecosystems have not experienced since the beginning of the ice age cycle some three million years ago. We don’t know very well what exactly was happening then. We know some big things, like how much the sea level rose and what the temperatures were like, but there’s a lot of things that we don’t know. And so we are anticipating “unknown unknowns”. But, of course, they’re unknown, so you don’t know what they’re going to be. So, things where we don’t have a really solid basis – exactly what’s going to happen to clouds, exactly what’s going to happen to some of the extreme events that have the biggest impression on society and ecosystems – and we’re pushing things in a way that all of those systems are going to be affected – some will be affected more than we expect and some less – but I don’t know which!

Glossary
Climate sensitivity: The amount of warming we can expect when carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reaches double what it was before the industrial revolution. There are two ways to express climate sensitivity: Transient Climate… Read More

CB: Related to that uncertainty is the difficulty in pinning down climate sensitivity, and that has attracted a lot of interest in some sections of the media. Do you think how high or low it is has any implications for policy, or is it largely a scientific question?

GS: It’s very, very, very likely not to be so low that we don’t need a policy response, and it’s very, very unlikely to be so high that any policy response is pointless. So, we’re kind of in that middle point where any of the real scientific uncertainty doesn’t actually have that much implication for policy. The difference between 2.5C for a doubling of carbon dioxide and 4C for a doubling of carbon dioxide; you still have impacts by the end of the century that are worth, in my opinion, mitigating against either way. Of course, the higher the sensitivity is, the faster that’s going to come, but given the way the inertia in the system works, that’s making a difference of a decade here or there. So it’s not really that important in policy, given that the policy measures that we’re putting into place have to be sustainable for multiple decades.

CB: So, your personal view, or from your own research, what do you think is the likely value of climate sensitivity? Where do you put it?

GS: I think it’s between about 2.5 and 3C. We’ve got some work that we’ve been looking at trying to reconcile different estimates that come from different kinds of experiments or different kinds of observations. And one of the things that we’ve found is that in some of the calculations where they come up with a slightly lower number there are some systematic problems with those kind of calculations that mean that that’s not really a valid response and it really should be little bit higher, in line with the estimates that have comes from paleoclimate, which I think are the more robust ones.

CB: So, in terms of getting a handle on the impacts we can expect, what do you think the integrated assessment models that try to model the economic impact of climate change and then try to compare that with the cost of mitigation or the cost of doing nothing, do you think that’s useful?

GS: Do you want me to be polite or do you want me to be honest?

CB: Honest opinion, always.

GS: So, I’ll try and be polite and honest. I think that in concept they’re fine, but I think their ability to actually make sensible estimates of economic costs is hopeless. You know all of their things are kind of global, sector-level estimates. The damage function is a function of temperature to some power, maybe squared. And that’s not how things are going to work. Different sectors are going to be affected by different things. There’s a lot of thresholds where a small change in temperature is not going to change anything very much, but once you get past some threshold, you’re going to start to see a lot of changes. You’re going to start to see impacts because of sea-level rise that are not directly tied to the temperature at that exact point. So my feeling is that we yet do not have an appropriate fit-for-purpose set of economic models that can really do this problem. And a lot of the things that people have put together – and the estimates that even appeared in the last IPCC report – are really not fit for this purpose. I mean they are useful in some ways. You know you can explore how economics and climate can fit together a little bit. But in terms of making a real useful and policy-relevant forecast for what the damages are going to be, we’re not there yet. And I know that there are some efforts, you know at the University of Chicago, and elsewhere, to make the GCM [General Circulation Model] for economics that is required. But they’re not yet mainstream, and they’re not yet at the point where we can have a lot of confidence in those results. So, all of those estimates of damages, I think they might be lucky, they might be right, but there’s not a real basis to suppose that they are correct.

CB: So, what do you think is the most underfunded topic in climate research, or what is your biggest frustration about current climate research? Or, maybe put it another way: what questions would you like to see answered more than any others?

