B50A9757net_cle413f5e-4b487 FROM THE FIELD
The 2015 Paris Climate Summit

Conversations with a Climatologist

by |November 29, 2015

The Science, Revisited

Tony Barnston. Photo: Francesco Fiondella

Tony Barnston. Photo: Francesco Fiondella

Tony Barnston, a scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, took a few hours out of his day and answered questions on a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session.

Here are three questions from his session, but you can visit the full Reddit appearance here. Two more Reddit “Ask Me anything” sessions will be will be announced in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.

Which short-term effect of climate change do you feel we should be most worried about?

Sea level rise. As the polar ice melts, it adds water to the oceans. Also, a warmer ocean expands upward. We humans continue to build on very low-lying land, which is a mistake. We are short-sighted and give too much weight to short-term profitability.

But sea-level rise is not extremely short-term; it is very slow. But individual sea level events (related to storms or spring tide conditions) will gradually take bigger bites out of our developments in places like Miami, the Pacific islands, etc.

NASA image of the Gulf Stream and sea surface temperatures.

NASA image of the Gulf Stream and sea surface temperatures.

If global warming continues at its non-linear pace, what will be the effect of melting Greenland glaciers on the Gulf Stream over the next 10 years? How will that affect climate in Europe and beyond?

This is complex. The Gulf Stream would continue, but would encounter cooler ice-melt water near Greenland. The effect on the Gulf Stream’s trajectory toward Europe is not easy to answer, and would require a comprehensive research project. But part of the Gulf Stream would probably still make it to Europe unimpeded.

Even though climate change will play out over a long time frame, the intensely negative implications of human impact and ramifications of a shifting climate will be extreme. How do you maintain a positive outlook when all predictions point down the drain?

Although many predictions do point down the drain, not all of them do. There is a large amount of uncertainty in these long-term climate projections. So, my outlook is uncertain. It is not in any definite direction yet. While there is no doubt in my mind that climate change is occurring, and that it is affecting human welfare, there is much uncertainty about the rate of climate change.

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