Climate 'Groundhog Day for Scientists and Journalists Alike

Ideas to cool earth with dust are dangerous.


Nature's Edge Notebook #31

Observation, Analysis, Reflection, New Questions

Interview with Climate Scientist Michael Mann, author of "The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars,

Conducted by Bill Blakemore in New York's Central Park 4-19-12:

Some of Mann's main points and charges in Part 5 include :

- "Groundhog Day" repetitions for journalists and scientists alike. Why are same debates being waged.

- Geo-engineering to cool planet is dangerous. Studies show spraying dust in atmosphere could even make it hotter in places.

- Similar problem in World War Two history: we didn't prevent it despite clear warnings; might we fail to prevent climate calamity despite clear warnings?

- There is still time to prevent the worst

On the way to catch a taxi, Michael Mann walks and talks with Bill Blakemore in Central Park:

New dangers of geo-engineering, and grave need to act in time, says Mann.


Blakemore (while walking through park towards taxi with Mann): There have been so many stories we're doing over and over again. That's one of the oddest things about this. I've never known a story like this where I take pieces I did eight years ago, put them on the air, and they seem fresher than they did then because the crisis is worse. You must have that feeling as a scientist.

Mann (walking through park towards taxi with Blakemore): Yeah, well you know, I'm from central Pennsylvania, and not too far from Punxsutawney, and sometime I remark how it feels like the movie "Groundhog Day."

You know, we seem to be having this same debate over and over again, about whether the problem is real. And the science is in, on this. Human-caused climate change is reality. We're about as certain of that proposition as we are of any proposition in science.

So we can't continue to bury our heads in the sand and have this fake debate as to whether the problem even exists. There is, you know, a worthy debate to be had about precisely what policies to put in place to deal with it, but it is exasperating, I think, to those of us who work on the science, to continue to have to fight this battle to communicate to the public the reality of human-caused climate change.

Blakemore: One of the stories I remember doing with Jeff Goodell some years ago was on the dangerous temptation that's going to face some governments when it gets hotter in 10 years, even - sooner than that possibly, or soon after - and governments are going to realize, or individuals may realize, that they could put a single fire hose up into the air, put dust into the tropopause, and cool it off. Dangerous?

Mann: Yeah, I mean frankly with some of the schemes that … the so-called geo-engineering schemes that people are talking about, which are based on the premise that we are not going to get our act in gear in time to avert catastrophic climate change by limiting C02 emissions alone, so we're going to have to do something else, we're going to have to interfere with the climate system in some other way to try to offset, you know, the effects of greenhouse concentrations…

And really the law of unintended consequences really potentially reigns supreme when we start talking about these schemes.

Whereas, look at them more closely - you allude to the idea that we can sort of mimic what a volcanic eruption does … a volcano cools the climate for a few years, and if we were to sort of do the same thing by sending large amounts of these sulfate particles up into the stratosphere every few years, we could sort of mimic the cooling effect of a volcanic eruption and potentially do enough of that that we would offset the warming effect of the increasing greenhouse gas concentrations.

But it turns out when you actually run a climate model and you look at what would happen, there are all sorts of potentially very detrimental things that could happen.

For example, you might end up cooling some regions at the expense of warming other regions even faster than they would have because of the way that air currents and ocean currents are changed by these effects.

Blakemore: And who knows what that would do to the economy, to weather…

Mann: Well, it might warm… We could end up warming the Arctic even faster if we were to implement one of these schemes. And we know that already we're on a course where there will be no sea ice left in the Arctic within a matter of decades, and we could see an entire ecosystem, the Arctic ecosystem, essentially collapse because of that.

Blakemore: So, I must tell you, for us journalists who cover it regularly, psychologically this story has challenges that we've never had in any other kind of story because it's got a time scale that we're just not accustomed to.

Mann: Right.

Blakemore: We know that humanity, for example, does have this little problem called war. It just doesn't seem to stop doing that. But on that point, the closest parallel that I can think of as a challenge to our profession is the way in which our profession surely failed greatly in the late 30's.

And the problem there is that we Americans tend to think of World War 2 as a great thing because we won it. When we forget that it's the greatest - we call it "the last good war." It wasn't a good war in any possible sense. It was a disaster.

Mann: Yup.

Blakemore: It allowed Hitler the chaos and cover to do the Holocaust. And it all happens toward the end of the wars.

Mann: Yup.

( Click here to read the discussion of similarity of WW2 crises foreseen but not prevented.)

Blakemore: It seems to me we need to study our failure as a profession in the '30s to understand how we could do the same thing, only even worse, now. Does that make sense in a parallel with what you have?

Mann: Well, there are … there are some real analogies. You know, we saw warning signs. But somehow we ignored them.

Blakemore: Of World War Two?

Mann: World War Two. Sure. And there was potentially, you know, massive loss of life because of the warning signs that we ignored. Again, you know, we did ultimately act, um, arguably in time to prevent what would have been, what would have been a far greater, you know, disaster. And so there is an analogy with climate change where, you know, we have an opportunity to act in time.

Blakemore: In World War Two we did eventually act to prevent what would have been a far greater disaster?

Mann: We acted… Well, there would have been more lives lost probably - what am I trying to say…

Blakemore: Imagine if we had managed to act in order to prevent the war altogether.

Mann: Well, right. Absolutely. I mean there were … so there was a massive loss of life. And we eventually entered the war and arguably ended it before there would be an even greater loss of life.

But yeah, we ignored all the warning signs - it potentially could have averted the disaster that befell us. And so the same thing is true with climate change, where we've already ignored the warning signs to the point where we are seeing detrimental impacts… So there are already losses that we've incurred because of our intransigence in dealing with the problem. But we can avert far greater disastrous consequences by acting now. So there is still time to act, to avert what might reasonably be described as a climate change disaster.

Blakemore: There still is time? Your understanding of the climate models … there still is time?

Mann: There is still time to limit emissions to the point where we exceed 450 parts per million in the atmosphere … and most likely that would mean less than another couple of degrees of warming, but there's uncertainty.

Michael Mann catches a taxi.