‘Things that we predicted are starting to happen’

Source: Maxine Joselow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, November 5, 2018

Gavin Schmidt didn’t want his climate predictions to become reality.

But that’s exactly what’s happening.

A celebrated climate scientist who leads NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Schmidt isn’t happy about witnessing decades-old predictions of hotter oceans or a melting Arctic come to fruition.

Nor is he eager about his next outlook: that humanity won’t prevent catastrophic warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

“In the practical sense, there’s almost no chance” the world will avert 1.5 degrees of warming, Schmidt said in a recent interview.

“If we had massive cuts in emissions, then the temperatures would not rise much above 1.5 or would stay flat or go down again,” he added. “But the inertia in the system is not just physical. It’s societal and economic and sociological.”

Schmidt was referring to the temperature goal identified in a recent report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which warned of dire consequences if the world fails to take aggressive action to curb greenhouse gas emissions (Climatewire, Oct. 9).

It’s a heavier lift than the 2 C goal established in the Paris accord. And countries aren’t on track to meet even that benchmark.

But Schmidt does see a bright spot. The IPCC’s warnings were widely covered by the media, boosting awareness of the need for action — even if the world doesn’t clamp down temperature rise to 1.5 C.

Schmidt, a native of London with a pronounced British accent, was tapped by NASA to lead the Goddard Institute in 2014, replacing climate scientist James Hansen, who famously warned a Senate committee 30 years ago about the dangers of climate change before it was widely understood (Climatewire, June 24, 2008).

The 51-year-old Schmidt spoke with E&E News this week from his office in New York City about improving climate models, dealing with people who deny mainstream climate science and “bumming around the world” in his youth.

How accurate have climate models been in predicting warming over the last 20 or 30 years?

Very accurate. Are the models perfect? No, they’re never perfect. And so you ask the question, are the models useful? The answer is they absolutely are.

What would you say to climate deniers who have attacked the models being used?

People who were predicting climate 30 years ago and weren’t using models were saying, “Oh, it’ll probably go back. We’ll have a little bit of warming and then a little bit of cooling. Nothing to worry about.”

But now, things that we predicted are starting to happen. We predicted that there’d be a huge increase of heat in the ocean, and there was. We predicted that the stratosphere would cool, and it has. We predicted that the sea ice would start to melt in the Arctic, and it is. And none of these things were predicted by the people telling everybody, “Everything’s gonna be fine, and you don’t need to worry.”

By the way, I don’t feel good telling people these things. We’re predicting things that we don’t want to be true.

Are there any aspects of climate models that scientists are still working to improve?

Oh, all of them. You know, climate models are improving in all sorts of ways. For instance, we’re still working to incorporate ice sheet models and ice shelf models into the big climate models. That’s still ongoing. And that’s partly why we don’t have a great deal of confidence in our predictions of sea-level rise, why the uncertainties there are so large.

But none of the changes that we’ve put in over the last 20 years have changed the fundamental responses. Our initial predictions were actually pretty good.

President Trump recently claimed that the climate could “go back.” Would the climate change back if humans disappeared?

We’re having an impact on the planet that is geological in scale. So is it gonna go back on its own without us doing anything? No. That ship has sailed.

What do you make of public discourse about climate change?

Some of the discussion that’s happening in public is, “Well, we don’t know how much of it is human-caused.” That’s rubbish. Scientists are not debating whether climate change is real, nor are they debating whether particulate matter is harmful to human health. All of those things are just nonsense arguments.

Do you ever get harassed by climate deniers on social media?

Not so much anymore. I think they’ve kind of retreated a little bit. I mean, there are still crazy people who believe all sorts of stupid things that occasionally pop up. When I was less prominent, I attracted more attention, probably because they thought they could keep me quiet, which didn’t really work out very well for them.

Is the world going to meet the 1.5 C goal laid out in the IPCC report?

In the practical sense, there’s almost no chance.

If we don’t meet the 1.5 C goal, what will that mean for people alive in America today? What changes will they see?

Oh, we’re already seeing changes. We’re now about 1 C above preindustrial levels. And we’re seeing impacts in terms of coastal flooding, more intense rainfall, increased heat waves and more days above 90 degrees [Fahrenheit]. We’re seeing drought conditions become more serious and water become less available in the summertime. So as we go through 1.5 C — and as we get to 2 C or 2.5 C — we’re going to see more of that.

So those sorts of events will become more common?

Yes. We’re going to see the world pushed into more and more exceptional situations. People will say now, “Oh, that’s a one-in-a-thousand-year event, or a one-in-10,000.” But really, these aren’t one-in-10,000-year events anymore. These are the kinds of things that would almost never happen without climate change but will be increasingly common.

Should we be worried about each incremental increase in temperature or sea-level rise?

You might think half a degree doesn’t matter. You might think that another foot of sea-level rise doesn’t matter. But think about whether the subway floods the next time there’s a storm surge. If the subway opening is at 12 feet and you have a storm surge that goes up 11 feet and 9 inches, then there’s no damage. But if it’s 11 feet 9 inches and there’s an extra foot of sea-level rise, now that’s over 12 feet, and there’s a lot more damage, both to people and infrastructure.

When did you first grasp the seriousness of the problem posed by climate change? Were you one of the early voices in the late ’80s, like your predecessor, James Hansen?

[Laughs] No, I’m not that old. In the ’80s, I was still in high school. I graduated high school in 1985. So when Jim was testifying before the Senate in 1988, what was I doing? I was bumming around the world, running a youth hostel, and picking grapes in Swan Valley in Australia.