Gavin Schmidt

We can’t go out and just cre­ate a new planet and then do some exper­i­ments on that.
Please tell us what you do.

I’m a cli­mate sci­en­tist with NASA God­dard Insti­tute for Space Stud­ies, and I run a climate-modeling group. We’re the peo­ple that look at every­thing that is going on in the cli­mate — evap­o­ra­tion from the oceans, the winds, clouds, how rain forms, what hap­pens to that rain when it hits the land, how does the wind push around the ocean. All of those things that huge amounts of sci­en­tists have been look­ing at for decades.

What we’re try­ing to do is put all of those things together so that we can have a numer­i­cal lab­o­ra­tory for the planet — for the cli­mate sys­tem — that we can play with and poke and prod and try and under­stand why it func­tions the way it does. Why it changes, why it’s chang­ing now, what might be hap­pen­ing in the future, with the idea of try­ing to under­stand it. Because we can’t go out and just cre­ate a new planet and then do some con­trolled exper­i­ments on that, right? Now we are doing an exper­i­ment and we can only do one at a time. It would be really nice to know how that exper­i­ment is going to work out before we actu­ally get there.

Can you tell us what mod­els can­not do?

Mod­els aren’t sooth­say­ers, they’re not ora­cles, they can’t tell you exactly what is going to hap­pen. There is a lot of com­plex­ity in the sys­tem, and there is a lot of com­plex­ity about humans. How are we going to prop­a­gate, how are we going to change our economies, are there going to be any tech­no­log­i­cal break­throughs in the future, all of these things – is there going to be another war – is there going to be a depres­sion, is there going to be a boom, all of these things are com­pletely beyond our ken to say.

But mod­els can kind of give us a guide. It’s like going to a city and all you’ve got is a guide book that was writ­ten fifty years ago and you are try­ing to make your way around and you can see the land­scape, you know, the basic geog­ra­phy is there, but the detail is going to be dif­fer­ent. So that’s all we’re doing. We are try­ing to write the guide­book for fifty years time, with the idea that we want to see the geog­ra­phy – we want to see what’s up, what’s down. But which neigh­bor­hoods are going to be chic, or where is the great­est restau­rant to go to  - all of that kind of stuff is going to be com­pletely unknown.

Mod­els can give us a guide. It’s like going to a city and all you’ve got is a guide book that was writ­ten fifty years ago and you are try­ing to make your way around. The basic geog­ra­phy is there, but the detail is going to be dif­fer­ent. So that’s all we’re doing; we are try­ing to write the guide­book for fifty years time.
From your writ­ing, I sense you pre­fer intel­li­gent argu­ment and con­ver­sa­tion to politics?

Well, that’s not quite what I’ve said. What I said was, peo­ple often ask me if I’m an advo­cate for some kind of pol­icy. Do I want every­body to have a car­bon tax, do I want every­one to drive a Prius, do I want every­body to have a renew­able energy standard?

I have opin­ions about all of those things, but that’s not what I am advo­cat­ing for. What I’d like to have peo­ple do is have an intel­li­gent con­ver­sa­tion about the prob­lem of cli­mate change. Not argue about whether car­bon diox­ide is a green­house gas, because it is. Gases don’t care whether you are a Repub­li­can or a Demo­c­rat – left wing, right wing – lib­er­tar­ian, or con­ser­v­a­tive. None of those things mat­ter when you are talk­ing about the science.

Dis­cussing what that sci­ence means, how you might deal with the con­se­quences of that sci­ence, that’s com­pletely up for grabs and peo­ple can have dif­fer­ent value sys­tems. Peo­ple can argue that their Hum­mer is more impor­tant than Bangladesh. Ok? That’s fine. As long as you are being up front about what is going on. If present day lifestyle now is more impor­tant than your chil­dren and your grand­chil­dren, and effects on agri­cul­ture and all of those things, then make that an explicit state­ment. And then there is a place to talk about whether every­body agrees with that, or doesn’t agree with that.

But what actu­ally hap­pens is, that all of those things get sub­sumed. We have these fake argu­ments – we have these argu­ments about tree rings in the 15th cen­tury, as if any­body was ever in the whole world was going to make a pol­icy about what a tree said in the 15th cen­tury. It’s absurd. You know, how is that even salient? It’s not. So there is a lot of non­sense. But most of the non­sense is a proxy for argu­ments about values.

So what I am an advo­cate for is – let’s be explicit about these things. Let’s deal with the sci­ence. And there are uncer­tain­ties there too, we can talk about those. But let’s not have non­sense con­ver­sa­tions about sci­ence that are really just a cover for peo­ple avoid­ing the real things.

Bring­ing it back to the local New York City level. How do you see cli­mate change affect­ing New York, the Big Apple, arguably the cap­i­tal of the world accord­ing to some people?

