Climatologist Stephen Schneider on how industry has manufactured ‘uncertainty’
Interview with Stephen Schneider
The fundamental mechanism of global warming—that gases like carbon dioxide accumulate in the atmosphere and trap heat from the sun, creating a greenhouse effect—is widely accepted. Whether human activities such as burning fossil fuels is contributing to the greenhouse effect is where much of the debate lies. But who is stirring up the debate?
Not the thousands of scientists around the globe who have reached a consensus on the significance of global warming and the need to reduce the role of humans in it. Nor the hundreds of governments, from towns to nations, that have signed on to the Kyoto Protocol to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
A corporation like ExxonMobil may claim that its “actions include investments and strategic planning that address emissions today, as well as industry-leading research on technologies with the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the future,” according to its corporate Web site. But that is hard to reconcile with evidence like the 1998 memo from an industry-wide project that considers the recruitment of “a cadre of scientists who share the industry's views of climate science and to train them in public relations so they can help convince journalists, politicians and the public that the risk of global warming is too uncertain to justify controls on greenhouse gases,” as described by the New York Times. Nor does it square with the existence of 40 or more organizations that work to undermine mainstream climate science and have received funding from ExxonMobil, according to Mother Jones magazine.
A handful of oil-industry-sponsored scientists receive enough attention from the media to keep the debate roiling. And global warming has turned into a political battlefield. Take the Bush administration. In June, it was uncovered that Philip Cooney, head of the White House's Council on Environmental Quality and a former oil lobbyist, modified reports by government scientists to downplay global warming. Cooney, a lawyer, has no scientific training. In the ensuing controversy, Myron Ebell, of the Exxon-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute, told the New York Times, “This is a news story because the White House is so secretive, not because he did anything wrong.” Within a week, Cooney resigned and found a job at Exxon.
But over the last few years, some corporate players have begun to take global warming seriously. For example, the energy company Cinergy devoted a significant portion of its latest annual report to the issue. And the international insurance company Swiss Re has long warned about the potential effects of warming. In a 2004 report it stated, “The human race can lead itself into this climatic catastrophe—or it can avert it, since human beings are capable of learning and adapting.” Recognizing and acting on global warming is not just good science and good public policy, it’s good business.
In light of this swirl of issues—scientific, political, economic—around global warming, the Planet talked to Stephen Schneider, a Stanford climatologist, about the uncertainty—real or manufactured—that persists in the public mind.
Interview with Stephen Schneider
Planet: Can’t global warming be discounted as part of natural climate variability?
Schneider: The climate’s varied before humans were in the act and it’ll vary afterward. And all that variability will ride up on top of what we do. The fact that there may be large variability doesn’t mean that we should ignore the change. If you have a difference in your budget every year of ten percent, and there’s a slow trend of increasing your income by one percent per year, does that mean you should be ignoring the one percent because the fluctuations from year to year are ten? After ten years you catch up and it’s completely clear, but even in the short run you made the extra money. Same thing: Just because the climate varies a lot naturally doesn’t mean that it isn’t varying on top of the trend that we create.
But remember: How long a fluctuation lasts is very important. If I take a sauna for half an hour, it helps my heart and lungs. If I spend the night, they’ll take me out in a box the next morning. So fluctuations are much easier to deal with than long-term trends.
People say, “What do you mean? The temperature difference between day and night is 40º F in some places. Who cares about five more?” It matters because the kind of vegetation that grows depends on the averages—it can always adapt to the short run but not the long. For example, if you move up a mountain, temperature changes only about 5º F every thousand feet, yet the vegetation changes dramatically. Over a long period of time, 5º F is a very big number. Remember we’re talking about those changes in place, not up the hill. Natural variability is certainly important, but it isn’t the whole story.
Planet: Why is there not more unanimity on the cause of global warming?
Schneider: Depends who you ask. If you ask those people who produce the literature, study it in detail, argue with each other, are the peer reviewers of reports, what you will generally find is a very strong consensus; that is, a well-established belief, evidence-based, in a number of areas.
It’s well established that the world’s been in a warming trend. We are about 6 or 7 tenths of a degree, plus or minus a few tenths, Celsius—so that’s one degree, plus or minus a few tenths, Fahrenheit—warmer than we were a century ago. It’s consistent with the vast bulk of glaciers melting, small rises in sea level, plants and animals moving around, earlier blooming dates, birds coming back from migration earlier. Global warming is essentially a fact, that’s well established.
