For years now, climate scientists have seen explaining their work as a way to help the public make good decisions in response to global warming — without politics.
Climate scientists at the University of Washington want to talk more about their work because it and public policy are intertwined. They stick to the science side of the equation, which they want the rest of us to understand better so that we can make informed decisions about climate change.
On a recent day that felt arctic, I walked with three of them from their office to a Vietnamese restaurant where hot pho warmed our conversation about the actual Arctic, which is where a lot of the action is in climate science.
Michael Steele is an oceanographer who studies the circulation of sea ice and water in the Arctic Ocean. The Arctic is warming faster than elsewhere because of a positive feedback loop in which melting expanses of white snow and ice expose darker water and land, which absorb more heat and melt more ice and snow.
Steele uses data and simulations to learn more about that process, which is important because global warming is already changing climates and affecting life on earth. Coasts are flooding, sea life is dying, polar bears are in trouble.
People are contributing to the heating of our planet mainly by burning fossil fuels and thereby increasing the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Those gases act like a blanket that retains the sun’s heat and warms the planet — which is good up to a point, and we’ve passed that point. How and even whether we try to mitigate the negative consequences of global warming is a political question, but the science is clear.
I met Steele at a friend’s party, and he invited me to the Polar Science Center at the UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory. The scientists there like to talk about their work over lunch, so I went along with Steele, Harry Stern, a mathematician, and Axel Schweiger, the principal scientist and chair of the Polar Science Center.
Schweiger said the most common question he gets after public presentations is, “How can you do this work? How do you feel about that? Aren’t you totally depressed?”
Stern said he’s not depressed about the situation because people have the power to make changes. And Steele said that he’s concerned as a citizen of the world, but as a scientist, it’s super interesting.
Sometimes people will point out that over time the Earth naturally goes through hot and cold periods. But the researchers said what is different now is the rapid speed of change, and the presence of 7 billion people on the planet.
“One thing a lot of people get wrong is confusing weather with climate,” Stern said. Weather is what happens today, tomorrow and next week. Climate is the long-term average of the weather.
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Steele said people are good at forecasting the weather for tomorrow or even for a week or so, but beyond that forecasts start getting worse. Many decades out, predictability gets better when scientists are looking at longer trends. Because of human activities that put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, scientists looking far ahead know the climate is going to keep warming.
There will be ups and downs in the global temperature along the way, but the trend will be upward.
People also ask them, “What can I do about global warming?”
Steele said that until recently, he didn’t want to answer that question. “I’m an Arctic oceanographer. I’m going to tell you what I know, and I’m not going to tell you what I don’t know.” But after his presentations, sometimes people feel despair, so he wants to offer something positive without being an advocate.
The three researchers batted around thoughts about that, sometimes disagreeing. Turning off the lights when you leave a room won’t have much impact. Voluntary actions generally aren’t enough, but mandatory requirements are difficult politically, especially at the national level now.
Schweiger believes local and regional initiatives help because they build a model for what can be done. “I’m not an expert on solutions,” Schweiger said, “but I have an educated opinion.”
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Driving less and flying less would make a difference. They debated how far a scientist could go toward discussing solutions that are in the political realm without losing credibility. They decided that sticking to the science was where they belong, and that includes telling people that global warming is already affecting the planet, and that humans are fueling the process.
So they are making efforts to inform the public. They give public talks, and 12 years ago, their department partnered with the Pacific Science Center to put on an annual polar-science weekend. The next one is March 3-5.
Whatever the political process produces as solutions, Steele said, “The sooner we do something, the better, and the later we do something, the worse.”
I believe that is sound advice.