Can Science Explain Extreme Weather?
MR. MARC FISHER
From WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo. It sounds like an evil character in a video game. Oh no, Captain, it's the polar vortex. But, as we now know, the polar vortex is a band of Arctic air that's dipped down across the United States this week, bringing unusually frigid temperatures and renewing talk about extreme weather and climate change. The mercury dropped below freezing in all 50 states yesterday.
MR. MARC FISHER
And in our region, wind chills plummeted as low as minus 15. Whenever extreme weather strikes, people look for explanations. Is this evidence of climate change? Does it prove that intense weather patterns are on the rise? Some scientists say climate change and the rapid melting of Arctic ice explain why the jet stream pushed so far south this week, bringing cold air that stalled here for several days. But skeptics insist that no single storm proves anything. They warn against the rush to find patterns where they may not exist. Today we'll look at the science behind this week's cold snap and talk about why views on extreme weather may reflect your politics as much as your personal tolerance for cold.
MR. MARC FISHER
Joining me to talk about all this, Matthew Nisbet is Professor of Communication at American University. He's here with us in studio. Jennifer Francis is Research Professor at The Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University. She joins us from Massachusetts. And Andrew Revkin is the author of the Dot Earth blog at The New York Times. He joins us from New York. And Jennifer Francis, as a climate scientist, you study how Arctic air affects our weather. Please explain how -- sort of what the jet stream is and the role that it has played in this cold burst that we've experienced this week.
MS. JENNIFER FRANCIS
Sure. I'd be happy to. That's not a quick thing to explain. First, I wanted to correct one thing you said, though. And that is that this particular series of events that we've experienced this week, in the United States, in terms of this very cold snap, and in addition, extremely warm conditions in Alaska, dry conditions in California, warm conditions in Scandinavia. These things are all connected by this thing we call the jet stream. But, I would not say that this pattern that we've been seeing this week is directly linked to climate change.
MS. JENNIFER FRANCIS
I agree with the other side on that. However, that said, as I will explain, we think that the tendency for these kinds of patterns to increase -- we've seen them -- indications that they are increasing, and we expect them to continue to increase in the future. That is potentially related to climate change. So, now let me go back and explain exactly what the jet stream is as simply as I can. Fundamentally, it's a river of very fast moving air, high up over our heads, that encircles the northern hemisphere. The reason it's there is because of the difference in temperature between the Arctic and areas farther south.
MS. JENNIFER FRANCIS
The larger that difference in temperature is, the stronger those west to east winds of the jet stream are. So, what we're observing is the Arctic is warming very quickly, much faster than the areas farther south in the mid latitudes where we all live. And so that means this difference in temperature that drives the jet stream is getting smaller. As it does, the wind speeds in the jet stream, in the west/east direction are getting weaker. This is something that we also are able to measure. And we know that when the jet stream winds get weaker, it tends to take a wavier path as it travels around the northern hemisphere.
MS. JENNIFER FRANCIS
And what I mean by that is it tends to shoot northward and then dip far southward and take this very, what's been called this week, a drunken path as it goes around the northern hemisphere. So, this is why we're talking about this pattern this week, because it was one of these cases when the jet stream was very wavy. And while, as I said in the beginning, we cannot link this directly to what's happening in the Arctic or to climate change in general, it is the kind of pattern that we expect to see happen more often. And we're already seeing examples of -- or, evidence that it is increasing in frequency.
You can join our conversation about climate change, extreme weather and the science of that by calling 1-800-433-8850. Or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can also tweet us a kojoshow and let us know what you think explains the extreme cold we're having this week and whether you think we take extreme weather seriously enough. And whether we are as concerned as we ought to be about climate change. Andrew Revkin of The New York Times, between hurricanes and tornadoes and how this week's cold burst, many people have the sense that we're seeing more and more extreme weather.
Is there evidence that that's indeed the case?
MR. ANDREW REVKIN
Well, it's complicated. The -- it depends on what you're looking at. And also, there are these confounding factors. If you're looking at life losses from extreme weather, then it's impossible to even come close to an answer to that question, because so many people have moved into harm's way in the last few decades, both in rich countries and poor countries. I'll just give you two quick examples. In Philippines, where the typhoon was so devastating, the town that was hit, the hardest hit, 40 years ago, had one third the population it has now. So, it almost didn't matter, the ferocity of that storm, given that you had a tripling of the population, mostly poor people moving in from rural areas into bad housing in the surge zone.
