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Jeff Kiehl: There has been a breakdown between scientific information and effective public policy

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

So what happened to the climate change debate? The sense of urgency that seemed to be felt a few years ago has virtually disappeared from the public discourse—well, at least if you judge public discourse by the presidential election campaign. But if you look at a recent study that came from—done by research from Yale and George Mason University, the majority of Americans think there is climate change and that it’s caused by humans and that it’s a problem. According to the study, 69 percent of Americans agreed that the warming of the Earth is playing some kind of role in the weather affecting the nation. In the northeastern part of the country, 71 percent of respondents believe this to be true. And if that’s the case, then how come you don’t hear the word climate change, never mind out of Mitt Romney’s lips, but you don’t hear it anymore from President Obama?

Now joining us to talk about this and why he is convinced climate change is urgent and needs to be at the heart of a public policy debate is Dr. Jeff Kiehl. He’s a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, and he’s head of the climate change research section there. Thanks for joining us, Jeff.


JAY: So you’re at a conference now which is precisely trying to grapple with this question of what happened to the sense of urgency about climate change policy. Before we get into, you know, what you think are the most persuasive, important scientific points that give this sense of urgency, what do you make of the political discourse on this?

KIEHL: Well, it’s more the lack of political discourse, I guess, that surprises me, given the seriousness of this issue. I think it’s, you know, basically very important that the world and/or specific to the United States, we here formulate some energy policy that reduces dramatically our dependence on fossil fuels, since it’s the burning of those fuels that’s at the source of the problem. So I think most scientists who have worked very hard on this issue and tried to raise as much consciousness as possible around it—. And as you said, the polls indicate that the majority of Americans do feel that this is a problem that should be addressed, that the real breakdown—and it’s been a breakdown that’s been around for many years now—is the connection between that scientific information and any formulation of a real solid policy to do something about the problem.

JAY: I mean, it seems the financial crisis and the deep recession just overwhelmed the discussion and it became—maybe that’s one of the factors that became—well, we have things we have to deal with more quickly. And even if polls are showing most Americans think climate change has something to do with their weather, this—no sense of urgency, either, coming from the majority of Americans. They’re not demanding their politicians deal with this issue. There’s a lot of factors, I suppose. But how well do you think the scientists that do see the sense of urgency, how well have they been at this communicating this and sort of fighting this fight?

KIEHL: Well, I think we have to own some responsibility for the lack of action on this issue, at least up until more recently. Scientists have not been trained traditionally to frame their messages, their science, in ways that are easily grasped by the public. But a lot is going on within the scientific community, especially over the last few years, to address this issue, working with communication experts, trying to find the right metaphors to use or images to use that will more effectively connect people to this issue. I’ve seen a real transformation in this area in the last few years. It’s something that I’m keenly interested in. It’s one of the things that I think we’re trying to do at this forum this weekend here in Portland.

JAY: Okay. Well, we’re going to start a process here. You’ve written an article which—you’ve laid out five points that you think are simply indisputable that lead to the conclusion that there is human-caused climate change and that it’s an urgent problem. And so we’re going to go over those points, you know, relatively quickly, and then were going to dig into them more later. But we invite our viewers to write in, phone in, write in, communicate with us at—and, you know, you’ll see right below on our website how to contact us, or you can just do contact (at) therealnews (dot) com—again, contact (at) therealnews (dot) com—and you send your questions or challenges for Jeff. And he’s agreed he’s going to come back, and we’ll dig into these five points much more deeply in relationship to people’s questions and arguments. So, Jeff, let’s start with point number one.

KIEHL: Well, point number one is that we have observed that the atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have been increasing, certainly for the last 50 or 60 years. Those are direct observations that started back in the ’50s or so. And they just show unambiguously that carbon dioxide levels have been increasing and continued to increase through time, and that the source of that increase in carbon dioxide is human burning of fossil fuels.

JAY: So the evidence that the source is human is what?

KIEHL: That’s point number two, because it’s often argued or asked, how do we know that the increase in carbon dioxide that we’re seeing in the atmosphere is due to human activity and not, say, volcanic activity, because volcanoes do emit carbon dioxide? And the unambiguous signal there, again, based very soundly on observations, is the relative amount of one flavor of carbon in the carbon dioxide over another flavor. And here flavor is—turns out there are two stable forms of a carbon atom. One is lighter than the other, and fossil fuels are predominantly composed of the carbon that’s light. And so when you burn carbon dioxide, when you burn fossil fuels and emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, you’re putting a lot more of the light carbon into the atmosphere than the heavier carbon.

