Katherine Richardson is atypical. This American oceanographer is thriving at the University of Copenhagen, where she serves as Vice Dean of Science. In the genteel worlds of academia and northern Europe, she's a straight-talker who doesn't mince her words--uttered with a hearty Massachusetts accent.
She's also leading an atypical approach to climate science and politics. From December 7 to 18, national government representatives, UN officials and activists will meet in Copenhagen for the 15th annual Conference of the Parties (COP15) negotiations on climate change policy. Before that happens, Richardson wants to make sure the delegates know what they are talking about.
On March 10, she'll be convening a three-day scientific conference called Climate Change: Global Risks, Challenges and Decisions to showcase cutting-edge research that updates the musty technical data from the last UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) meeting in 2006. Richardson is determined not only to furnish the latest scientific information but to provide it in plain language--with clear recommendations on what world leaders should do.
Hosted by the University of Copenhagen, the conference is co-sponsored by nine other universities: Berkeley, Yale, Cambridge, Oxford, the University of Tokyo, Peking University, Australian National University, the National University of Singapore and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.
PopSci spoke with Richardson about the tricky science and politics of climate change.
POPSCI: What's the reason for this conference? Doesn't the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change handle data collection for such meetings?
RICHARDSON: The strength of the IPCC reports is that they are based on consensus….The problem is, it takes time to build up consensus. That means that there's no new science in the IPCC report from after 2005. There's a lot of new information that [the Danes] want to make available to the people negotiating and also to the general public…With all this new information, there's also a sense of urgency that maybe doesn't come through from the material we had in 2005.
POPSCI: What kind of information?
RICHARDSON: It's not just a question of "What do we know about the Earth systems?" It's probably even more about "And what can we do about it?" How do we balance mitigation–trying to fight climate change—and adaptation—what do we have to live with and how can we do it?
How great a geopolitical issue is climate change? Is it a security risk in the way that the Pentagon and others are saying?
POPSCI: How are you going to answer those questions?
RICHARDSON: We've decided with this meeting to do two products. One is an academic-community product--probably a book published by Cambridge University Press. But the other will be a thirty-page synthesis in a language that everybody can understand, citing the main points of the meting.
POPSCI: Anything else that will be unique about this conference?
RICHARDSON: Normally when you have this kind of a meeting, there would be a session when you say, "OK glaciologists you all come here. And biodiversity people you all go there."
We have 57 sessions that are all aimed at solving a problem. It's not, "Glaciologists, come here. It's "What does melting ice mean in terms of sea level change? Can we get to a consensus in this group here?"
It's not biofuels for transport and how do we make the best plant to produce energy. It's "Limitations and Potential of Biofuels." That's the bottom line here. Because I couldn't end up having one meeting on biofuels for transport saying this is the greatest thing since sliced bread and another under biodiversity saying, "Don't do it!" You have to get everybody in the same room and try to decide where the limitations are.
POPSCI: Do you have a sense already of what findings might be a surprise to the general public?
RICHARDSON: I think one of the main things is going to be the economics of it. We tend to view climate change as a luxury item—especially in a time of an economic crisis like now—that we can chose not to worry about.
I think the documented costs of not responding will change the economic understanding of how long a time frame we have to respond.
It's the danger of reaching a tipping point, where there is a major change in the way the system works—a very dramatic climate change. Everybody assumes that things are happening linearly. You can screw a little on this button, and if things get too high then you can just screw down on another button. And I think the message will come through that you can't.
POPSCI: So there won't be easy tech fixes for climate change?
RICHARDSON: Some of the technologies that people are working on—the carbon capture and storage and such—are probably excellent for combating the symptoms of our activities in the short term. So they are transition technologies, but they are not long-term solutions.
POPSCI: What are some of the scariest things from a science perspective?
RICHARDSON: I definitely think sea level rise will be crucial.
POPSCI: Higher than we expected?
RICHARDSON: Oh yes!
My own field deals with the ocean, which has actually taken up almost half of the extra CO2 that humans have put into the atmosphere. But it can't continue. All the climate models assume that the ocean's going to continue to take up CO2 like it's always done. So I think definitely that there will be some real science surprises that come out of this meeting.
POPSCI: Will the relative importance shift from preventing climate change to adapting to the change that we are already committed to?
RICHARDSON: I think so. If I were negotiating this, what I'd want to know is, how do I get the balance between mitigation and adaptation right? I think you'll come out of the meeting with a better feeling of what we can do but also why we have to mitigate, why we can't just sit back and accept what's happening and just adapt.
But that said, there are certain things we have to adapt to. What are the best ways to do that?