GS: So let’s break that down a little bit. I mean there’s a lot of stuff that’s being done in climate adaptation, climate mitigation, that isn’t the kind of research that I’m interested in. Well, I mean I’m interested, but it’s not the kind of research that I’m involved in. If I stick to the research, the science of the climate system, I think what we really need to be investing in is real data centres that allow you to sift through all of the model data, all of the observations in really intelligent ways that would allow us to probe the information that we have already, that comes out of the satellites, that comes out of the weather models, that comes out of the GCMs, far more efficiently than we are able to do right now. I mean you may be aware we had a project called CMIP which was a coupled model intercomparison project, where all the groups that did models of the Earth’s system did a certain set of experiments for the future, for the past. That dataset is above five petabytes of data, which is enormous. And our ability to sift through that and pull out interesting metrics, to look and see how different processes are being simulated in the models and in the weather models and actually observed by the satellites, is very, very limited. So, I think we really need a very large investment in that kind of cyber-infrastructure to allow us to do better and more intelligent science on this. You know I work for NASA so I’m supposed to say that we need more investment in new satellite technology, and there are a couple of instruments that we’ve tried getting into space on multiple occasions, and we haven’t yet succeeded. One of which is an aerosol polarimeter, which would really give us for the first time a description of where in the atmosphere there are these aerosol particles, and what kind of particles they are. That’s kind of the biggest unknown in terms of the atmospheric composition, and all of those things have impacts on radiation, they have impacts on atmospheric chemistry, they have impacts on ozone and smog, and so those are really key measurements to be making, and, hopefully, we’ll be able to do that again soon.

CB: So, when is NASA going to call 2015’s temperature? Is it going to be the hottest on record?

GS: That’s something that our lab puts together, and we do the end of year summary in January, and we’ll wait until January. I mean the indications are that 2015 will be a record year. I did a quick calculation a couple of days ago based on the January-August amount, the anomaly that we have so far. It looks like it’s got about a 90% chance of being the hottest year on record, given the past relationship between the year and that particular period. It doesn’t look like it’s going to cool down any time soon. You know we’ve got this continuing El Niño in the Pacific and very warm North Pacific temperatures, so those are going to be continuing to have an effect. So, I think it is likely – not quite very likely – that 2015 will be a record year. But as we get towards the end of the year it will become more or less obvious. I will update that calculation as we go through the year.

CB: And what do you think about when people say 2015 being the hottest year on record, and indeed 2014, what do you think about when people say that signals the end of the so-called slowdown in surface warming?

GS: So…this so-called “slowdown”…it’s really not clear that that ever existed. I think you have to think a little bit in terms of the different timescales. If you think about the longest timescales, you know multiple decades, there’s no evidence for a change in the underlying trend. If you look at shorter timescales then, yeah, there’s timescales when it’s going down, timescales when it’s going up, and there’s variation because of things like El Niño, because of things like the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. It’s not at all obvious that what we saw from the peak El Niño in ’97, ’98 to the really deep La Niña in 2011, you know whether you can explain almost all of that with just understanding what ENSO does, understanding what the short-term forcings have been doing – things like volcanoes, things like the solar variations, things like variations in the amount of aerosols coming from China versus the US. And I don’t think that there’s really anything left there to be explained. There’s nothing really anomalous there. So, what you’re seeing here – 2014 was a classic example – if you go back to 1997 and said, “OK, well, if I just take the Niña trend and I make a prediction for what 2014 would be”, you’d have got it exactly right. So, you know the evidence that there was a change in trend in the meantime is very slim. And now 2014 was a record year, 2015 as we said was likely to be a record year, given the persistence of ENSO, also carries over into the following year 2016 is likely to be very warm year as well. So what you’re seeing is basically just a clearer acknowledgement that the underlying trend really hadn’t changed that entire time.

Glossary
‘Hiatus’: One name given to the apparent slowing of global average surface temperature rise over the last 15 years or so, despite greenhouse gases emissions rising faster than ever. Also referred to as… Read More

CB: So, is it fair to say, then, that whether or not there’s a “hiatus”, whether or not people think there is one, it depends quite a lot on the definition?

