Gavin Schmidt

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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

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