There’s 30 percent more carbon dioxide, 150 percent more methane, we’ve added gases like sulfur dioxide in the air that creates aerosols—that is, particles that reflect and cool—so not only do we force warming with greenhouse gases, but we force cooling. And we also know for sure that we’ve added chemicals like chlorofluorocarbons, which increase the greenhouse effect and decrease stratospheric ozone, which has a slight cooling effect.
And it’s also well established that the increase in carbon dioxide, methane, chlorofluorocarbons are due to humans.
What’s less well established but highly plausible is what fraction of that observed, virtually for-certain global warming, can we attribute to human activities, and what fraction to natural? We know with very high confidence that some of it can be attributed to humans. That’s because of evidence we call fingerprints.
What’s a fingerprint? The stratosphere cools and the [earth] surface warms. Now, if the sun did it, as is asserted by some so-called contrarians, it would warm the stratosphere, the middle of the atmosphere, and the surface. That’s not what happened. Stratosphere cooled, surface warmed—that’s a fingerprint of human activities, the combination of the depletion of ozone and the addition of greenhouse gases. The models predict it, it’s what we observed in the last 30 to 40 years.
What else do the models predict? They predict the middle of continents will warm up more than the middle of oceans, and high-latitude continents will warm up more than low-latitude. Guess what? Both of those fingerprints: they happened.
Does this prove global warming? No. This is circumstantial evidence. But the actual observations all line up with the predictions of models, and the probability that they’re all by chance is very low, which is why it’s very well established among the knowledgeable community that humans are at least part of the story.
Sources of uncertainty
Planet: Who is responsible for all this uncertainy?
Schneider: First, the so-called contrarians. The group that will take any study that just comes off any press anywhere and if it has any element that slightly disagrees with the mainstream wisdom, they immediately declare the overall, basic, well-established consensus to be dead until this study is resolved. Now, that is not how science is done. Science is done on the basis of the large preponderance of evidence contained in hundreds—in this case, thousands—of studies. No one new study can come along and prove it right or prove it wrong. This is a deliberate manipulation.
I left the media out of this. The pinnacle of the profession are White House reporters, political reporters, economic reporters, sports reporters. Where are the science and environmental folks? They’ve been firing that group. So you’ve got a problem that when you’ve got political reporters, they are trained in journalism school to be “fair and balanced”—and I don’t mean in the sense of Fox News, I mean really. Journalists are rightly trained: “If you get the Democrat, get the Republican.” And they play them off against each other. In political reporting, where there is no standard of who is right or wrong because you’re reporting on philosophy, you give roughly equal weight to these two sides and you let them duke it out. When you apply that model to science, you end up in the cacophonous disaster we have now. Because in science, there aren’t two sides.
Climate change, for example, is not, as the Competitive Enterprise Institute says, good for you—or, as deep ecology groups say, the end of the world. Those are the two lowest probability outcomes. It’s a whole bunch of possibilities. And what scientists spend most of their life doing is trying to winnow out the relative likelihood of all these various potential outcomes. If that’s going to hit a media trained in “get the other side,” then they do egregious harm to the truth because they’ll take an International Panel on Climate Change—which is 300 scientists working three years, three rounds of reviews, a hundred governments fighting to make sure the language is honest and fair—and then they’ll give equal weight to two guys funded by OPEC or by the oil industry who have PhD.’s, who represent no one but themselves.
Therefore, the media become a serious obstacle to good communication because of this belief that if they haven’t gone and found some crackpot somewhere to say it ain’t so, they haven’t discharged their obligation. And my answer to them is: So every time NASA sends up a satellite, why don’t they go get somebody from the Flat Earth Society to say it isn’t true? Or every time there is a new discovery where too many antibiotics were used and that causes the evolution of a new antibiotic-resistant strain, thereby proving once again natural selection works and the theory of evolution is accurate—every time that happens, why don’t they get some member of the creationist community to say that didn’t happen when it’s completely obvious it did because the doctors are all looking around for new antibiotics? That’s evolution in action. Why aren’t they out there getting the other side? Because they know that that’s totally ludicrous.