MR. ANDREW REVKIN
And in the fire zones of the West here. Same deal. You go to -- I wrote about this a couple years ago, the fires east of Austin, Texas. In a terrible area, a thousand houses burned. Tripled population since 1970. So, you know, if those same fires had broken out there 40 years earlier, you would have not nearly as much loss and not nearly as much news. And, you couldn't go around. The same thing in the tornado zone. Oklahoma had, ironically and coincidentally, I'm sure, just the same tripling of the population in the last 40, 50 years.
MR. ANDREW REVKIN
So that's a confounding factor, and that sometimes we get conflation of oh my God, you know, extreme events, when we're talking -- you'll see a conflation of the losses or the actual ferocity of the event. And that's one thing that has to be put to the side. And then, and then it gets back to this question of time scale. Like, for land falling hurricanes in the United States, several National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists have published a couple papers, in recent years, saying there's a declining rate of land falling storms that are hurricane strength in the United States in the last hundred plus years.
MR. ANDREW REVKIN
So, you look at Sandy and you look at recent events. You go, oh my gosh, you know, I live in the Hudson Valley. We were hammered by Floyd in '99 and then Irene and Sandy, almost back to back, and it starts to feel like a pattern. But when you look with a longer lens, and also with a broader lens, it gets different. And you could go through the list of different kinds of extremes and see that there's different things going on. Heat waves are the one that is pretty robustly linked to greenhouse driven global warming. The same thing with heavy rains coming in heavier downpours.
MR. ANDREW REVKIN
So, but those aren't the things that we mostly talk about.
Matthew Nisbet of American University, Andrew Revkin's point about conflating the size of losses with the extremity of weather events sort of raises an interesting question about whether we are really seeing more in the way of devastating events and real shifts in weather patterns. Or whether we are sort of tuned to this because of the discussion around climate change and because of the media attention. What's really going on there?
DR. MATTHEW C. NISBET
Yeah, I mean, all of these focusing events, including the polar vortex, are really a great learning opportunity for the broader public. I mean, the challenge that we face on climate change and environmental science, generally, these are such complex, oftentimes uncertain issues that it's difficult to get the broader attention of the public to really focus in. When these focusing events happen, though, their motivation for information really increases. And they might then go search online for news articles or blog posts about the topic.
DR. MATTHEW C. NISBET
They'll have the opportunity to hear from scientists like Jennifer Francis on public radio. So, you know, there's a very, there's a small attentive public on both sides of the issue to climate change. From our good survey research out of George Mason University in Yale, they've segmented the public into six distinct audience groups. And what they find is about 15 percent of the public are truly alarmed about the issue. And there's a much smaller subset of that 15 percent who actively participate and follow the issue on a regular basis.
DR. MATTHEW C. NISBET
That might be 20 to 30 million Americans that are alarmed about climate change. And then on the other side, you have about 10 percent of Americans who are truly dismissive. And so you have about 10 to 15 million Americans who -- any information, any event, they automatically assume it's a hoax or they reject the really good science that we have coming out on the issue. But in between, you have about two thirds of Americans who are on a continuum of ambivalence. They don't follow the issue that closely. They may not know much about it.
DR. MATTHEW C. NISBET
They might accept that climate change is happening, but they don't know what can be done. They don't really understand, necessarily, the linkages to extreme weather. And so it's moments like this that there's this motivation for information. And there's some really good conversation happening online. If you go to Google News and you search polar vortex, there's more than 2500 stories that you can deep dive into. If you look at the hash tag polar vortex on Twitter, it's become a meme. It's really a trending topic.
DR. MATTHEW C. NISBET
Yeah, and there's some really bad information out there. But there's also some really good information and really good contextualization by journalists, scientists and others.
And does the -- do extreme weather events such as this week's, help or hinder the discussion of climate change? Does it distract from that longer view that scientists have telling us for years to take about climate change?
It depends. I think there's some good things happening. I think one thing that happens is that, you know, people start to get a sense of their own vulnerability to the climate and to extreme weather. And whether an extreme weather even is linked to climate change or not, it means that you have to prepare for these types of events. You need to think in the long term. And you need to think vocally. It gets people working together.
