State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Why This Climate Scientist Is Taking to the Streets

Central ParkIn the beginning of my career in atmospheric science, starting in the early 1990s, I consciously avoided doing research on global warming. I wanted to do pure science, without any political overtones. Besides that, though, global warming didn’t excite my scientific curiosity. The consensus in the field then (as now) was that human activity was changing the climate; the science behind that consensus seemed to me not just solid, but so straightforward as to be uninteresting. The natural greenhouse effect has always kept the planet warm enough to support life. Add more of the gases responsible, and it will get warmer. I chose to work on other problems, where the atmospheric dynamics seemed more exciting and where human influence didn’t play a role.

In my early years I didn’t talk about the politics of global warming much either. I didn’t bring it up with friends or family, let alone engage in any public way. It seemed to me unseemly for a scientist to be vocal on a political issue related, even indirectly, to his own research. Wouldn’t that be an indication of bias, of a lack of scientific impartiality?

But I have changed my mind. This Sunday, I—and other scientists I know—will join thousands of other people from all walks of life on the New York City Climate March, to focus attention on this daunting challenge that our politicians have ignored for far too long.

How could I have avoided the issue as much as I did as a younger scientist, both in my work and my personal life? To some extent it reflects that I have never been particularly politically active. I vote, and I give modest amounts of money to causes I believe in, and that’s about it. But also, looking back 20 years, the effects of global warming on human society seemed far off in the future to me; now, they are upon us.

In the 1990s,the climate models used to predict the atmosphere’s long-term future were not great. The observations were not entirely conclusive, either. There had been significant warming over the 20th century, but it seemed difficult to prove—even though in hindsight it now seems to me that it had been proven well enough—that a majority of it was human-induced.

Since then, evidence of all kinds has stacked up. Our understanding of the climate’s inner workings has advanced for 20 years. Climate models have improved dramatically. What they say is happening, and will happen in the future, has not changed—not the essence of it. And in the meantime, the planet has just continued to get warmer.

Even in the last decade, the so-called “hiatus,” the planet has warmed. The most recent bit of warming has just been mostly below the surface of the sea. We don’t fully understand why, but we know there is no chance it will stay there. The climate has always fluctuated naturally, and always will, but the warming we are causing is an inexorable rise on top of those fluctuations.

For New Yorkers, the starkest example of our vulnerability to climate was Hurricane Sandy, which destroyed so much two years ago. While such a powerful storm could have occurred with or without global warming, we know for a certainty that the rise in sea level since pre-industrial times, over a foot due in large part to warming, contributed to the destruction. We are quite certain that the sea will continue to rise—almost certainly faster than in the past—and fairly certain that the power of hurricanes will intensify as the climate warms. We can’t predict when another such storm will come, but we know we are becoming ever more vulnerable to one.

The science of global warming no longer seems boring to me. Frightening, perhaps; difficult to face, at times. It is happening, now. There are many details we don’t understand about just how quickly it is happening and exactly what all the consequences will be. But the basic facts—that human influence is warming the climate, and that this warming poses a serious challenge to human society—are no longer subject to serious debate, and haven’t been for some time. Anyone who says otherwise is either ignorant or willfully deceitful.

We need to overcome the denial in which too many of our leaders indulge. I believe that much of it is insincere. I believe that many who refuse to accept the reality of global warming, or who are content to remain silent about it, are not really so arrogant as to believe that they know the science better than virtually all of us who have dedicated our lives to studying it. Rather, they can avoid facing the hard reality because they believe that their constituents don’t see it as a serious problem. We need to convince them that they are mistaken.

It is past the time when a scientist could justify staying quiet. We who study the atmosphere know, better than anyone, what is happening, and why. We can’t leave it to others to say it, even though we need many, many others to say it with us. This is why I will march on Sunday.

Adam Sobel is an atmospheric scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and author of the upcoming book Storm Surge: Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate, and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future.

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