And so scientists for years have been measuring the amount of this light carbon to that of the heavy carbon. And indeed what they see—again, a very clear signal—is that the amount of lighter carbon has been increasing. And the only way to explain that is through the burning of fossil fuels. So we know that the amount of carbon that—increase in the atmosphere is not due to volcanic activity. It’s clearly due to the burning of fossil fuels.

JAY: Now, before we get on to point number three, one of the main arguments that comes from skeptics is that carbon dioxide’s a natural thing that occurs and that this—this section of, you could say, the counterargument is they acknowledge that it’s getting warmer, but they say it has more to do with activities of the sun and not carbon. How do you respond to that?

KIEHL: Well, there’s no—I mean, the sun goes through an 11 year cycle in terms of its activity. And there was at some point a phase where, yes, indeed, as the solar activity increased, the planet got warmer. But we’ve been in a phase where the solar activity actually started to decrease and the planet continues to get warm. So although you may want to invoke that as an explanation, there’s no actual causal mechanism that you could use. And what we see now is that there doesn’t seem to be any connection between that 11 year cycle and this, the warming that we’ve been observing a decade after decade.

JAY: Okay. Well, one of the other major skeptic arguments is that—again, these are amongst the skeptics that acknowledge it’s getting warmer. But they say this hockey stick effect, the idea that on the graph you can see from the time of the Industrial Revolution that it starts to get dramatically warmer, they acknowledge that, but they say it’s not the first time that’s happened, we’ve seen that before where it’s gone a big spike, but it’s also come down again. How do you respond to that argument?

KIEHL: Well, they’re actually—it’s absolutely true that the Earth has been warmer in the past and has gone through cycles of warm and cold spells. The most dramatic and most recent of those sorts of cycles are the so-called glacial cycles, as these were—the last one, glacial maximum, occurred 20,000 years ago. And we know this from looking at the ice core records in, say, Greenland. You core, do an ice core, and you can look at the chemicals in the bubbles that are in the ice core, and they tell you about what the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was and what the temperature of the—you can infer what the temperature of the planet was. And those ice core records do show that the planet, you know, 800,000 years to nearly 20,000 years ago, went through cycles of cold and warm and the carbon dioxide levels went up and down.

Now, what’s tricky here—and this is often used by the skeptics—they say that, well, it actually got warmer first, and then the carbon dioxide levels went up, so there is no connection between carbon dioxide causing the warming. Indeed, the warming was not caused directly by carbon dioxide during the glacial cycles. We know that that—glacial cycles were started and ended because of the relative orientation of the Earth to the sun, that there’s wobbles that the Earth goes through, and that affects how much sunlight reaches high latitudes. And it’s that effect, that tiny effect, that causes the Earth to go in and out of glacial cycles. And when the Earth starts to warm up, it actually—there is more carbon dioxide that’s put into the atmosphere, which actually enhances the warming, but it’s not the cause of the glacial cycles, and we understand that fairly well.

Now, there are other times when the planet’s been very warm, and those times you have to go back now tens of millions of years. And that’s an interesting time, because we have some data where we can infer the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And if you go back, say, 30 or 40 million years ago, carbon dioxide levels were much higher and the planet was much warmer, say 40 million years ago: it was [incompr.] 800 to 1,000 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, and the planet was so warm that we didn’t have ice at either pole. The Greenland ice sheet was not there and Antarctic ice sheet was not there. So those are actually periods that we can use to understand how the planet responds to elevated carbon dioxide.

And, indeed, there there is direct scientific information that’s telling us that if we allow carbon dioxide levels to reach high levels/concentrations, the planet is going to warm significantly. And that’s one of the pieces of information that leads us to be so concerned about where we’re heading. And the reason for that is—it’s a fairly simple calculation to do, that if we continue to burn fossil fuels at the rate that we’ve been burning them over the last decades, then by the end of this century, in a mere 80 to 90 years, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will reach 800 to 1,000 parts per million, levels that it hasn’t been at for at least 40 million years, and that was when the planet was very warm in the deep past.

JAY: Alright. Let’s move on to your point number three. You talked about carbon and greenhouse gas effect.