We saw that in the wake of Hurricane Katrina with people, Republicans and Democrats, working together to recover. For Hurricane Katrina, and now, people along the Atlantic coast are working together across partisan lines to prepare for the next storm. So, you have some real advantages, I think, there, in terms of starting to overcome some of the polarized divide that you see at the national level, especially in Congress and elsewhere. On the other hand, I think we run into some trouble when you see sort of some of the interest groups, among the climate campaigners, taking every extreme weather event and automatically linking it back to climate change.
I think it makes it more difficult for climate scientists then to really have a well contextualized nuanced discussion about what we know and don't know. And then what it might mean for policy, cause the other thing that we see from campaigners is they'll take an extreme weather event and relate it back to a single policy. Why we need a carbon tax or why we need international agreement. And really, you know, we need sort of a broad portfolio of policies that we need to think about at the local, national, international level that focuses both on preparation, especially on preparation and adapting to these changes, as well as mitigation.
Limiting emissions so in the future things don't become worse.
How concerned are you about climate change? You can let us know at 1-800-433-8850. Do you think we should invest more in science to study climate change and weather patterns? We're at email@example.com. And, Jennifer Francis, we were talking about this very discussion about extreme weather. Does that -- is that something that you're comfortable talking about in connection with your study on climate science and climate change? Or does it sort of confuse the public, in a way, to link the two?
No, I'm very comfortable talking about it. And I think that this very new line of research, that's really just emerged in the last couple years, that I and many others now are involved with, in figuring out the mechanism that is linking climate change, or global warming, to this increase in -- of certain types of extreme weather. I think people are more able to understand why we're making this connection now. And more scientists too are more willing to step up and say, yes we're seeing these connections between climate change and extreme weather.
So when I talk to the public, I find that the conversation really is starting to change because I think before people were thinking of global warming as being this very gradual increase in temperature. And it's really no big deal. But people are experiencing extreme weather increasing in their own lives and their own neighborhoods. And they're recognizing that things are seemingly just not the same as they used to be.
And so they can also look at very conspicuous changes that are observable in the climate system, things like the Arctic sea ice disappearing by 50 percent over the last 30 years. I mean, this is just an incredibly easy thing for people to look at and understand that, yes, the system is changing in very dramatic ways. So I hear this conversation really starting to change. People are realizing that it's not just this gradual warming that we don't have to worry about. It's going to be in our grandchildren's time. This is something that we're facing now. The face of climate change is changing in people's view.
And Jennifer Francis, you mentioned earlier that while those of us in the continental United States have been fixated on the extreme cold this week, the temperatures in places like Fairbanks, Alaska were in the 20's this week, which was abnormally warm. So how -- what is that so-called Arctic paradox and why is it occurring?
Right. So if we just use what's been happening in the last week -- and actually more like a month this pattern has been relatively stubborn to change -- what we've seen is it's all connected back to the jet stream that I was talking about earlier. When the jet stream is in this very wavy type of configuration where there are big swings northward and big dips southward, this allows, in the case of a big swing northward, which is happening over Alaska, the warm air from the south can penetrate much farther north than normal.
So just a few weeks ago they had the first rain ever measured during the month of December along the north coast of Alaska because of this big northward swing in the jet stream. And then downwind from that towards the east we find the jet stream dipping southward over California. So the winds there out of the northwest which are very dry, and that's partly explaining why California's having the driest year they've ever had, and then dipping south into the eastern half of the country. And when it dips far south like that, that's when we get the cold air from the Arctic able to plunge much farther south.
So as we continue across the Atlantic, the jet stream has been responsible for the extreme storm after storm that the UK has been having. And Scandinavia has been having one of their warmest winters so far where they've seen birds that usually migrate south by this time of year are sticking around and even starting to sing in their spring mating calls. So this is all connected to what the jet stream's doing.
Andrew Revkin, we heard from Matthew Nisbet earlier about the sort of political polarization that goes on around climate change and that there are certain percentages on both ends who would -- don't want to hear the other perspective. But what's your sense of what impact extreme weather has on political views about climate change, or do people's views on climate change -- are they alterable by science or by weather events rather than by their own political perspectives?
Well, I'll try to unpack that a tiny bit. There -- the -- I think in a way the extreme events have served the folks who are involved in the most heated aspects of the discussion, meaning those who are saying it's a hoax and those who are saying it's a catastrophe. And when that happens, that causes, in my experience -- this is my -- I've been writing about climate change since 1988 so it's a long time -- I think that then the average person, the disengaged folks that Matt had talked about, withdraw even further because they see, oh it's just another political shouting match.
