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.

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