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Climate Change and Our Generation: A Conversation with Gavin Schmidt

by Kaitlin Alexander | University in Canada

F Posted in: News and Politics P Posted on: October 18, 2011
Aerial View of Melting Glaciers in Antactica

The 2012 election is heating up, and the issues at stake are more relevant than ever. A number of them are incredibly important to our generation- youth unemployment, deficits, education, student loan debt, foreign policy, and more. We’re breaking them down, giving them context, discussing possible solutions, interviewing experts, and- above all- showcasing the takes of students nationwide. Welcome to ‘NextGen Policy’- a NGJ special series. In the arena today: climate change.

Dr. Gavin Schmidt is a climate modeller at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and one of the world’s top scientists studying global warming. NGJ’s Kaitlin Alexander interviewed Dr. Schmidt to find out what we can expect from the climate in the coming decades.

KA: In a business-as-usual scenario, what range of warming can we expect within the lifetimes of today’s young people – so to about 2070 or 2080?

GS: Well, we don’t have a perfect crystal ball for exactly what “business-as-usual” means, but the kind of projections that people have been looking at – which involve quite high increases in population and minimal changes in technology – you are talking about global temperature changes, by about 2070, of somewhere between two, three, five degrees Celsius, depending a little bit on the scenario, and a little bit on how sensitive the climate actually is.

That metric is a bit abstract to most people, so how will that amount of warming actually impact people’s lives?

That’s a very good question, because most people don’t live in the global mean temperature, or the global mean anything. Those kinds of numbers translate to larger changes, between four and six degrees of warming, over the land. As you go towards the poles it becomes larger as well, because of the amplifying feedbacks of ice albedo changes and reductions in snow cover.

Right now the range between a cold summer and a warm summer, in most mid-latitude places, is on the order of a couple of degrees. You’ll be looking at summers then – the normal summer then – will be warmer than the warmest summers that you have now, and significantly warmer than the coldest summers. The same will be true in winter time and other seasons.

How will that impact metrics such as agriculture, food prices, the economy…?

It’s easy enough to say that there are going to be some impacts – obviously agriculture depends on the climate that exists. People will adapt to that, they’ll plant earlier, but crops are very sensitive to peak summer temperatures. So you’ll see losses in the fatally sensitive crops. But then you’ll see movement north of crops that were grown further south. You have to deal with the other changes – in nutrient balances, water availability, soil quality. We’re not talking about just moving the subtropics further toward the poles.

Lots of other things are going to change as well. Pests travel much faster with climate than do other kinds of species: invasive species tend to increase faster, because they’re moving into an empty niche, than species that are already well established. There’s going to be changes to rainfall regimes, whether it snows or rains, how heavily it rains – a lot of those things will tax infrastructure.

You’ve got changes for people living on the coast related to sea level rise. That will lead to changes in the damaging effects of storm surges when any particular storm comes through. We’re also looking at more subtle changes to the storms themselves, which could even amplify that effect.

How much of this warming, and these impacts, are now inevitable? Do we have the ability to prevent most of it, and what would that take?

Some further changes are inevitable. The system has so much inertia, and it hasn’t even caught up with what we’ve put into the atmosphere so far. As it continues to catch up, even if we don’t do anything else to the atmosphere from now on, we’ll still see further warming and further changes to the climate. But we do have a choice as to whether we try and minimize these changes in the future, or we allow the maximum change to occur. And the maximum changes really are very large. It’s been said that if we allow that to happen, we’ll end up living on a different planet, and I think there’s some certain truth to that.

I hear you talking a lot about uncertainty, and that’s something a lot of people are paralyzed by: they don’t want us to take these actions because they think everything might be fine on its own. What’s your response to that attitude?

Any decision that you’re making now that has to do with the future is uncertain. We make decisions all the time: where to invest money, whether to buy a house – these things aren’t certain, and we still have to make decisions. The issue with climate is that no action is a decision in and of itself. That one is actually laden with far more uncertainty than if we actually try and produce energy more efficiently, try and use more renewables, adjust the way we live so that we have a more sustainable future. The uncertainty comes with what would happen if we don’t make a decision, and I find that to be the dominant uncertainty. But climate change is not unique in having to deal with decision making under uncertainty. All decisions are like that. It’s nothing special about climate change in that there’s uncertainty about what’s going to happen in the future. Any time we decide to do anything, there’s uncertainty about the future, yet we still manage to get out of bed in the morning.

Probably in response to this attitude, climate science has got a lot of bad press in the past couple years. What have your experiences been – what sort of reactions have there been to your research?

There are a lot of people, particularly in the US, who perceive the science itself – just describing what’s going on and why – as a threat to their interests. To my mind, knowing what’s going on in the planet and trying to understand why should just be information, it shouldn’t be a threat. But other people see it as a threat, and instead of dealing with either their perceptions or what the science actually means, they choose to attack the science and they choose to attack the scientists. Basically, you just have people adopting a “shoot the messenger” strategy, which plays well in the media. It doesn’t get us very far in terms of better understanding what’s going on. But it does add a sort of smokescreen to divert people’s attention from what the real issues are. That’s regrettable, but I don’t think it’s at all surprising.

And finally, are you at all optimistic about the future?

It depends on the day.

Kaitlin Alexander Kaitlin Alexander Kaitlin Alexander is a B.Sc. student and aspiring climatologist from Canada. She serves as NextGen Journal's Climate Correspondent and blogs at http://climatesight.org.

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