POPSCI: Will the science help to bring the parties together because it will make much clearer, for example, what the costs are?
RICHARDSON: Certainly, that's one of my greatest hopes. These sorts of problems are bringing the academic community closer together.
But they are bringing the business community together as well. We have huge businesses supporting this conference--the traditional polluters as well as the wind people and so on. They've all seen that it's critical that we change our whole energy system. It's critical that we stop dumping out CO2.
What they need now is for the political system to act. And they don't get that until the populace wants the political system to act. So the business, the science and the political community are getting locked closer and closer together in this issue. The politicians came to us and said, "We want this meeting."
Now I will never be one to condone reckless and wasteful activities, but all this climate change stuff has to be taken with a grain of salt. Promote conservation, encourage earth-friendly technology, but I'll be darned the day they require a carbon tax.
Here is some serious consensus on the issue: http://www.petitionproject.org/
Global warming, oh sorry, "CLIMATE CHANGE" is a scam and I canceled my subscription to Popsci when they presented it as established fact. Judging by the half-centimeter thickness of the last Popsci magazine I saw, I suspect there are quite a few others who feel the same way.
Jet packs = Good
Propaganda = Bad
It's not rocket science.
(rocket science = also good)
The scientific facts proof that CO2, especially Anthropogenic CO2, is NOT the cause of Global Warming:
Popsci is misleading the readers and presenting AGW as a fact. Shame!
I'm sorry that I have to provide a response to these comments. But I need to set the record straight.
This meeting will feature the leading experts in science and economics, plus major corporations (including fossil-fuel energy companies). Their conclusions will be state of the art and based in research that most of us couldn't even pretend to understand, let alone offer an intelligent critique of. This is about facts, not a vast leftie conspiracy.
Why CO2 cannot be blamed for Global warming:
There is no room for POLITICS in SCIENCE. This is disgusting!
Here we go again. A one sided approach by interviewing this (is it Doctor?) Richardson. Why not interview Michael Coleman (founder of the Weather Channel) or Dr. Fred Singer (NASA scientist) for an opposing veiwpoint? Science is about debate and once again Posci is a candidate for mediocrity like the rest of the media for not having the guts to show the other side. Very bewildering.
Note that Richardson admits having "huge buisness" support this conference. I wonder who they are? Follow the money and it may tell a very interesting story.
The Heartland Institute is sponsoring a Conference on Climate Change in New York in March this year where more than 70 of the world’s elite scientists specializing in climate issues will confront the subject of global warming.
They will be joined by economists, legal experts, and other climate specialists calling attention to new research that contradicts claims that Earth’s moderate warming during the twentieth century primarily was man-made and has reached crisis proportions. Will Popsci be there? It will be a true test of the mainstream media of their objectivity if they bother to show up to cover this conference.
If you tell a whopper of a lie, then point at your credentials and demand that I not only bow down and supplicate to you and the credential-factory that produces liars who reinforce each other in complete defiance of what common sense and basic intellectual honesty would encourage, then the gang of liars will be defied because bowing down is not going to happen.
Carbon dioxide remains .000285% of the atmosphere and greatly trailing as an effective greenhouse agent behind water vapor and methane. The elevation of "man-caused" atmospheric carbon pollution to scape goat status has been the linchpin of the greatest scientific hoax-blunder of the last 400 years.
A year ago at this time every Wall Street Bank and investment firm employed bus loads of economists and accountants with fancy credentials who painted any scene to delude investors that top management told them to. So much for credentialism.
Sea levels will rise by 65 feet over the next several thousand years because that is the long term cycle of glaciation. The rise will not be continuously steady, but will be interrupted by little ice ages, such as what we are now beginning to experience. . .
Experts who tell you otherwise need to put away that crack pipe they've been sucking on, or to fully disclose all their personal financial interests in the controversy.
Sean, I thank you for taking the time to defend your article here. Unfortunately, if you have any other news to report on global warming, you better be ready to make a habit of it, since what you've seen here is a very predictable pattern. You post an article outlining facts, and then immediately get attacked for having a "political agenda."
For those of you who wish to cancel their subscriptions to this magazine because of the environmental reporting, make sure you don't read Scientific American, Discover, Nature, Science, New Scientist, or practically any other widely circulated magazine or journal dealing with science. As recent polling has shown, 90 percent of scientists involved in earth science and climate studies believe global warming is occurring. Over 3/4 of those scientist polled believe human activity has significantly contributed to this warming. Yes, there will be petroleum and coal industry scientists, as well as a handful of independent researchers quoting anecdotal evidence, who continue to argue against the widely held majority view. With the industry-supported folks, we can figure why they hold their views -- they're paid to. Some of the others may actually be doing some decent research on their own, but they are hardly being suppressed or shut out of the so-called debate for their views. On the contrary, they had 8 years of a very sympathetic administration to try to gain ground, but still were unable to do so because the aggregate of research and data from various fields has created a synthesis which supports the view of human-influenced global warming more than ever.