GS: Well, people have been very loose about what they’ve defined it as, and so, if you’re interested in short-term trends, then you can attribute those, you can dive in and say, why was one year warmer than the other, why were these five years cooler than those five years? Those are totally valid questions to be asking. But then the question that it kind of gets morphed into is then, well, what does that mean for the future, what does that mean for the long-term trends. And that connection has often been kind-of implicit, rather than explicit, and I actually don’t think there’s very much connection at all.

CB: Do you think it was a problem then that the IPCC in its last report gave quite a focus on the hiatus, and even used the term “hiatus”, when before that it existed in the media really. Do you think the IPCC was right then to do what they did in the last report?

GS: So, I think the IPCC might have been better off just talking about the difference between short-term trends and long-term trends, and how the different attribution works for those. The problem with the IPCC trying to keep up with a kind of moving story is that they’re constrained to only be looking at the literature that came out before the report came in. But if you actually look at where the explosion of papers was it was actually after the IPCC report was finished. So I think now we have a much better idea about what’s going on. But they kind of got ahead of the publication process. It’s not that there was anything wrong in what they wrote, but, in terms of focus, and in terms of utility of their contribution, it wasn’t very useful.

CB: Just in the last few weeks there’s been quite a lot of media coverage, at least in the UK, talking about natural variability and the impact that it has on long-term trends. So, there’s talk of Pacific decadal cycles, Atlantic decadal cycles and El Niño. Do you think that we’d be in a better situation in terms of media and public understanding of global temperature if we’d been having all of these conversations a long time ago?

GS: Scientists have been having those conversations the entire time. What the UK media decides is interesting on any one week is completely random. So if you ask people in six months’ time what they remember about any of this discussion, I think that would be an interesting study. Go back in six months’ time and ask people what they remember about any of these discussions, and we’ll see how much it’s penetrated. People have been talking about internal variability since before climate change was a thing, and we’ve always said these two things are happening in concert. Often people choose to focus on worst case scenarios – even if you give them a range, it’s the highest number that makes the headline. That’s more of a problem in the dailies than it is obviously for Carbon Brief or for any of the more specialised sites. But that lack of context and that incomplete ‘soundbitisation’ of science results is not going to go away any time soon, and it isn’t anything that the scientists can force the media to fix – though the scientists and other parts of the media, particularly foundation-supported stuff, can provide important context for people so that people don’t make too many decisions based on a headline in the Daily Mail.

CB: So, talking of the IPCC, who would you like to see as the new chair – to succeed [Rajendra] Pachauri? And is it important, do you think, whoever gets the position?

GS: So, oddly enough, lots of people keep asking me this question! I haven’t really been part of the IPCC. I’ve never been on the lead author committees, and I’ve only ever had a very peripheral role, so I’m not actually sure what it takes to be the chair and who the best person for that is. So I’m going to stay studiously neutral on that one.

CB: Well, Carbon Brief has a series of interviews with all the candidates, so you could have a read of those! [laughs]

GS: I will, and I’ll do my research and call you back! [laughs]

CB: Well, the IPCC more generally then. People might see a new chairperson as a new era for the IPCC – a chance to revamp or re-energise. How do you think the IPCC can make sure it evolves with the times, to stay relevant? Or do you think that isn’t a problem?

GS: The problem with the IPCC process is the tasks that they set themselves, which every seven years is to write basically an encyclopaedia of climate change. Up to the minute. That’s an enormous burden on the whole community, not just the people writing for the IPCC. It sets up weird incentives to have certain publications come in before weird deadlines that really don’t make any sense. I don’t think that that is sustainable. The science doesn’t change so much on a five-to-seven year basis that you have to redo the encyclopaedia every single time. I would be supportive of an IPCC that set aside this idea of being totally comprehensive and instead focussed on directed questions that came from the member governments. So, instead of scientists getting together and coming up with a list of all the things that we think are important and that other people should pay attention to, I’d much rather that the IPCC was directed towards specific questions that the policymakers want answered. So if they want to know, “how do we combine controls on short-lived pollutants and long-lived pollutants in a coherent framework?”, then let’s have an IPCC special report just on that. And I think that would be very interesting. If policymakers wanted a special report, “what should we be planning in terms of sea level rise?”, then let’s have a special report just on that. I don’t think we need to go into every single piece of detail of climate science every single time, because things do get updated. There are things that are done better over time, but those are not things that are necessarily policy-relevant. The difference between the AR4 [Fourth Assessment Report] palaeo-history of carbon dioxide figure and the AR5 [Fifth Assessment Report] palaeo-history of carbon dioxide figure – there’s clear improvements in the science between one and the other – but none of it is policy-relevant, except in the very grossest sense. So, if IPCC kept to a more defined, policy-relevant set of questions, then I think the burden on the community would be lessened and the product would be more applicable and appropriate.