And there's an aspect of this that sort of reminds me of Mohammed Ali's boxing style. And I brought this up in a couple of my posts recent years. It's like the rope-a-dope strategy where if you're a skeptic -- let's put it this way, if you're a professional contrarian, your job is to slow any move away from fossil fuels. And there are people out there like that. You love it when it's like this because these events -- this whole arena of trying to attribute extreme events to the greenhouse effect that's building in the atmosphere, is the most tentative and new science that's there.
And it distracts everyone from the basic science. That's completely understood. And it kind of taints the whole discussion. It makes people feel like it's all new and uncertain. And I think so in a way it empowers that faction even more than anyone else who might want to get something out of it in the end. And, by the way, in a long haul when you look at the long term polling on what people care about, what's called salients, the issues that you take into the voting booths, the issues that keep you up at night, global warming hasn't budged from the bottom of those lists in decades.
And so to me, a lot of what you see that looks like, oh my gosh, now people are caring more about global warming or oh my gosh, now people are skeptical because there was this thing called climate gate a few years ago. It's what I refer to, it's like water sloshing in a shallow pan. There's a lot of movement but there's no change in the depth.
Andrew Revkin that writes the Dot Earth blog at the New York Times and we will continue our conversation about climate change and extreme weather when we come back after a short break. You're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Marc Fisher. We'll be back in a moment.
Welcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. And we are talking about extreme weather and climate change with Matthew Nisbet, professor of communication at American University, Jennifer Francis who is a professor at the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University and Andrew Revkin who writes the Dot Earth blog at the New York Times. And let's go right to your calls at 1-800-433-8850. Here is Eric in Alexandria. You're on the air.
Hi. I believe that your panelist Matthew Nisbet, when he was speaking, he talked -- he said that a lot of climate campaigners will often point to an extreme weather event and say that that is evidence for climate change, and sort of overlooked the entire opposite side of the spectrum, everybody from Rush Limbaugh and other conservatives. Every time it drops below freezing any time of year points to that as evidence that global warming and climate change is not occurring. So I think it's important to keep a balanced perspective on this.
And I've seen -- I've heard far more Republican members of Congress and radio talking heads on the conservative side of the spectrum pointing to an individual weather event as evidence against climate change than I have seen anybody that is trying to raise awareness of climate change doing the same.
Yeah, I think after Hurricane Katrina, there was an interesting sort of new framing in extreme weather that began. And that's the talk about extreme weather events as sort of the new normal when it comes to climate change. And that's been a pretty prevalent talking point now that's been adopted all the way up to President Obama. So, you know, no doubt, you know, this has been a problem for a long time. I've done studies on this and written extensively about what sociologists call the climate change denial movement the role of Fox News.
And what we see in that movement is really sort of a reinforcing and amplification of the tendency of conservatives and other members of the public who see climate change as a threat to the status quo or big business or associated with government regulation or big governmental taxes. It allows them to maintain their world views and to continue to discount climate change.
What we really have to focus on is again go beyond sort of the tail ends of the continuum of public opinion and really look at what's happening among that two-thirds of the public who are still relatively ambivalent about the issue. And I think this is where you have an -- when you have events like the polar vortex, when we have good media forums like public radio, like the Dot Earth blog in New York Times, like Climate Central. Bryan Walsh at Time Magazine writes a great blog called Ecocentric.
It's those types of places that you can really have a good contextualization -- the weather gang at the Washington Post -- and sorting out both the science and then also starting to talk about what can we do from a policy standpoint. And then also a big part here is also the role that meteorologists at local weather stations can do, as well as local newspapers, in terms of talking about what does this mean for preparation and investment and adaptation and resilience at the local level to prepare for the next extreme weather event, whether it's linked to climate change or not.
But Andrew Revkin, as someone who works on writing about climate change and has for a long time, what you said earlier, what Matthew Nisbet just said about this growing media attention and perhaps better or more serious media attention to climate change, is balanced by the lack of movement in the portion of the public that sees this as a major concern. Do you feel that you are writing for and reaching an audience that's already converted or committed? And that the rest of the folks just are moving on to other subjects?
Well, I try not to do that. I mean Dot Earth is -- it's not like -- most blogs are kind of like a comfort zone for people. You know, it's like nice free drinks and soft couches for people who think alike and have common attitudes. Dot Earth, I try to make it about reality. In other words, what do we really know about sea ice? What do we really know about hurricanes? What do we really know about solutions, you know, what really works?
