From the APR/MAY 2006 issue of Seed:
Laurie David Credit: Julian Dufort
When Laurie David began recruiting scientists to appear in a documentary on global warming, she remembered Stephen Schneider’s informed and articulate comments in the wake of hurricane Katrina, and immediately invited him to participate. David’s film, Too Hot Not To Handle, aired on HBO on Earth Day, April 22nd, and features Schneider, among other experts. When they caught up recently to deliberate the state of the planet, Schneider and David had no shortage of fodder for discussion.
Laurie David: I want to start with an obvious question: Does the truth matter? How are we going to educate the public if they’re not told the truth about the science from our scientists? Obviously, what I’m talking about is what happened recently with James Hansen and NASA.
Stephen Schneider: My students are always saying, “Aren’t you frustrated to death? Nothing you do makes any immediate difference.” What I keep trying to tell them is, the truth matters, but it’s on a generational time frame. In the short run, it’s all political spin: media, chicanery and who buys the airwaves. But in the long run, being right and having events occur the way you said they would builds credibility, and then some phenomena comes along and becomes a tipping point. In 1988 it was the super heat waves, which tipped the global warming problem—as I like to say—from the left brain of 100 of us to the right brain of the society. And that of course set up the Global Climate Coalition—the coalition of liars and spin doctors and others who then spent tens of millions of dollars a year repositioning the debate. And for a decade they were successful.
Now we have another tipping phenomena in Katrina. Nature is cooperating with theory. We continue to break warming records and hurricane intensities are increasing in correlation with warming oceans, exactly as predicted by theory 15 to 20 years ago. Slowly, that works its way through—although in fits and starts from these media-worthy events—so that after a generation or two, when problems become pretty widely understood, the truth matters. But in the short-run it is going to be all spin.
LD: I would argue—and you’re likely going to disagree with this—that scientists are the most cautious people on the planet. And the time for caution on this issue has long passed.
SS: Well it all depends who you’re talking about. It’s true, most scientists are very uncomfortable saying anything they’re not absolutely sure of, but that’s certainly not true for the Mike Oppenheimers, or me, or others.
LD: No, there are a handful of you out there.
SS: You dial me on Google and 10,000 sites will say I’m an exaggerating liar because I’ve long believed—for over 30 years—that when you see the planetary life support system getting messed up, you don’t wait for full 99% certainty. You slow it down. We buy fire insurance when there’s less than a 1% chance our house is going to burn down. We have a military, and although I may not like everything we do with it, I don’t know anybody who says you should get rid of it because you have security precautions against only very low probability—but potentially dangerous—threats. Well, the climate change threat is not 1%. It’s better than 50% for really significant trouble, and maybe 10% for absolutely catastrophic trouble. What kind of crazy person would take that chance when you can fix it relatively easily? By which I mean below the growth rate of the GDP.
LD: Right, right.
SS: I don’t mean it’s going to be cheap or politically simple.
LD: You gave a great analogy in Too Hot Not To Handle about global warming—
SS: Oh, yeah. I actually stole that from Richard Somerville. He said, if you have high cholesterol and the doctor says, “Hey, you better stop eating that fatty food, you better get on Lipitor” do you turn around and say, “Oh, no-no. When is the heart attack? How serious will it be? When will I have the first warning sign that I have to do something?” No, you take precautions, because you can’t have that kind of detailed information. We have very clear, overwhelming evidence that it is warmer. And we have virtually overwhelming evidence that humans are at least half the story. My own personal view is that we’re going to become 95% of the story over this century. That’s just way, way too high a preponderance of evidence to ignore.
Stephen Schneider Credit: Julian Dufort
LD: Part of what I work on is trying to get this story off of the science pages and onto the front pages, and into popular culture. I think it’s been marginalized because it’s been viewed solely as an environmental issue, which I don’t believe it is anymore. I view global warming as a huge national security threat, a public health crisis, an economic crisis, and I think part of what we have to start doing is figuring out a different way to talk to the American people about it so that they start paying attention.
SS: As I keep saying, the truth is bad enough. We don’t have to overstate the case. We don’t need The Day After Tomorrow. And what happens when we do overstate it is we lose our credibility and we’re back in the “he said, she said” debate. It plays right into the hands of the lazy people in the media and next thing you know you’ve got a scientific phony like Michael Crichton on Oprah. I’ve got to bust my butt to get on Science Friday and we needed Katrina to get me on Bill Maher.