CB: So, something that was policy-relevant in the last IPCC report was the concept of carbon budgets. How effective do you think that is for policymakers? Do you see the message getting through?

GS: There are two elements of the carbon budget discussion that have been used a lot. I think one of them is very, very useful, which is this notion that carbon dioxide accumulates in the system and the impacts that we’re going to see are a function of the total amount of stuff you’ve put in the atmosphere. That’s very different to how other pollutants work that are more short-lived – whether it’s smog, or ozone, or sulphates, or anything like that. And that’s a very important concept for policymakers to embed in their thinking, because that does make a difference to how you’re going to plan for various trajectories. It makes a difference to whether you’re going to have a peak early or later and how that all works out. The one part of it that I see talked about in some places, that I don’t like so much, is this idea that there’s a fixed budget that, therefore, we have to avoid exceeding – like one trillion tonnes – at all costs. That’s not valid because what that’s confusing is an element of, “what’s the marginal extra damage any particular emission is going to cost over time?”, with an arbitrary target, and usually this target is the two-degree warming target. It’s not worth paying an infinite amount of money to avoid crossing that target because the damages between 1.9 and 2.1 degrees are going to be higher, but there isn’t a cliff at two degrees. It’s not like we actually have a budget and then we have to spend it and then as we get down it becomes more and more expensive to share out the remaining credits. Some people talk like that – particularly Kevin Anderson – they talk about what you’re going to do to avoid breaking that budget, and I don’t think that that language is particularly useful, and I don’t think that concept is very helpful to making sensible decisions.

CB: You mentioned two degrees there. Do you think that two degrees is still a feasible target to aim for – whether it ends up being 2.1C, 2.2C – do you think two degrees is still valid?

GS: Ken Caldeira makes this point. What’s the target for the number of little old ladies you want to have mugged every year? The target is zero, right? Because obviously that’s not something you want to do. So are you going to make it to the point where you’ve got to zero? No. But it’s still useful to have a target, because if you set a target of “we only want a hundred old ladies to be mugged”, that would be horribly unethical. So I think setting targets as low as can be conceived of I think is sensible – whether you actually achieve them or not. Two degrees is not totally out of the question, though I think it is not likely that we will make it. But any of the decisions that we’re making now, to get us on a path towards reducing emissions, they’re the same decisions we’d be making if the target was 3C, or 2C, or 1.5C. The actual actions that people need to make are the same. So discussion of the target – quite frankly – I think is mostly a waste of time.

Glossary
Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS): Burning biomass to generate electricity and then capturing and storing the resulting carbon emissions underground. As biomass will absorb carbon dioxide from the air as it grows, capturing the carbon released during… Read More

CB: Virtually all the pathways available to us for two degrees – as outlined in the IPCC report – do rely to some extent on BECCS (bioenergy with carbon capture and storage), and that technology doesn’t exist yet on a large scale…

GS: Well, it’s not just BECCS, but any kind of carbon capture, or negative emissions, or sucking carbon out of the atmosphere. But, yes, all the RCP2.6 scenarios do rely on that to some extent, and I think that that really underlines the challenge that we have going forward. I think people should be investing in how to do that on a scale level, but, obviously, it’s not going to happen unless there’s a significant carbon price, which, obviously, as you know, does not yet exist.

CB: So, given how ambitious it is to stay below 2C, is 1.5C off the table?

GS: In terms of a realistic target? I think that that is very very unlikely.

CB: Is there a role for scientists to play in the run-up to the Paris negotiations later this year? Or is the job of scientists done?