And so it's a more polyglot readership. And what I've seen over the years there in just decades now writing about these things is -- and in looking at a lot of the research that -- in the arena that Matt is in, the social sciences, well, you could have endless fights over is it global warming or isn't it global warming. But what that ends up masking is a lot of overlap in what people think about smart energy policies.
There are people -- the Heritage Foundation wants to eliminate all energy subsidies. So here's a very conservative group that wants to end energy subsidies for oil, for coal. I mean, they want to include renewables but at least there's overlap between that view and that of some liberals who want to end energy subsidies for fossil fuels. So you can start to talk and you can have -- so there's roots forward even with what I see as endless division fueled, in fact, often by the science.
There's a team at Yale, and I guess George Mason, that has done work that shows that the more literate people are the more divided they become on basic science. And so even basic science knowledge doesn’t drive -- doesn't clarify those divisions in society quite often.
Let's hear from Brian in Pasadena, Md. Brian, you're on the air.
Hi. I really appreciate you taking my call because this is something that really concerns me. I'm curious. Is the proper term for what we're talking about global warming or climate change? But because, you know, it seems like all over the world there's a new normal. Like in Germany they had a 500-year flood. Canada Alberta had the worst flooding in their history. We just had a thousand-year flood in Colorado. Pakistan and flooding and then of course in Australia they had to add two new colors to their heat chart because it's so hot. So is it really climate change or are we talking about global warming more?
Sure. They are both valid terms I think. Global warming refers to the fact that the earth, on average, is getting warmer. And then the climate change term really refers to all of the other aspects that are related to the fact that we're warming the globe or increasing the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. So all of the things that the caller just mentioned are possibly connected to that, but there are a lot of other things as well, things like the migration of certain species northward because of the warming that's happening or changes in the temperature of the ocean or the acidity of the ocean.
So there's a lot of other changes that are happening in the climate system that are what we put under the umbrella of climate change.
When we have an extreme cold weather event or a major snow storm on Fox News of course they'll refer to it as global warming. And then, you know, a contrast then to extreme cold as proof of not having global warming. Some people believed for a long time that climate change as a term hasn't been alarming enough. So these are two terms that are imperfect for different people's purposes, but we're kind of stuck with them. I have heard people suggest that we should really refer to this as climate disruption. I think that might be a more accurate metaphor. But again I don't think it's really possible to change the labels because we're kind of stuck with them.
Let's go to Linda in McLean. Linda, you're on the air.
Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I'm also concerned about reaching that vast majority of Americans who really don't know enough or don't care enough about climate change. And I thought if you could make the connection with water, because of course there's serious drought in Australia and in our own country in the southwest. And then also because the warmer climate holds more water, we have the extreme flooding and extreme storms in the southeast and other parts of the country.
And water is something people understand and I think that's a connection that most climatologists agree on is the water connection and the climate change. So that might be a good way to approach it.
Andrew Revkin, does that analogy work for you, water is something you either have or you don't? I guess weather is something that you could attribute to various different causes.
Well, it's the main interface between people and climate except when it's really hot or really cold. You know, the main thing that we -- that climate supplies for us is liquid water that we can use for farming, for drinking, for cooling power plants. And when that's disrupted that's very disruptive. So yeah, that is -- Matt Nisbet has written about and done some analysis of the utility of the health impacts of climate change as another avenue toward better public engagement.
I think another way forward is along with what I said about energy common sense, is that reducing vulnerability to climate extremes, no matter what you think about global warming is a no brainer. If you're the mayor of any town or the member of a town council and your roads are washing out periodically, you don't have to have this debate. if you're a taxpayer and you're seeing the rising cost of flood insurance in places that really shouldn't have -- be built in because of rising sea levels, you should be angry about that cost that's being apportioned to taxpayers. So there's ways to do that for sure.
But Matthew Nisbet, it's interesting that there has not been more of a political reaction to places for example where people continue to build on shorelines that are repeatedly subject to extreme weather. Why has there not been more of a backlash saying, we don't want to pay for the cost of rebuilding all these places again and again?
Andrew might -- Andrew Revkin might know more of the details but I know some of the federal insurance policies have changed. And that might start to see some of the changes we see along the coastal building. But I think actually preparing for sea level rise and storm surges I think is a good example where, you know, there's been so much focus on the national debate, we've really overlooked that where this issue really matters to people and in many cases where we can really make a policy difference is at the state, local and regional level, especially when it comes to preparation and adaptation.