LD: What Michael Crichton did was criminal because he promoted a book of pure fiction as if it was factual. And for some Americans, that will be the only thing they read about global warming.
SS: It’s unbelievable. And this idea that, in science, if you’re not absolutely certain then it’s “just a theory” was pushed by the Global Climate Coalition and the Bush Administration. We didn’t have 99% certainty that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, yet this government is a big believer in precautionary insurance against potential threats to security. But not when the security threat is rising sea levels or forest fires in California. Oh, for that we need to be 99% objectively sure. It’s dripping with hypocrisy and it has nothing to do with the misunderstanding of science. That’s what a lot of scientists don’t understand. We’re not miscommunicating our science. We’re running into special interests who will lie on a dime for multi-million dollar clients, and they’ll do it continuously in order to maintain market share and delay action. And scientists are blindsided by it and don’t know how to deal with it.
LD: You’re completely right, but what’s astonishing then, is the fact that this year—and I am totally feeling this—we’re winning the general debate of the globe is warming and humans are causing it. We’re winning that despite all the efforts of special interests to misinform the public or to create confusion about this issue.
SS: Well you can never point to short-term warming or cooling for anything.
LD: I know, but we have an opportunity here to get the average person to connect the dots. This is the one thing that they are personally living through—this bizarre weather. I know you can’t base overall climate on any one day of weather, but when, month after month, this is happening, we’re making a mistake if we don’t connect the dots for people. We’re still not at a place where one newscaster ever says the words “global warming” when talking about these severe weather patterns.
SS: After Katrina and then Rita, I tried to do it, every time I spoke to the media. I said this isn’t only nature at work here. No, we don’t make hurricanes, but we can soup them up. As Bill Maher asked when I did his program, “Did we put our hurricanes on steroids?” It’s not a bad metaphor. But it’s very difficult, because NOAA—the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—says we don’t have enough information to know whether humans are impacting hurricanes. So they select information on the frequency, which is equivocal, and they entirely ignored all the new studies on the intensity, which is what causes damage. One Category 5 is way worse than 10 Category 2s.
LD: But that’s another way the public is lied to, when they only get one piece of the story.
SS: That’s right, and when they leave that out, that’s not accidental; that’s a lie. Because if you know there’s another component to the story, well-established scientifically, and you deliberately leave it out, you’re misleading on purpose, which is a violation of every principle a scientist has in our unwritten Hippocratic oath.
LD: I saw Wolf Blitzer interview Bill Clinton on CNN, and they edited what Clinton said. He said, “It’s not causing more frequent hurricanes, but it’s causing them to be more intense.” And they cut the part, “...but it’s causing them to be more intense.”
SS: It’s reprehensible. I’d fire a journalist for doing that. Or the editor. Because that’s sanctioning lying. It’s lying. There’s no other way to phrase it.
SS: Let’s go back to Bush for a second, just to show you the horrible misrepresentation in the popular debate about global warming. Back in the early ‘90s, I challenged some economists who said it was too expensive to have climate policy. What they were arguing was that we would be 500% richer in 2105 with climate policy that eliminates most of the severe global warming rather than 500% richer in 2100 without it. This is crazy. It’s a cheap insurance policy. What they do is—I call it a Carl Sagan problem—they talk about the “billions and trillions” that have to be spent. What they forget to tell you is that that’s a small fraction of the overall growth rate of the economy as projected into the century. And last summer Bush said that if we’d signed onto the Kyoto Protocol that it would have bankrupt America. Either he’s ignorant or he’s lying. There is no option in-between.
LD: Right, yeah.
SS: It was completely untrue. And in fact that’s been proven, because gasoline in the US went up over a dollar a gallon in 2005. And it wasn’t due to environmental rules. That’s equivalent to a tax on carbon of over $200 a ton. The most pessimistic economists estimated the cost of Kyoto to the US economy at $100 to $200 per ton of carbon. So we had a situation—without any environmental policy—that cost more than what Kyoto would have cost. And what did it do to the economy? Next to nothing, just like the models said.
So Bush was sitting there, right in the middle of the countervailing proof, making a ridiculous statement, and the media never challenged it. It was unbelievable. I told everybody I saw why that was crap. His silly statement just sat there, like a latke.
Originally published April 24, 2006