GS: The job of a scientist like me is mostly done. People are talking about their independent contributions to reducing emissions, countries are talking about this and they’re talking about many different ways that they’re going to get there. That means that those countries are taking this problem seriously, and that really has been the contribution that the climate scientists who have focussed on the physical system, like me and my group and the other groups like them, have been looking at: things like attribution of changes in the past, forecasts of changes in the future given whatever scenarios. People have taken that to heart, right? Nobody is arguing about whether carbon dioxide is still a greenhouse gas – outside of the fringe blogs. These are serious commitments, even from countries which have a vested interest in continuing fossil fuel extraction. So, to a large extent, our job is done. But this goes back to the previous question: it’s not inconceivable that the governments involved, both in COP and the IPCC, would have specific questions that they would like us to answer, that we’re not getting the message on. We’ve done a lot, for instance, of policy-specific scenarios. So, you have a baseline and then you say, “What happens if we do this policy? What would happen? What would be the consequence in terms of climate, in terms of air pollution, in terms of ecosystem health, in terms of public health?” – we’ve done a lot of those kinds of simulations, and that isn’t really part of the IPCC, but we find that the policymakers that we’ve done that for find those things very, very useful. So, are there other questions that the member governments of both COP and IPCC want answered that are within the physical science realm? Then we can answer them, and we can make sure we get a good robust response to that. We spend a lot of time worrying about what climate feedbacks are. We spend a lot of time worrying about the interaction of radiative change and circulation change.

All of those things are fascinating and interesting, but none of those are really going to change what people decide to do, right? The things that would would be are better economic models, as we’ve mentioned, more specific questions that policymakers want answered, which we’re not doing, and work on things like adaptation strategies, mitigation strategies, that can come from the bottom-up of where people actually are vulnerable to climate changes. There was a big process in the US where they went to all these different locations and they said: ‘OK, what kind of industries here do you have? How are they affected by climate change and weather, and what are their vulnerabilities in the future – what is the infrastructure vulnerability, what is the ecosystem vulnerability?’ – and I think that that kind of research could be done far more widely. I mean, it’s been done in the UK, it’s been done in the US, but has is been done in India? Has it been done in China? Has it been done in Australia? Has it been done in Indonesia? There’s a lot of things that could be done and we could be helping with, though it isn’t necessarily my group that’s going to be doing that.

CB: So, you’re a Brit who now lives in the US, what are your observations about the difference in climate change politics and attitudes to climate science?

GS: The system in the US is very different. There are a lot more centres of power in the US and getting anything done at the federal level is far more difficult than getting something done at the national level in the UK is. And the systems are designed, in fact, to prevent things from happening. I think what gets missed by a lot in people looking from the outside to the US is that they miss the huge amount of effort that’s going on at the state level, at the city level, at the regional level, that actually is really very, very significant. And even the stuff being done by executive order by the federal government is actually making a big difference as well. So you might imagine that just because the Congress and the Senate have been stalled on this for decades, that nothing is happening. Now that’s not true. US emissions are falling and will fall by about 15% by 2015, compared to 1990 [CB: US greenhouse gas emissions in 2013 were 6% above 1990 levels, according to US Environmental Protection Agency figures. They had fallen by 9% compared to 2005 levels. CO2 emissions were 10% below 2005 levels in 2013 and 7% above 1990 levels.]. So, that’s actually pretty significant, but it’s happening at a lower level than the federal level, and I think sometimes when you’re looking from the outside, all you see is what’s going on in Washington and that’s very much not the whole picture of what’s going on in the US. Whereas in the UK, what goes on in London pretty much determines everything that’s going on.

CB: What about the fact that the Republicans want to cut federal funding for NASA’s earth science budget? What’s your view about that?

GS: There’s a lot of stuff that makes the news that is mainly political theatre as opposed to real action. So the discussions that you are talking about won’t make it into the actual federal budget. They’re more, kind of, shots across the bows, and it’s a little disconcerting because, for instance, the science that NASA does on Earth provides input into the weather forecasts, it provides input into disaster planning, it provides input into wildfires and smog and air pollution. It’s such a large amount of information that covers so many different topics that the aversion of some Republicans in leadership positions have to climate science; they’re cutting their nose off to spite their face. And it’s a very weird system, but I think it’s a function of the time that we’re in right now in terms of the political landscape. But I don’t think that that will last forever.