What [the media] do is create a monstrous, egregious distortion of the nature of scientific reality, and they feel proud of it because they think it’s balance. It’s not balance. It’s laziness. It’s bad reporting.
They should be reporting what I call perspective. They should be not ignoring outlier opinion, but they should be telling their readers the relative credibility of these various positions and who they represent.
Now, scientists contribute and make it worse. We are not paid to talk about what we already know, and we are not impressing our colleagues by writing summary statements.
The only way, in my view, to solve the problem is to get journalists to get off knee-jerk balance and to get scientists to remember to talk a) in English, b) in metaphor, and c) to have some of their members summarize what’s well established with other people in the room nodding their heads so the reporters will say, “Oh, OK, I better be careful how I report this.”
Now as far as the contrarians who are lawyers, public relations agents, or Phil Cooney who is sitting there red-lining science, doing the political mission of the Bush administration—those guys are unfixable, they’re incorrigible. They simply believe in optimizing clients’ interests and that “if the other guys were in charge, they’d do it too so everything we’re doing is fine,” and they can look their kids in the face and tell them that dad’s moral, even though I would doubt it. I don’t think we can fix them. All we can do is expose them.
Planet: You mentioned the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Schneider: Myron Ebell. Who has never gotten anything right in climate science that I’ve ever seen. Yet with invective and anger, he’s out there decrying the mainstream with specious argument and phony science.
Planet: Myron Ebell says, “This is a news story because the White House is so secretive, not because [Cooney] did anything wrong.”
Schneider: Well, of course he didn’t do anything wrong. He did exactly what the president and the vice president told him to do: make climate change look like it’s a non-problem or an uncertain problem, and if you have to lie, cheat, and distort, go right ahead because the truth according to our ideology and our campaign contributors is more important. These are the guys who I put in the incorrigible and untrainable category. And it’s because they’re not evidence-based, they’re ideology-based.
[Phil Cooney] sure landed on his feet. Probably got a big salary raise. I can’t believe that Exxon, after all the money they’ve spent on greenwashing, came out within a week and hired this guy. Their PR people must have just gone nuts, like “We’ve worked so hard to show that we actually think there’s a problem! We’re acting responsibly! Now we hire the chief White House red-liner with no scientific credentials who distorted the science.” What does it make Exxon look like? I think they were stupid for doing that. But they don’t seem to care. They felt that he should be rewarded for his loyal service.
America’s climate policies
Planet: Who is showing leadership in American climate policy?
Schneider: McCain. I think he’s the gutsiest. Joe Lieberman’s been in there with him, but I think McCain has been a little more out front.
I think California can be very proud of itself. That you can have a Democratic governor and a Democratic assemblywoman—Fran Pavley—come up with a bill to try to protect California’s climate through transportation controls, and then have a Republican governor say, “I’m going to defend it in court and I’m even going to extend the rule and increase our commitment.” Can you imagine that inside the Beltway? I’m feeling proud of us right now because we had the political courage to say that the natural and social environment in California is more important than partisan bickering. It’s an example that gives me some hope.
Planet: Do you think there is any promise in mayors signing on to the Kyoto Protocol?
Schneider: Yes. When Kyoto came into force in February, I got calls from the press: “Are you happy?” Yes and no. It’s good that the bulk of the world is taking a very early step. It’s not much of a step, and by itself it won’t do much, but it’s the beginning of a long march, and all long marches begin with a few steps. At least the steps are, even if small , in the right direction—unlike the administration, where the steps are large and in the wrong direction.
A reporter said, “It must be a great frustration for you, having worked on this problem for 35 years and having pioneered the advice to governments to try to slow down the rate of climate change, that your own country has no climate policy.”
I said, “I disagree with your premise. The United States has a lot of climate policies.”
“But you’ve written about the Bush administration—”
“I didn’t say the Bush administration—they are the climate monkeys. They hear no, speak no, and see no climate.”
There are 150 or more cities that have real climate policies that have replaced inefficient lights, replaced streetlights, bought efficient cars, set up carpool lanes. And you know what? They like it because it’s saving them money, it’s reducing crowding, and it’s improving the quality of their air, making their towns healthier, better places to attract business and families. There are more than a dozen states—including California as the leading one—with climate policies. And there are hundreds of companies who have discovered that by being efficient, particularly in energy use, they can both meet a Kyoto target, or exceed it, and make money doing it because they’re finding more efficient ways to do the same thing they did before, and the energy savings are even more than the costs of the implementation of the policy. What we’re going to do is we’re going to erode this White House from below. A combination of cities, states, and companies.