KIEHL: Right. So the next question is, well, if carbon dioxide’s observed to increase in the atmosphere and we know it’s due to burning of fossil fuels, does that affect the Earth’s climate system? And this gets at the issue of carbon dioxide as an efficient greenhouse gas. And what that means is that the warm surface of the Earth radiates heat radiation away from the Earth’s surface. And a greenhouse gas, it traps that warm radiation, and it radiates some of it back to the surface, which then warms the surface even more.

And so the issue here is, well, how do we know that carbon dioxide is an effective or efficient greenhouse gas? And this is actually something we’ve known since the late 1800s, because there was a Irish scientist, who lived in London at the time, who was actually interested in this issue of how different gases affect the greenhouse cover around the Earth. And so what he did was he went into his laboratory and he put different gases in a glass chamber and measured the amount of thermal radiation, heat radiation absorbed by these various gases. And indeed what he found was that carbon dioxide is a very efficient greenhouse gas.

You know, it’s often not understood. Some people feel that the science of climate and climate change, especially around greenhouse gases, has only been around for 20 or 30 years. Well, actually, the first person that proposed the greenhouse effect was a French physicist, Fourier, and he did that in the 18th century. And then, in the 19th century, people like Tyndall did measurements to show that carbon dioxide’s a very efficient greenhouse gas. And the first paper to actually study the effects of doubling of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s surface temperature was published in the late 1890s by a Swedish scientist, who went on to win the Nobel prize. So this is not a science that’s just been around for 20 or 30 years. It’s actually—our understanding of how the greenhouse effect works, what will happen if we increase carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it’s actually a very well understood problem that’s been around for over 100 and some years.

JAY: So before we throw this to our viewers—and, again, we’re going to invite you, viewers, to write us, or you can add comments underneath video in the comments section, or you can write us at contact (at) therealnews (dot) com your questions for Dr. Kiehl. But how urgent is it? And, you know, we keep hearing various kinds of estimates or predictions, and we have five years or we reach a tipping point. And, you know, where are we at this tipping point process?

KIEHL: I think that’s very hard to say. I mean, one of the tipping points that people are very concerned about is the future stability, say, of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. We know that both Greenland and Antarctica, the ice there is melting at a fairly fast rate, faster than I think many scientists thought would occur. And this warming is tied to the fact that the high-latitude regions are warming at a more higher rate than, say, the tropics. So this is something that we would expect to happen. But we don’t really know how—you know, will that warming and melting occur at a very slow sort of steady rate? Or will we reach a point where, say, a part of Antarctica—one part that’s often discussed is the so-called West Antarctic ice sheet, if that can become unstable and dramatically change in a few years.

I would say that we really don’t understand the processes well enough—we certainly don’t have those in climate models—to make predictions about when and if such a tipping point will be crossed.

I think what is of more concern and should be of great concern to the public is the rate at which we are burning fossil fuels and increasing carbon dioxide, and, associated with that, the rate at which the planet is warming. When you look back in the past and compare the speed at which we humans are affecting the atmosphere of the planet, it’s much faster than processes that nature has generated over thousands of years or millions of years. And life on Earth, the biosphere, it reacts to rates of change, how quickly, you know, the climate system changes. I’m talking about things like how quickly species can adapt to or accommodate the kind of changes that are occurring in the planet right now and are projected that will continue to occur the more we burn fossil fuels.

JAY: Right. Okay. Well, so, viewers, get your pens and keyboards out. You can address your questions to Dr. Kiehl at either contact (at) therealnews (dot) com or in the comments section below the video. And we’ll be back probably in two, three weeks, and we’ll start going through the questions. And this will be sort of a series of back-and-forth, where we’ll work our way through the scientific issues and questions that people may have. Thanks very much for joining us.

KIEHL: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Jeffrey T. Kiehl is a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, where he heads the Climate Change Research Section. Over the past 30 years he has carried out research on a wide range of scientific questions regarding anthropogenic climate change. He has published over one hundred articles on the effects of greenhouse gases on Earth’s climate, the effects of stratospheric ozone depletion on climate, and the effects of aerosols on the climate system. He is the co-author of Frontiers of Climate Modeling published by Cambridge University Press. He has been a member of the National Research Council’s Climate Research Committee and the Committee for Global Change, and he has served on a number of NRC panels over the past twenty years. He is a Fellow of both the American Meteorological Society and the American Geophysical Union. Jeffrey also holds a Master's degree in Psychology and is a Diplomate Jungian Analyst with a private practice in Boulder, Colorado. He is a member of the Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts and the International Association for Analytical Psychology. Jeffrey has combined his interests in climate science and psychology to look at better ways to communicate climate change science to the public.