CB: Do you think it should be part of climate scientists’ job to communicate their findings more widely? And, if so, what would your advice be for juggling the demands of research and media or public engagement?

GS: I think we should be communicating our research much more widely, particularly the context behind the headlines. That’s something that I’ve been trying to push for for over a decade – on Real Climate and now on Twitter and Facebook and the like. There’s a lot of stuff that gets subsumed and ignored when you see the headline, and having more scientists talk more publicly about their research and the context. So, yes, of course, scientists need to communicate their findings. That isn’t to say that every single scientist needs to suddenly become a media superstar – they don’t – and that would not be very good use of people’s time. There are some scientists that are much better at this than others, and they should be encouraged, and a lot of scientists who don’t really know if they’re any good at this. I think they could be encouraged as well. Within my group we’ve been giving people media training if they’re interested, and we’ve been able to get a deeper bench of people available to do media interviews – on the TV, on the radio or in the press. We are doing a lot of popular science write-ups of the science that we do. But most scientists – you know – there’s a whole range of things that need to be done in science and the part of science which is talking to the media about it – it doesn’t need to be done by everybody.

CB: So, the ones that do, how do you think they can strike the right balance between talking about areas of uncertainty that the media tend to pick up on and the areas of more established science?

GS: People need to know what it is that they want to get across. So, you say: “Oh, communicate your science!”, but what is it that you actually want to communicate? Are you trying to improve the basic education level of people? Are you trying to clarify points of science? Are you trying to make people make better decisions? Are you advocating for a particular solution? I think a lot of the times when scientists get involved in the media, and then get confused about what it is they’re supposed to be doing, it’s because they don’t have a clear idea about what it is they’re trying to communicate. If you know what you want to do, then it’s much easier to just focus on that rather than feel the need to answer every single question that somebody may have. There are other people that can be doing things.

CB: What do you think of consensus messaging as means of communicating climate science? Do you think there’s a danger that hearing “consensus” all the time can be misconstrued as “the science is settled”? Or do you think it’s quite a powerful tool for public understanding or policy support?

GS: That’s a false dichotomy. Where there is a good understanding, then scientists, of course, should make that clear. We have a good understanding that the Sun is the centre of the Solar System – if people ask me questions about that, I would say “that’s a settled piece of science, right there”. If we’re talking about what exactly is going to happen to sea level rise in 2050, that isn’t such a settled thing, so you need to discuss the level of confidence you have in your statements, based on what you’re actually talking about. So, the idea there’s just one message of “uncertainty versus consensus” – that’s a total fallacy.

CB: So, you’re very active on social media. Why do you use it? What do you see as the benefits?

GS: So, I mostly use it because it’s fun. You can have these ongoing conversations with people that you might not know in other parts of your life, but that are interesting. I use it to put out interesting context that I find. I occasionally get into arguments with people. It’s mostly fun. It’s not a moral crusade, or thinking that people are going to get a PhD in climate science by following me on Twitter. You can use it to do interesting things. How many people follow me? I don’t know – 8,000-9,000 people? That’s not really a high amount. I don’t feel the need necessarily to be representing my entire field the entire time.

CB: I guess people do sometimes think Twitter can just be quite time consuming, and also quite intimidating, and those are the reasons a lot of people don’t use it. What advice would you give to someone who does want to start? About, perhaps, how to avoid some of the potential pitfalls?

GS: Again, it goes back to working out what you want to do. Do you want to use Twitter to keep up with what other people are saying, what’s going on with the science, and just using the science? Well, then, you don’t need to do any tweeting yourself, you can just follow people and do that. If you want to use Twitter to – I don’t know – stir up hornets nests and tweet people who you think are being silly, then that’s what you would do. If you want to publicise the stuff that you’re doing, or the issues that you’re involved in, then do that, but don’t get caught up with people who are just playing games.

CB: Just one final question: when you retire in however many years, what’s the one thing that you want to be able to say that you achieved over your career, or during your stint as NASA GISS director?