The companies in the United States know that sooner or later the Bush administration will be gone. And then there may be climate policy in the U.S. at the federal level. In fact, I’d be surprised if we don’t have something by 2010.
What’s going to happen is because the U.S. is not a party to Kyoto, U.S. companies are not able to buy in on the gravy train. By that I mean that you don’t have to cut emissions in your own company. You can, for example, instead of prematurely retiring a power plant in Indiana that burns coal, thereby losing all the capital investment before the plant is scheduled for demolition due to its aging, you can go over and build in India a gas power plant to replace the coal one it was about to build. And, labor is cheaper, material is cheaper in India, so you can actually save the world exactly the same amount of CO2 by shutting your plant down prematurely at a fraction of the cost.
When businesses in the United States finally have to cut, they’re going to go on the market, and they’re going to look for the cheapest opportunities. Maybe some will be in their company, but a lot of them will be outside of their company. Well, the Japanese and the Europeans will have had a five-year headstart and plucked the lowest hanging fruit. They will have bought the cheapest ways to do it. By the time we get in the game, it’s going to be more expensive to cut a ton of CO2 than it is now.
So I think it’s not going to be any scientists or environmentalists who are going to do this, [but] the cities, states, and businesses. They’re going to finally go to the feds and say, “We gotta be part of this deal.” I think we’ll back into climate policy from the bottom up instead of from the top down like most other countries.
Ways to help
Planet: What can citizens do?
Schneider: A farmer asked me, “Aren’t the big numbers involved in negotiating with the Chinese so that they don’t develop Hummers and don’t use coal-burning power plants and, instead of moving through the Victorian industrial revolution, leapfrog right to high technology? I can’t negotiate with the Chinese. What do I do?”
First thing you can do is control what happens at home. Do you have a refrigerator? Appliances? An automobile? Do you check the labels for efficiency? There’s a start. You’ll find out, say, that a really well insulated refrigerator might cost you $1,000. A badly insulated one might cost you $900. Supposing it turns out that the electricity difference is twenty dollars a year—that means in five years, that refrigerator has paid for itself. A five year return on investment? That’s much better than we can safely get in most business investments. And after five years it’s all gravy. Same is true for your car. Get an efficient car. When you walk out of the house, do the lights go out? Do you close the windows? And then the most important thing is when the politicians come around, they tell you they’re going to improve the economy, you ask them how they’re going to do it in a sustainable manner. There’s a lot that we can do short of having to negotiate with the Chinese, whether they leapfrog [or not]. You can put some political pressure on your own leaders to make bargains with the Chinese about those things. That we can do. We should not despair.
Young people tell me, “Look, we’ve already got about a degree and a half in the bank. That’s going to cause sea level rise, it’s going to hurt the Inuit civilization by taking the sea ice away from the coast, it’s going to drive mountaintop species into extinction. We’ve already lost!” And I say, “No, we have not even remotely already lost.” Supposing with a lot of effort we can keep warming to two degrees in a hundred years. That’s a lot better than four degrees in fifty years. There’s dramatically more damage with larger, faster change than with slower, smaller change. Do not make your objective solving the problem entirely. Make your objective less stress. We did not, when we reversed the dumping of ozone-depleting chemicals into the atmosphere over ten years, get rid of the ozone hole—yet. But it’s no longer getting bigger. We’re figuring out now that it’s stabilizing and starting to get smaller. And in 40 or 50 years, it’ll be gone. So you have to have as your standard “I made it better than it otherwise would have been.” You don’t have to have as your standard an unobtainable and unachievable “It’s all fixed right now.” Because that’s not going to happen. This society is too wed to fossil fuels, to land use change, to prosperity growth, to population growth.
This is a very, very big, slow supertanker, this world, it has very bad brakes and it doesn’t steer very quickly. But we don’t have to run it at full throttle into the rocks. We’ve got to slow it down and then slowly reverse course.
drought drawing by John Byrne Barry
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