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Saturday, May 19, 2007 | Richard C.J. Somerville, a distinguished professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, was one of four local scientists who contributed work to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The group, which included dozens of scientists worldwide, issued a landmark report earlier this year that effectively cemented the scientific consensus that the world is growing warmer — and that humans are causing the change.
Somerville, a 65-year-old theoretical meteorologist, served as a contributing author to the report, one of his last major projects before retiring from Scripps. He plans to formally retire at the end of June, though he says his focus on climate change will continue. He sat down with voiceofsandiego.org to talk about the IPCC process, why you should pretend Trevor Hoffman produced the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” and how his view of life with climate change is like parking in New York City.
He is already talking when the interview starts. He had appeared the evening before on an all-night radio program called Coast-to-Coast, speaking for several hours and fielding phone calls about climate change.
Somerville: It goes from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. our time. And apparently everyone who’s up then is listening. It’s usually devoted to alien abductions and the paranormal. I have collected a batch of the looniest e-mails one can imagine. People who want jobs, people who denounce me as a child of the devil, they just came pouring in. I got some exposure, and I learned something about what the people I don’t ordinarily talk to — some of them — think about this.
Can you describe what the early part of this year was like — working on the IPCC report — and in the three months since, what that has been like for you personally and professionally?
The overwhelming emotion at the end of the IPCC process has been one of satisfaction, fulfillment and gratitude that it’s over. I think it’s had a very successful outcome and it was a huge time commitment. I figure I spent half my time on average over three years on IPCC.
I’m also very grateful at the way the way the report has been received. Veterans of the IPCC process had told me these plenaries could be very contentious. Nations can dig in their heels, refuse to accept a word or a phrase or a sentence — and the rule is unanimous consent. So if a nation does that, the sentence doesn’t get in the report. To my delight, that didn’t happen. The delegates — including the United States, which had a reputation going in for being obstructionist — were actually very constructive.
That was an intense week, seven straight 14-hour days. And a lot of media attention at the end of it. I felt the media had in many ways turned around. It’s hard to generalize, but I thought there was a lot less tendency this year to frame the issue as skeptics versus alarmists. And that was a sea-change. …
I think in some ways the IPCC has had a lot to do with this. The IPCC statements are firmer than they were in previous reports. So when the IPCC says the warming is unequivocal — that not only reflects the science accurately, but it’s probably been persuasive. It’s become a kind-of go-to source for authoritative science. All in all, I think the IPCC has had a very strong impact.
If you could look at the puzzle of global climate change and pick off one question, one piece of research, that if you could wave your magic wand would be completed?
I’d like to know more about this issue of tipping points. There’s a lot of indications that the climate system is capable of moving in abrupt, sudden jerks. That it’s not just going to react gradually as you push on it harder and harder. The analogy in recent past is the ozone hole, which wasn’t predicted. What was predicted was that putting chemicals in the stratosphere that destroy ozone would lead to a gradual decrease in ozone. The ozone hole was a completely unexpected and serendipitous discovery. The discovery of this sudden, shocking, smoking gun galvanized action.
In climate, we haven’t seen anything like that. And things that get people’s attention can’t be ascribed unambiguously to climate change. Did climate change cause Hurricane Katrina in a direct way? No, you can’t say that. You can say that in a warmer world, the odds of intense hurricanes may go up. I think there are many examples like that. Is there a point where in a warming world you release a great deal of carbon dioxide? Or you diminish the atmosphere’s or plants’ or the oceans’ ability to take up some of it? In some ways, these tipping points are unpredictable. They’re the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Talking not about the uncertainties, but the certainties now. Is the IPCC’s conclusion — the certainty that climate change is happening — the most fundamentally important thing we do know?
The fact that the certainty has gone up is important. But it’s important to realize this is not just a new realization that dawned on people. The greenhouse effect has been well understood since the 19th century. This year’s IPCC report was more firm. The uncertainties went down. There’s a lot more attention to what climate change means for given regions. So there’s more detail. But there’s still a lot to learn.
The other thing that’s clear in this report is that we’re already seeing exactly the changes we’ve been predicting. Arctic sea ice thinning. Glaciers in retreat worldwide. The atmosphere becoming more humid.
Andy Revkin, the New York Times‘ science reporter, was asked about his outlook on life given his understanding of the science of climate change, which he’s been writing about since the 1980s. He said he started his days feeling pretty good, but ended them feeling worn down. Knowing what you know, how do you answer that question?
In New York City, where Andy works, there’s an institution called alternate side parking. There’s a sign on the street that says you can park on this side of the street Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, and on the other side of the street Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I have an alternate side parking attitude.
On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I’m discouraged about what’s being done. On Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, I’m encouraged because some corporation or some state or some country has made a positive statement. I’m always a technological optimist. Environmentalism can be profitable. Toyota is selling all the Priuses it can make. The technological potential is there … in energy conservation, energy efficiency, carbon sequestration and nuclear. There is progress that can be made on all the major objections to nuclear — cost, reactor safety, proliferation and waste disposal. … What’s missing is the political will.