You know, I like it here so I’m not going to say any­thing bad about the city. For New York, sea level is a big issue. A lot of New York is very close to sea level. In Lon­don they’ve had to build a bar­rier to stop really high tides com­ing in and flood­ing the city – they are even start­ing to think about an even big­ger bar­rier for 30, 40 years time. It’s not incon­ceiv­able that New York might start think­ing about a bar­rier across the Ver­razano and Long Island Sound. That would be a big deal.

Mostly I’d say sea level for New York is the key.

For New York, sea level is a big issue.
We have hot sum­mers, and we’ll have even hot­ter sum­mers. Peo­ple die when sum­mers get really hot and when we have long peri­ods above 90 degrees. Those would be things you have to think about. But that is some­thing we could prob­a­bly cope with.

But you know, see­ing, see­ing half the island — say Bat­tery Park City being flooded because of high tide or a storm on top of a grad­u­ally ris­ing sea level, that’s the main prob­lem for the city.

We have a lot of stuff that is under­ground, a lot of infra­struc­ture that is below sea level — the sub­way sys­tem, the sewer sys­tem – so if you start to get high waters much more often, then sew­ers back up and we can’t get rid of the sewage.

So, there are kind of knock-on affects. Actu­ally peo­ple like the Mayor, and the PlaNYC group, have been think­ing about it a lot, so they are actu­ally pretty on top of what’s going on and in the deci­sions they are mak­ing now they already are tak­ing these pro­jec­tions into account. Which I think is very smart.

Do you think that New York­ers — as opposed to other cit­i­zens of the world — have a unique per­spec­tive on global warm­ing or cli­mate change? Are we talk­ing about the right arguments?

When I talk to peo­ple in the city, 99 times out of 100, peo­ple are ask­ing intel­li­gent ques­tions and they are talk­ing about the right issues. Hope­fully that’s not unique… the prob­lem with the pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion is not the con­ver­sa­tion with the pub­lic – I think that’s fine, but it’s what’s going on in the media, what’s going on the op-ed pages, what’s going on in Con­gress, you know, what’s going on in the blogs, that kind of stuff. That’s where most of the non­sense is – when you talk to peo­ple – you know, and you have a per­son to per­son con­nec­tion, things go well.

Do we talk a lot in New York?

Speak for yourself.

I think artists should do, what artists do – they should make an impact. And if they make an impact that gets some­body to think about this for ten more sec­onds than they would have done, I think that is good.
Before we began, you talked about find­ing a sig­nal amidst the noise. That’s sort of a value judg­ment, no?

Well, no. I mean – today is a very warm day. Right? So you know, you’re wear­ing a t-shirt, and trousers, right? Two days ago it was cold. You were wear­ing a jacket and a sweater and things. Yeah, we know we are going into sum­mer, right? Hope­fully you are going to be in shorts and t-shirt the entire time. But a cou­ple of days ago you were in a sweater and now today you are in a t-shirt and tomor­row you might be in a sweater again.

So it’s not a value judg­ment to say ok, well, the day-to-day stuff, that’s noise on your way to sum­mer because you know that sum­mer is going to be warmer than the win­ter. That’s what we are talk­ing about. We are talk­ing about sep­a­rat­ing out a long term change from just the lit­tle ups and downs.

Or the stock mar­ket. You know, we are look­ing for the stock mar­ket recov­ery, right? And how are our pen­sions, and, you know, it goes up one day and we think, “oh! That’s the recov­ery!” and then it goes back down again. Ok so, you know, you’re going to get – you’re in for the long term – you know, your pen­sion is 30 years out. And you are going to spend all your time wor­ry­ing about what is going up and down on a day-to-day basis? No. So that’s noise, and the sig­nal is what’s going to come out after 30 years.

So it’s the same with cli­mate. You can spend a lot of time look­ing at the minu­tia of the weather. The rea­son weather is so fas­ci­nat­ing is because it is so com­plex. There is so much to see in it. Even in a sin­gle cloud. You can see a huge amount in a cloud. But, you know, there is a sig­nal under­ly­ing all of that. There’s noise, but there is a sig­nal. And the dif­fer­ence between peo­ple that study the weather and peo­ple who study the cli­mate is our idea of noise is dif­fer­ent. The weather peo­ple, ok, “well is it going to rain today?” That’s their sig­nal. That’s their impor­tant thing.

But for the cli­mate peo­ple, it’s not whether it is going to rain today, it’s whether it’s going to rain more on aver­age over a sum­mer. Are we going to have more intense rain­fall – those kinds of things. Dif­fer­ent sets of ques­tions that dif­fer­ent sets of sci­en­tists are look­ing at.

What can New York­ers do to have edu­cated argu­ments about cli­mate change? How can we get to the right infor­ma­tion and make sure we are being responsible?

Well, the infor­ma­tion is out there. There are cred­i­ble sources for infor­ma­tion. NOAA, NASA, the EPA, Colum­bia Uni­ver­sity, all of these places are giv­ing peo­ple cred­i­ble infor­ma­tion. You can check out my book – which is full of cred­i­ble infor­ma­tion – only two mistakes.