Debate is healthy in any society, but the greater weight of evidence supports global warming as a human-influenced event in our recent history. Considering the potential hazards an increased greenhouse effect could present to our civilization, I'm glad policymakers have finally decided to act with urgency. As for those who wish to be heard in presenting different views or less-considered aspects of the climate change phenomenon, you might want to lower the tone of rhetoric and avoid calling serious scientists liars and scam artists, and informed fellow citizens with different views communists, socialists, or sheep. No one has interfered with your exercise of free speech in this forum, but we will take anyone to task who wants to use a medium of science education and debate to spread misinformation or political propaganda.
So now truth is so complex and elusive that it takes a Ph.D. to see and understand it? Debate is healthy--but telling me that I should just accept the "expert's" words as truth is a dangerous paradigm. Get a society to trust others to think critically for them *does* turn them into sheep.
No one is arguing that debate is unhealthy, Mike_R, but Popsci is telling readers that it is firmly coming down on one side. We're just disappointed, like TiminBrunswick said, that opposing viewpoints aren't offered equal opportunity to airtime in Popsci's pages and website. Popsci should be encouraging people to think for themselves--present all major views across the science industry. The magazine isn't called "Fad Science."
Now pardon me, I have some titanium to smelt.
I hope you never have to go to the hospital. They'll have all these fancy elitist MD's there telling you which chemical goes in the IV to keep your blood from clotting in your brain, and which pills will keep bacteria from causing sepsis. It's obvious that we've gone beyond the kind of science any high-school dropout can perform, and that's what PopSci is about. If you're interested in science that doesn't need experts, go read reports from the Royal Society of the 1800's, they've got all sorts of fun stuff you can do with things like a car battery and a frog leg. Thank you PopSci for coming down on the side of science-otherwise we'd still be debating whether the sun goes around the Earth, as the Bible says. A minority of misinformed individuals and fossil-fuel profiteers should not be able to dismiss the severe threat that hundreds of hardworking scientists have carefully researched and published. And if you need any more proof, go find a glacier and see if the thing isn't smaller this year than it was last year.
Hey Ed, The extent of Arctic ice in 2008 was significantly more than it was in 2007, yet the alarmists seem to use 2007 as their "tool" for action.
Mike_R, please don't lecture us about how skeptics have had their chance to get their word out. It takes alot more than a sympathetic administration to gain ground. Most importantly, it takes a sympathetic media. The skeptics gained nothing with the mainstream media, if anything they lost ground because the media was so anti-Bush during those eight years. As an example, the media's handling of the military in Iraq has been very negative on too many occasions - the NY Times did 55 front page stories on Abu Graib and not one article on how the troops helped re-build a school or hospital (anti-Bush all the way).
All I want to see is a media that doesn't cherry pick stories and just presents the facts as they are. Sensationalism has infected too many journalists and editors these days.
Tim, the media wasn't anti-Bush for the first two years of his administration. It took them quite a while to actually take off the kid gloves in reporting on his many mistakes. As for the military, they've gotten a fairly balanced treatment, especially since most of the worst abuses in Iraq appeared to involve independent contractors, with the exception of the Abu Graib story (which probably has been overexposed compared to some of the other things that went on in Iraq). Also, you can't generalize about the media, since FoxNews, the New York Post, Rush Limbaugh, and various others have provided counterpoint to any supposed left-wing bias in the mainstream media. Whether or not that counterpoint was particularly coherent or convincing is another story...
I will agree that sensationalism has infected much of the media these days, which explains the rampant success of Nancy Grace. Still, when reporting a story such as global warming, which has the potential to impact every one on this planet, as well as countless generations to come, the facts themselves are pretty sensational. I'll have to fact check your statement about Arctic sea ice cover this past year, but even a one-year growth in cover might not be significant if the overall trend has been less sea ice over the period of a decade or more. That's one of the things about climate change - anecdotal reports of local cooling or other aberrations from the global average do not prove that average global temperatures are trending downwards, or even stable. It snowed here in south Louisiana in November, but overall, we've had quite a few warm days in January and February. So I think I'll give more weight to comprehensive studies involving average temperatures in multiple locations, and see what the weight of the evidence supports. Thus far, the evidence continues to support global warming.