I’m often asked what I recommend people should do individually to help. Ride a bike, buy a Prius, recycle. All of those things help. But the other thing that’s useful is to put pressure on the political system, and tell the person who is asking for your vote that this issue is important.
It’s interesting to hear you talk about the nexus between environmentalism and business. Historically, those have been viewed as divergent causes. So has religion and science. And yet you have religion and business taking up the cause of climate change.
I think so. You have seen the oil majors change their tone on this. Some earlier than others. It’s smart business. If your business is energy on a global scale, you’re going to want to be at the table when the rules are made and priorities are discussed. You don’t want to have it imposed on you by fiat. This is not an issue in which there’s a monolithic divide between the business community and the environmental community. … There was a Saudi oil minister who was fond of saying the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones. And the oil age, we hope, doesn’t end because we run out of oil. The danger is not that we run out of it, but that we continue to burn it the way we do.
One thing that strikes me is the lack of polarity about global climate change in Europe. The only explanation I’ve seen is that climate is more uniform across Europe.
Europe may look monolithic as seen from San Diego. But area-wise it’s not so different than the contiguous United States. The climate in Portugal does not resemble the climate in Lapland. The Urals are not like western France. So I don’t know whether that’s true or not. But Europe has somehow avoided the polarity on political grounds that has characterized the issue here. Many people in the U.S. when they say they’re skeptical about global warming, they’re actually fearful or disapproving of the policies they think might be implemented. They don’t want to see high prices for gasoline because of a carbon tax. They don’t want to see emissions limitations. In Europe, on the other hand, there’s already high gasoline prices. And the difference is tax. In Europe, there’s already small energy consumption per capita. There may be less antipathy toward government in many European countries. In France and the Netherlands, taxes are high, but the benefits are high. Many Americans find it appealing that the best government is that which governs least. …
The main objection to Al Gore’s movie — which does have flaws from a technical point of view, but isn’t a bad primer — the main objection is that the narrator is Al Gore. And not so long ago we came through a brutal election in which Gore and Bush were nearly tied. So you have people who are unwilling to accept anything Al Gore says because they don’t like Al Gore. Pretend the person who’s narrating it is someone you do like. If you’re a Padres fan, pretend it’s Trevor Hoffman.
Have we faced a similarly large issue? The size and scale of it — and its duration — make climate change hard to conceptualize.
I think that’s right. It is unique in that sense, the extent and timescale. The ozone hole issue didn’t affect the way in which the whole world generates 80 percent of its energy. Ozone-safe substitutes could be found. It was technologically much easier. This is much more politically hard, for lots of reasons.
The time scale is so long. You’re talking about doing things now, feeling the pain today and deferring the benefit beyond the usual political horizon. And there’s a tragedy of the commons that comes into play. If you shut down the United States tomorrow and never put another molecule of CO2 in the air — everybody takes Kool-Aid — it doesn’t solve the problem because the U.S. is making 25 or so percent of the global amount of CO2 emissions, and that’s shrinking as developing countries with big populations ramp up.
And the wind blows the CO2 around. The carbon dioxide over San Diego is not what we emitted, it’s what all six-and-a-half billion people and their ancestors emitted. So yeah, that’s tough. That’s much harder to deal with, no doubt about it. I think that although the world hasn’t faced a problem of this magnitude and seriousness that I can think of. I think individuals have. There are many useful medical parallels. With disease, early detection and prevention are better than waiting. It costs money to have elective surgery now, but if you wait until the heart attack, the risk is greater and the cost is greater.
The question then becomes how much can we adapt to it and how much can we mitigate?
You have to do both. The climate change is already occurring. The Dutch are raising the dikes and spending the money to do it. Sea level is rising. You are seeing coastlines eroding. You’re seeing precipitation patterns changing. We’re already in California seeing the kinds of things we’d expect in a warmer world with our water supply. It’s not rocket science to say that in a warmer world the Sierras get less snow and more rain. You’re seeing earlier runoff. It’s not hard to foresee that there will be greater competition for water, higher water rates, more water shortages, even possible rationing. There’s much to be learned about that, but the basics aren’t in doubt. You’re not going to have the water supply you’ve been accustomed to. It’s already changing. Those two issues — sea-level rise and water issues — I think are at the top of the list for San Diego as ones you can plainly foresee. The others are more speculative. Is there a change in vector-borne diseases?
You said you spent 50 percent of your time on the IPCC over the last three years. What fills that time for you now?
I’m revising a popular book, “The Forgiving Air.” I’ve written and submitted research proposals. I’m talking with graduate students about advising their theses. And I’m getting seriously interested in the history of science. I’m going to retire formally from this place in the summer. I hope to have time for more popular writing, more speaking out and more, you might say, interaction with the science-policy interface. I’m looking forward to that very much.