And we're starting to see some interesting initiatives in research and evaluation where if you bring people together into a community context -- George Mason and U.S. Naval Academy did this in Annapolis, which is an area that is extremely vulnerable to sea level rise and storm surge -- if you bring people into conversation, into consultation, into debate, into deliberation, that process of deliberation helps people not focus on their political differences, but on their common interests and their common identity as a member of a specific community.
And what you see as an outcome of that type of deliberation and engagement is that those people on the tail ends of the extremes in their opinion in terms of really divisive values-based differences and world views, they start to align around the same courses of action. In fact, those that are strongly dismissive to science become more accepting. This is a series of projects and studies that just came out from George Mason. And we're seeing some other research like that.
And this is really where our great state universities can play a role. The University of Maine and University -- of Oregon State University through their sea grant programs both in Oregon and in Maine have been doing similar exercises and consultation of research to look at what it will take to get people to think seriously in terms of planning -- long term planning, in terms of coastal development, but it takes resources, it takes time, but I think that's a real way we can make a difference in the short term.
Let's hear from Ben in Berryville, Va. Ben, you're on the air.
Hi, thank you for taking my call. This last point that you are guys are talking about is exactly what I wanted to talk about, that, I mean, we don't even plan for things that have already happened, much less things that we think are going to happen. For example, there were document tsunamis in the area of Fukushima higher than the walls that were protecting Fukushima, and then it was a bowl. When the water got in, just like Katrina, there was no way for the water to get out.
And it seems like, I would think, the most of -- you know, you don't need to talk about why it's happening at first, you just need to say, well, it is happening, and here's the proof that things are happening, and this is what we have to do to protect ourselves from the more hostile environment that we are now living in, and as people see those costs, I think people will come around. I mean, you talked about Alaska being 20 degrees.
Well, I remember a couple of years ago, Alaska had a very, very, very small snowmelt -- snowfall, and they bury their pipes shallow because they count on the snow to impact -- to protect against the cold weather. Well, every 30 years they have a short snowfall and all the pipes break, you know. It's just common sense stuff that we're just not doing.
And I've written about that both in the context of Fukushima and other disaster resilience challenges. Basically, there's a disaster amnesia. We have this limit to disaster memory, and some people have -- some anthropologists have looked way back in history and seen this pattern in areas of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska that were prone to tsunamis, where people would build their village down on this coast and go fishing and come back, and then there was a tsunami and for about 60 years the village site, and archaeologists could find this, would move a hundred feet up from the coast and then it would move back down over another generation or two back to the coast.
We forget. And we still have that pattern, even with all of our technology and science. Whether it's earthquake risk in Istanbul, which I've written about, which will have another great earthquake in our lifetime almost assuredly. The Pacific Northwest, same deal. So there's some big issues here that transcend climate change for here.
When we come back after a short break, we'll talk about whether there really is a political appetite for preparing for the kinds of extreme weather we've been talking about. I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. We'll be back in just a moment.
Welcome back. I'm Marc Fisher sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi, and we are talking about extreme weather and climate change with Andrew Revkin who write the "Dot Earth" blog at the New York Times, Jennifer Francis, professor at the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University, and Matthew Nisbet, who is a professor of communication at American University. He's here with us in the studio.
And before the break, we were talking about whether it makes sense politically to prepare for the kinds of extreme cold or violent storms or rising sea level that we've been seeing. Matthew, is there -- what can be done to prepare for these kinds of things, and is there the political appetite to do so when there is this kind of climate amnesia that Andrew Revkin was talking about earlier?
Well, Jennifer and Andrew can definitely add to this. I mean, you know, this is the number one question that we face, how can we prepare for these changes. And, you know, you'll see across the country, you'll see cities and states who are way ahead of other areas of the country. So cities like Boston and New York City have done extensive planning, really through the leadership of the mayoral office, and in the wake of events like Hurricane Sandy about how to prepare the city for future storms and other impacts.
Other states like New York State, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, even Maine, two states that have Republican governors now have issued climate adaptation reports, and, again, a lot of leadership is happening in terms of preparation through the really great land grant universities that we have. So we have a built-in network, actually, and I've been arguing this for several years, that we often overlook, and that is our land grant universities like the University of Maryland, like the University of Massachusetts, like Virginia Tech University.