So what about the almost 10,000 PhD's that have signed a petition against global warming? Do we ignore that because it is inconveniently at odds with what others in the community profess?
This seems more like a belief than a hypothesis. Inconvenient truth indeed!
Thanks for agreeing with me about media sensationalism. We also agree more data (evidence with rigoruos peer reviewed analysis) is needed to draw any conclusions.
You claim that "anecdotal reports of local cooling or other aberrations from the global average do not prove that average global temperatures are trending downwards, or even stable." And yet you say "It snowed here in south Louisiana in November, but overall, we've had quite a few warm days in January and February." These observations of yours are the very definition of "anectodal".
The focus of attention by the alarmists on the Arctic is simply because they can't find anywhere else on the globe to support thier beliefs anymore. Thats what I call anectodal. So far I have not seen one single study that demonstrates the heat trapping ability of CO2 at the current or projected concentrations. Has anyone attempted such a study in a controlled environment? I would like to find out if anyone knows.
Why is it so hard to believe that melting is natural? Geolgical evidence proves that artic sea ice has receded much farther in previous centuries than in recent years, even since the last ice age.
All I want to see is popsci do the scientifically correct thing and cover the otherside of the story. Otherwise, as I've stated in a previous blog, it should be called "Popular Belief" instead of Popular Science.
Well, my point in discussing our local weather situation was to illustrate how you couldn't draw conclusions one way or the other from anecdotal evidence without empirical evidence, so I'm sorry if I made it poorly.
Anyway, I checked the Arctic ice cover story, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration data on the Arctic ice cap does show that it shrunk less during last years summer than the previous summer in 2007. However, 2007 was the record year, and the trend for the past decade or so had been less and less coverage, so 2008 may be a blip in the overall trend. If the ice coverage increases this summer and the next, then we can take another look at whether or not the previous years represented a warming trend. For now, though, the data does support thawing in the Arctic, as well as increased thawing of glaciers in the Antarctic.
I'm going to predict that 2009 will be another "blip" in the direction of LESS summer meltback of the Arctic Ice. Of course, the increasing meltback from 1998-2007 was also a "blip" which probably had nothing to do with humans increasing the already trivial greenhouse effect of a trace gas in the atmosphere, and everything to do with La Nina ocean currents and increasing dust from China polluting surface ice, causing it to absorb more solar energy when the sun is shining 23hrs a day more directly overhead than other times of the year.
A new international study is out today touting that Antarctica is melting after all--at least the West Antarctic glaciers are moving to the sea more rapidly than they once did, and then the warmer Pacific and Indian ocean currents eventually melt them (but are not causing meltback along the coastline. A really flawed study claims that Antartica has been growing warmer over the last five decades, but the curious methodology of that study involves making up numbers and plugging them into empty data fields, then re-averaging the lot.
Real data gathered from real instruments over the vast majority of the huge continent shows that temps have been slightly cooling, if anything, particularly at the South Pole. The West Antarctic glaciers now moving more rapidly are doing so because when a gigantic portion of the coastal ice shelf broke off and floated away it ceased to serve as an obstacle to these glaciers, allowing them to move downhill once again. In Greenland, however, it is now known that the lemming-like suicidal march of glaciers to the sea proceeds much more slowly than Al Gore claimed in his propaganda film.
It is true that the universal mind of the Internet is raising hob with highly credentialled "experts" in every field, because now intelligent people with generalist educations can research and seek out divergent opinions readily. My own general practitioner medical doctor complains about this a lot because my wife has caught him several times being way off base. He tells me I have such-and-such and she stays up all night researching it, printing out articles and highlighting with a marker the points she wants me to confront him with. When grandma had classic congenital heart failure she caught him good on his mis-diagnosis, a fact confirmed when grandma shortly thereafter went critical and got to meet a whole lot of cardiac specialists.
We have not voted our family doctor off the island, however, because (1) he is personable and we like him, (2) his office is physically very convenient to both of us after work, and (3) he is only G.P. our insurance plan authorizes within an hour's drive.
Anyone can sign a Internet petition claiming to be a scientist. Even if all 20,000 were weather experts, (which 99% of the scientists signing the petition are not), there could be 200,000 scientists willing to sign a Internet petition that supports global warming.
With rising levels of CO2 in the air we breath and rising levels of many other toxic chemicals, like mercury, in the ocean fish we eat, it is time we find a way to power our society using renewable energy sources.
We may need the 1,000 year supply of coal we have left should we have another solar caused ice age.