GS: [Laughs] That’s a really mean question! I don’t think of it in those terms. I don’t do this is in order to achieve one particular thing. I’m not gunning for a Nobel Prize, I’m not trying to invent jet-powered cars, or something. The process of science is incremental, the way that we do science is very communitarian, and I would like to think that I would be able to curate that as best as I can, and continue that tradition that already exists. I’m not the Jeremy Corbyn of climate science.

19/10/15 – We added a note on US emissions, which are currently above 1990 levels, not below them, as stated by Schmidt. Thanks to “Paulina” for pointing this out.

Gavin Schmidt: The emergent patterns of climate change. Credit: TED talks. Published under Creative Commons.

Main image: Gavin Schmidt gives a TED talk ‘The emergent patterns of climate change’. Credit: TED talks

The interview was conducted by Roz Pidcock via Skype and videoed by Ros Donald at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York on 16 September 2015.

Sharelines from this story
  • The Carbon Brief Interview: Dr Gavin Schmidt
  • Dr Gavin Schmidt on sea ice, climate sensitivity, modelling and the biggest unknowns in climate science
  • Philip Haddad

    Dr. Gavin Schmidt, in a lengthy discussion states that there is a lot of uncertainty about climate science from the length of time to reach some arbitrary limit, to the cost to prevent reaching those ultimate break points. Since mathematics is his specialty perhaps he would be interested in calculating the heat emissions from our energy use and what the potential affect on temperature rise might be, and evaluate the probability that heat emissions are ten times more important than the increase in absorbtion of solar energy from the small increase in CO2. My own calculations show the measured heat emissions, not including forest fires, flaring of wells, or volcano eruptions, exceeds four times the amount of energy that can be attributed to the rise in air temperature. I would welcome his comments.

    • TonyPrep

      I don’t think heat emissions change the picture much. What matters is the energy balance. We need the energy radiated to space to be the same as energy coming in. If converting some forms of matter to heat helps balance that out, by heating the atmosphere, then we reach the balance earlier. If what you say is correct, then that extra heat doesn’t appear to be changing the energy balance. So maybe it isn’t correct?

      • Philip Haddad

        Heat emissions raise the air temperature by more than 0.048F per year. This prevents the 44 terrawatts of geothermal heat flow to be dissipated and leads to increasing the heat inventory. If that heat is not dissipated then the heat must be retained. Please rethink your reply.

        • TonyPrep

          Mmm, even if true, I don’t see how that invalidates what I wrote.

    • Simon Evans
      • Philip Haddad

        You are confusing the total impact of CO2 with the 0.028 w/m2 heat emissions per year. That is only slightly less ridiculous than comparing it to the total solar impact.

        • Simon Evans

          Contrary to what you imply, waste heat forcing is *not* growing by 0.028W/m2 *per year*. It is calculated to have been 0.028 in 2005 and is projected to reach 0.059 in 2040. This would still be tiny compared to CO2 forcing of around 3W/m2. The source for the 0.028W/m2 figure says:

          Global distributions of annual-mean AHF for 2005
          and 2040 are shown in Figure 1. Global-mean values for
          these two scenarios are 0.028 and 0.059 W m2

          Interested readers can read the full paper for themselves.

          • Philip Haddad

            Simon you are nit-picking. The point I am making is that even at the level of 0.028w/m2 heat emissions were more than four times the amount attributable to the rise in air temperature and is still growing. The TOTAL CO2 forcing is 3W/m2. How much did it increase during the 20th century? You don’t know nor does anyone else. To determine the cause of global warming we need to know the changes that occurred during that time period for all the contributors of heat. As I said before comparing the change due to heat emissions with the total CO2 forcing is only slightly less idiotic than comparing it to the total heat from the sun. I will check out the paper you mentioned. Thank you.

          • Philip Haddad

            I just read the paper and while very interesting does nothing to disprove the notion that the change in CO2 forcing is small compared to the change in heat flux.

