This is the sixteenth of a continuing series of essays and interviews from Earth Institute scientists on the prospects for a global climate-change treaty. Check with us daily for news and perspectives, and to make comments, as events unfold throughout the Copenhagen meetings.
Peter deMenocal is a marine geologist who studies sea-bottom sediments for clues to past climates. Among other things, he has found evidence that previous civilizations suffered and fell during sudden climate swings. He teaches an undergraduate class in basic earth sciences at Columbia University. As the Copenhagen summit headed for its second week, journalist Kim Martineau met with him in his office at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
You’ve been teaching a climate-science class at Columbia for seven years now. Do 18-year olds view global warming any differently now than they used to?
Yes. The shift has gone from wanting to hear about the evidence for climate change to wanting to hear about solutions. During the Bush years the class had a number of climate skeptics who used the same talking points as the conservatives. It was a more hostile crowd, which was fun actually. Those people have largely disappeared. I’m not sure where they went.
People get pretty emotional about climate change and what our country should do. How do you get past the emotions?
I try to find out what’s bothering them. Of course, that changes as the talking points of the skeptics changes. At one point it was “There is no global warming.” In the ‘90s, the argument against global warming disappeared, so the debate shifted to “The earth is warming, but it’s not our fault.” So then you talk to them about the difference between solar forcing and human forcing. If people start getting emotional, you look for common ground. Almost no one is completely unreasonable.
The climate scientists whose private emails were recently hacked and put on the web for the world to read might disagree. What do the emails tell us about the current psychology of climate skeptics?
This is someone who wanted to tank the discussions at Copenhagen. It’s such an obvious indication of intent, in my opinion. It shows how empty their intellectual quiver is right now.
Will the emails get in the way of a climate treaty?
No. India announced [last week] they will reduce emissions by 20 percent. Why would India, a developing nation, do that? Why would China propose emission cuts so early in the process?
What worries you most about climate change?
Sea level rise, because of the sheer amount of infrastructure at risk. One meter rise is enough to put New York City’s airports underwater.
Some travelers might like the idea of bypassing JFK on their next visit to New York. How do you make the threat of climate change real for people?
The best example is the Montreal Protocol—the treaty that led to limits on chlorofluorocarbons [CFCs]. Scientists discovered that these chemicals, once used as refrigerants and solvents, were depleting the ozone layer. Globally, people became concerned that reduced ozone levels would lead to increased cancer rates. Public opinion formed like a tidal wave, and the fear factor led to rapid policy action. There is no direct human health hazard from the carbon dioxide. However, rising levels do acidify the oceans, [and] phytoplankton, the base of the food chain, grow less well in [those] conditions. Less phytoplankton means fewer fish. We get 20% of our food from the ocean.
Do you have a favorite book about climate change?
Sustainable Energy–Without the Hot Air, by David MacKay. It focuses on solutions. I think the doom-and-gloom media coverage of global warming has desensitized people to the real dangers associated with climate change. We can accomplish more if we start thinking about solutions.