We’re try­ing to cre­ate a numer­i­cal lab­o­ra­tory for the cli­mate system.
Were you aware that there were mis­takes at the time?

No of course not, but now I know there are mis­takes, so I will fix it if I could, but once you get these things printed, it’s very hard to…

You can edu­cate your­self. You can go into this, but you have to be, you have to real­ize that there are a lot of peo­ple out there try­ing to con­fuse you, there is a lot of mis­in­for­ma­tion, a lot of dis­in­for­ma­tion, you know peo­ple delib­er­ately try­ing to con­fuse you as opposed to just acci­den­tally con­fus­ing you. And that makes it a lit­tle tricky. But if you ask ques­tions, if you look at, where are they com­ing from, are they out­liers, you can get a good sense for what is going on.

You know, as for, how should we live our lives, and how should we respond to this – one of the things we can take pride in as New York­ers, is that our col­lec­tive car­bon foot­print is actu­ally much smaller than most of the United States.

We live in very com­pact and effi­cient apart­ment build­ings, we don’t tend to drive, we have a great pub­lic trans­port sys­tem – ah – you know some­times it doesn’t feel so great but it really is, pretty great. And you know, we walk, we bike, we get around in ways that don’t use a lot of energy and all of those things are good. Could we do bet­ter? Yeah, we can have bet­ter insu­lated houses, we can have hybrid cars. Taxis are going over to a hybrid that has 4 times, 5 times the mileage than the old Crown Vic­to­rias. It’s a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t they have done that years ago?

Now we are catch­ing methane gas emis­sions from the Staten Island land­fill – because there is all this [decom­po­si­tion] going on under­neath the hill and now it’s actu­ally being cap­tured and being piped to a power sta­tion, to pro­vide elec­tric­ity for the peo­ple on Staten Island. So finally they are get­ting some good out of the land­fill after so many years.

You know, we are green­ing the city, we are plant­ing trees, that’s good for all sorts of rea­sons. We can be think­ing more about other kinds of envi­ron­men­tal issues like air pol­lu­tion and par­tic­u­late mat­ter, from trucks — they pro­duce a lot of stuff that has a cli­mate impact but also has a very direct health impact. And mov­ing towards hybrids, mov­ing towards bet­ter emis­sions stan­dards for cars – all of those things are useful.

I’d like peo­ple to have an intel­li­gent con­ver­sa­tion about the prob­lem of cli­mate change.
I think that there are a lot of things that we can be doing that aren’t nec­es­sar­ily earth­shak­ing or earth shat­ter­ing but just make it a lit­tle bit bet­ter. By the time we get out to the future when we have to start mak­ing big cuts to car­bon emis­sions, then that’s not some­thing that just peo­ple in the city are going to have to be doing, it’s going to be some­thing broader – you know, how are we get­ting our energy, how much wind, how much solar, maybe mov­ing towards nat­ural gas. There are issues there as well, but those are issues that aren’t being made by the city — they are issues being made at the state, or the regional or the fed­eral level.

Final com­ment – we’re try­ing to fig­ure out how New York­ers can add to the future and think about impact­ing the future of their city. How can artists in the city help what you work for?

The one thing that sci­en­tists aren’t very good at is really know­ing how to con­nect with peo­ple. That’s not why we became sci­en­tists. We became sci­en­tists in order to con­nect with num­bers and things, right? In fact, often to avoid peo­ple! And artists, you know, they come at it in a very dif­fer­ent way. It’s all about com­mu­ni­ca­tion of some sort, mak­ing a con­nec­tion, mak­ing an impact.

And so I think artists should do, what artists do – they should make an impact. And if they make an impact that gets some­body to think about this for ten more sec­onds than they would have done, I think that is good. You know, you’re not edu­ca­tors. You can’t force peo­ple to learn stuff. You can’t ram facts down people’s throats. But you can make peo­ple smile, you can make peo­ple stop and think, you can make an emo­tional con­nec­tion and I think all of those things are exactly what artists should be doing.


Gavin Schmidt is a cli­mate mod­eler at the NASA God­dard Insti­tute for Space Stud­ies in New York and is inter­ested in mod­el­ing past, present and future climate.

He was cited by Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can as one of the 50 Research Lead­ers of 2004, and has worked on Edu­ca­tion and Out­reach with the Amer­i­can Museum of Nat­ural His­tory, the Col­lege de France and the New York Acad­emy of Sci­ences. He has over 80 peer-reviewed pub­li­ca­tions, and is a found­ing mem­ber and con­trib­u­tor to Real­Cli­mate, which pro­vides com­men­tary on cli­mate sci­ence for the pub­lic and jour­nal­ists. Schmidt is author of   “Cli­mate Change: Pic­tur­ing the Sci­ence” (2009) with Joshua Wolfe.

top photo: Mau­reen Drennan