  • TonyPrep

    I’m disappointed that Gavin Schmidt trotted off the US lowered emissions since 1990 as though there was no doubt it was real and important. What matters for the planet is global emissions. And, for the US, what matters is emissions due to its economic activity. When Gavin can show that those big picture emissions have reduced, then there might be some significance in that.

    • Paulina

      Fair enough, but what I’m mainly disappointed about is that Carbon Brief either mistakenly transcribed Gavin Schmidt’s statement, or transcribed it correctly but didn’t bother to factcheck it in the month between the interview and its publication. Also disappointed that, so far, Carbon Brief still haven’t bothered to include any kind of note to readers to indicate that the claim is *not* accurate.

      In the context of explaining that many miss the ongoing “huge amount of [US] effort,” Schmidt said:
      “US emissions are falling and will fall by about 15% by 2015, compared to 1990. So, that’s actually pretty significant”

      But, no, neither US GHG nor CO2 emissions will fall by 15% by 2015 compared to 1990 levels.

      Official US 2013 GHG & CO2 emissions were 6 to 7% *above* 1990 levels.

      http://www3.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/inventoryexplorer/#allsectors/allgas/gas/all

      And 2015 emissions will not be anywhere near 15% below 1990 levels.

      Carbon Brief represent elite media on this topic and this is an important interview, with an important scientist, and Schmidt is making a claim about something being “pretty significant,” presumably using the word “significant” in a colloquial sense. But the numbers involved are completely wrong (even if you simply look at the official figures and don’t bother to provide the fuller, e.g., consumption-based, context).

      Either none of this is actually important, or Carbon Brief need to get this right.

      (If I am wrong or unfair, please let me know.)

      • Simon Evans

        Thanks for noting this. We have added a note to the article.

  • André Balsa

    Thanks for this illuminating interview. I really appreciate the lucidity and pragmatism of Gavin Schmidt that comes out in the whole interview and particularly in this phrase (about climate sensitivity i.e. global warming in relation to carbon dioxide emissions):
    “It’s very, very, very likely not to be so low that we don’t need a policy response, and it’s very, very unlikely to be so high that any policy response is pointless.”

  • I can understand from a scientific point of view why the 2 degree target is not a good way to talk about the problem, but from a political point of view it is essential, because it gives everyone a benchmark to measure by. With 2 degrees we can say, we have a budget of 886 gigatons of CO2-e between 2000 and 2050 for an 80% possibility of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Then, we can say, we have so far used up 60% of that budget and we can start trying to assign carbon budgets to each country. Without that 2 degree target, 350.org couldn’t have had its Do the Math tour and we couldn’t talk about how we need to leave 80% of hydrocarbon reserves in the ground. The 2 degree target has focused activists and government and given people a rallying cry.

    I respect the science that Dr. Gavin Schmidt does, but I can’t help noticing the difference compared to Dr. James Hansen who he replaced at GISS. Hansen was not a good public speaker and didn’t do well in interviews, whereas Schmidt is a much smoother speaker, so from that point of view Schmidt is a much better person to be the public face of GISS. Nonetheless, Hansen was driven by the urgency of the climate change to communicate with public. He would have talked about how the paleoclimate records shows that we can expect many meters of sea rise and how the Earth’s energy balance shows that we have massive climate forcing in the system which are unaccounted for. He would have talked about how urgently NASA needs that new satellite to measure aerosols in the atmosphere. Mostly he would have talked about how the politicians were failing to heed the scientists and how a carbon fee-and-dividend is THE solution that we need to solve the crisis.

    Hansen would never say as Schmidt did in this interview:
    “The job of a scientist like me is mostly done. People are talking about their independent contributions to reducing emissions, countries are talking about this and they’re talking about many different ways that they’re going to get there. That means that those countries are taking this problem seriously, and that really has been the contribution that the climate scientists.”

    I am going to miss Hansen. He truly was a prophet among the scientists, but I can see why the US government is probably much happier to have someone like Schmidt in charge at GISS who doesn’t criticize the government, doesn’t give policy prescriptions and doesn’t predict doomsday scenarios. I wonder if Schmidt reflects the general opinion of the scientists at GISS. Does the retirement of Hansen and his colleagues who retired with him mean that GISS will no longer be sounding the alarm like before?


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