These are nodes, these are hubs, not only for research, but also for policymaker and public engagement, and ultimately though, it does take leadership from the governor's office through the state legislature to get things happening. And also, we can really see a lot of innovations, a lot of change happening in our great cities.
Jennifer Francis, I know you've had the sense in the last couple of years that the public conversation and opinion is shifting a bit. Do you see people being more prepared to have major changes in policy or in the way in which we prepare for changing weather?
Well, I think -- I think we are starting to see that starting to shift. I think Sandy, if there's any silver lining to Sandy, it was that it got people to sit up and realize their vulnerabilities. I mean, if it can happen to New York City, one of the richest cities in the world, and cause such extreme damage and devastation to people's lives, then, you know, it can happen to me. So I think that was a real wake-up call for a lot of coastal cities around the world who are starting to realize that sea-level rise is something they're going to have to face.
And, you know, these preparations that we're talking about are very expensive, and so the local government organizations and agencies are weighing am I going to spend our money on that, or am I going to spend our money on something more immediate, and sometimes the conversation until now anyway has put the changes due to climate change in a less immediate kind of a framework. And I think the examples of Hurricane Sandy and some of the other extreme weather events that have happened, in the last few years in particular, have made people realize, well, maybe we have to move this up the priority list.
You can join our conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850. And let's go to Steven in Silver Spring. You're on the air.
Yes, good afternoon. Thank you. I have a conservative Republican friend, highly educated, and his argument that there is no global warming is that every, say, 15,000 or 30,000 years there's a significant global warming so it's nothing new. It's part of nature. One argument against that would be that if we could show that there was a significant covering of land masses, you know, say something like five percent, of course that would be a disaster now. Also, is there any evidence that there is this global warming ever 15,000 or significant period of time?
Sure. Well, you know, right know the amount of carbon dioxide that's in the atmosphere is higher than we've seen in at least 850,000 years, probably even longer. And we know that the last time the Earth had carbon dioxide levels that high, the sea levels were six to eight meters higher. So 20 to 25 feet higher than they are right now. And the reason that the sea levels aren't as high now as they were back then is because the climate system has a big flywheel in it that takes a lot of energy to get it going.
And so while we've put this carbon dioxide through burning fossil fuel so quickly into the atmosphere, the Earth's system has not yet caught up to equilibrating with that amount of carbon dioxide that's in the atmosphere. We're starting to see that happen. We're starting to see the temperatures rise. We're seeing the sea levels rise. And this is the end point that we're headed towards. So there are examples in the past that we can look to to see, you know, where we're headed if we keep going on this path.
And let's turn to Jack in Rockville. Jack, you're on the air.
Thanks. Appreciate the opportunity to speak to y'all, the honored guests there. You know, when we look at some real basic stuff, laws of physics kind of thing, every action equals an opposite reaction, but as we, you know, as we add heat to the environment, the Earth itself has its own little series, systems of checks and balances. It tries to, you know, offset this. You know, I've got people that's naysayers that would go oh, look, it's snowing more now in the South Pole than, you know, than ever before in recorded times, and I would have to answer that with, of course it is, because that's what fuels, you know, basically the currents that cool the ocean to try to offset that cost that snow has melted.
You know, other things that swing back and forth, you know, we worry well, the ice will melt, but it's like ice in a glass, it won't, you know, it shouldn't raise up. When the ice comes off of land masses, that's going to raise the oceans. I work in the automobile industry, and I'll have a 75-pound tire on a truck and I'm trying to get rid of a vibration by adding an ounce -- a half an ounce of weight here and there. So not only does the weight of that water, you know, raising the levels, it's also putting pressure down on things like tectonic plates that's going to kind of squish things along the edges, create cracks.
We've seen a lot of volcanic activity. When you see a lot of volcanoes, a lot of ash in the air, next thing you have, like, the winters, you know, the summer that runs through, you know, or the winter that runs through summer rather. And, you know, your previous -- your guest mentioned about there being a flywheel. You know, when you look at the ice sheets when they take the little core samples, they can look back and say, here's the start of the bronze age, here's the start of the iron age, you know, and they can seen these things.
And in some cases, some of the stuff, exchanges came in relatively short periods of time, and some of them over great long period of time. And I feel -- my gut feeling of this whole is that as this thing starts to pick up impetus, there will be at first gradual changes, but my gut feeling is that the changes will then start coming rather rapidly, and it will kind of be like the genie's out the bottle. And the problem is, the people that have opinions about this, they're already in one pulpit or the other, so whatever you're singing, you're singing to one choir or the other, and it's hard to change people's opinions.
And unfortunately it takes kind of a catastrophe to get people to think about what, you know, what could we do...
...to try to avoid this.
Well, thanks, Jack. And Andrew Revkin, there is -- we've touched a couple of times on this question of what it takes to get people to engage or to change their minds, and there was this incident over Christmas Eve where a research and tourist ship was trapped in the ice in Antarctica, and the ship was carrying a couple of dozen climate scientists and tourists, as well as a few journalists, and you've said that this incident somehow has energized the climate change contrarians. How is that?
Oh, yeah. Well, it's, you know, again, the complications of climate change include sea ice, the ice floating on the ocean around Antarctica is at its greatest extent in the satellite record in the last 30 years, just as the arctic ice at the other end of the pole -- the other end of the planet is at its lowest extent in recent years in the satellite record. So -- and there are reasons, there are explanations for why that may be consistent with global warming and greenhouse warming. There's several different theories.
But basically -- you look at the IPCC, the Climate Panel Report, and it says that that's -- that's kind of still something that people need to work on. So anyway, you get a ship trapped in growing sea ice, a ship full of climate scientists who have been blogging about the importance of global warming, getting caught in sea ice, it's like raw meat for those who want to confuse the public, or who just, again, as that listener and Matt have said, who already holds an ideological position that's firm, it just sort of reinforces that position, and on we go into the future.
And Jennifer Francis, some of those doubters say that -- are pointing to this small increase in the ice levels in Antarctica in the winter as evidence on their behalf. Is that an important change?
No. It's really not an important change. In fact, we can look back in time and see other cases of when it's fluctuated up and it's fluctuated down, and the fluctuation that we're seeing right now that happens to be up is certainly within the range of these normal fluctuations. So it's really not important. We know that it's being caused by a combination of a slight shift in the winds and also a slight increase in the amount of fresh water in the surface layers of the ocean around Antarctica, but it's really not an important change.
And the fact that it's happening in the wintertime makes it even less important because there's no sun shining down, and so, you know, one of the reasons that the loss of sea ice in the arctic during the summer is so important is because that's when the sun is shining. That's when ice reflects a lot of that energy from the sun right back to outer space. And so if you lose the ice, it's instead going right into the ocean and into the climate system and contributing to warming the Arctic Ocean and that region. So it really isn't a big deal, and...
Just one point of clarification though. It is summer down there.
It is right now. That's true. But the increase in our Antarctic sea ice is mainly in the wintertime.
It's not so much in the summer time. But what happened with the ship down there was not that it froze around the ship, it just -- it was a wind shift, and the ship got caught in the wind blowing the ice around it, and now the ship has been released because the wind shifted.
Let's go to Dan in Washington. Dan, you're on the air.
Thank you, Marc. You know, we all must make changes in our personal habits, and our leaders are acting with shocking irresponsibility. You know, they're not helping us transition away from lawn powered, you know, and other nonessential things like lawn equipment and sporting equipment. They're green lighting every development, and we all know that new construction is extremely environmentally harmful. The city council right now is holding hearings for the mayors sustainable DC by 2035 legislation.
And everything in this sustainable DC plan points towards saving green space like McMillan Park, 25-acre green space in the center of the city, and the community is trying to organize to have McMillan Park, and the city council, the leaders who are abusing their power to swing big deals with developers just to put a billion dollars of development on our last green spaces.
So everything we're talking about is treason against posterity, and our leaders are busy swinging deals with construction companies...
Okay. Let's give someone a chance to respond. Matthew Nisbet, is there -- what would it take to put this front and center on politicians' menus?
Well, I think that caller, I think, hits on two things. One is a great deal of frustration among, you now, the very attentive alarmed public with accountability among their government leaders in terms of taking the issue seriously and working together across ideological differences to get something done. The second thing he hits on is that just the incredible appetite for growth and consumption that is sort of part of the DNA of our society. And, you know, even though there are a lot of people that buy into changing their habits, it's going to be difficult to do.
Matthew Nisbet is a professor of communication at American University. We were also joined by Andrew Revkin who writes the "Dot Earth" blog at the New York Times, and Jennifer Francis, professor at the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Thanks so much for joining us.
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 FM American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and international law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885-1200.