JEFF PEARLMAN

Coming October 2022: "The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson"

Peter Gleick

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Although I am 100-percent certain man-impacted climate change is one of the great threats facing humanity, I’m often ineloquent in its defense. That’s the problem with having no scientific background—you can digest what’s said, and form your own opinions. But when you’re asked to stand up and make your case, well … eh, it ain’t easy.

Enter: Peter Gleick.

The founder of the Pacific Institute, a global water think tank that provides science-based thought leadership with active outreach to influence efforts in developing sustainable water policies, Dr. Gleick is:

A. The smartest dude to do a Quaz.

B. The perfect person to go deep on the environment.

C. Cool as shit.

I’m particularly happy because Dr. Gleick took the time to answer three questions (all below) submitted by King Wenclas, a huge Donald Trump supporter who seems to believe much (if not all) of the climate talk is hooey (he won’t agree, because deniers rarely agree—but he was pretty much smacked around by ol’ Gleick).

Anyhow, here Peter explains in very detailed-yet-digestible why climate change is real, why listening to Donald Trump is wrong and why he prefers Todd Gurley to Marco Rubio. One can follow Dr. Gleick on Twitter here and read some of his work here and here. Oh, and check out his website here.

Dr. Peter Gleick, yes, the world is melting. But you’re Quaz No. 262!

JEFF PEARLMAN: Peter, I want to start with some seemingly basic, yet somehow not basic at all. Namely, I feel like—at some point in our modern history—it became OK for political leaders to reject science, and then followers would, well, follow. It’s certainly that way with the GOP and climate change. Why do you think this is? Or, put different, why are people so willing to ignore science?

PETER GLEICK: Gee, couldn’t we start with something easy? Like, what’s my favorite color? Wait, I don’t have an easy answer to that one either.

People reject science for different reasons. And while some high-profile scientific findings, like climate change science, are almost exclusively rejected by some Republican leaders and followers, I would note that science denial is not exclusively a problem with the GOP. There are examples where left-leaning politicians and individuals also reject well-understood science. Having said that, the worst science denial certainly has come from the right-wing in recent years. The reasons are varied:

• Sometimes a scientific finding conflicts with a deeply held religious belief. Evolution is an example of this.

• Sometimes it is based solely on ignorance about the extent of knowledge. Not everyone has scientific training, or learns how to evaluate scientific information.

• Sometimes it may conflict with another core belief (“I simply cannot believe that humans can affect something as big as the planet’s climate.”)

• Sometimes there are purely venal economic reasons for rejecting a scientific finding. There is a classic statement attributed to Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Given the massive economic interests that will be affected if we have to stop burning fossil fuels, this is a major driver of climate denial. A lot of money rides on what actions we take to tackle climate change. (Though I’d note that a lot more money rides on our failing to do so.)

• Finally, sometimes people reject science because they fear that if they accept a scientific finding, it will lead to something else they fear worse: stronger government action or higher taxes or a bad outcome over which they have no control.

The science of climate change is incredibly strong. Ninety-seven percent of scientists with any training in climate sciences support the conclusion that human-caused climate change is underway. Every single national academy of sciences on the planet, and every single professional scientific society in the geosciences supports this conclusion as well. The vocal climate denial we see today comes from a tiny number of very well supported and funded interests, and it comes from people who fall into all of the examples above.

J.P.: No one seems willing to flat-out say this, but are we fucked? In other words, is the world doomed to be uninhabitable sooner than later? Or can this possible work itself out?

P.G.: Well, sooner or (really, much later) the sun is going to explode, so, yes, eventually we’re fucked. But that’s not really what you’re asking, is it?  No, I don’t think there is any evidence that the world is doomed to be uninhabitable soon—i.e., for many, many centuries or far longer. It is true, however, that if no action is taken to slow the rate of climate change, things would go off the rails much sooner, for a larger and larger part of our population. The real issue is not the end of the human race; the real issue is misery and poverty for more and more people, dislocation of populations as seas and temperatures rise and force people to move, destruction of natural ecosystems … unfortunately, things can get pretty miserable and dystopian long before the earth is actually uninhabitable.

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J.P.: So there’s a guy on Twitter, his name is King Wenclas, and he’s the author of a pro-Trump book and a guy who insists man-induced climate change is nonsense. We were having some heated back and forths, and I finally said, “There are people who know much more than I do. I’m having an expert as a Quaz, what do you want me to ask him. So, here’s one: “With credible weather & CO2 records going back less than 200 years, an instant in geological time, isn’t it impossible to say recent warming is NOT natural or cyclical?”

P.G.: So, there’s an old joke: a guy walks into a bar and a bunch of old guys are sitting around drinking. Every now and then, one of them says a number and everyone laughs. Then someone else says a number, and everyone laughs. “What’s going on,” asks the newcomer. “Well, we’re old, long-time friends here and we’ve heard each other’s jokes for so long, we just gave them numbers to make it easier.” (There’s a second funny punchline too, but it’s not relevant to my answer.)

There are so many classic, uninformed, or misleading arguments against the science of climate change that have been repeated so often, that climate scientists have given them numbers. Check out this incredibly useful website, Skeptical Science, that has 193 of the common and esoteric climate misunderstandings and distortions, numbered and summarized, with short and long detailed reasons why they are wrong.

In this case, Wenclas’s argument is addressed by numbers 57 and 58.

There are three fundamental reasons his basic claim about weather and CO2 records is wrong and why the scientific community has clearly ruled out natural or cyclical climate changes:

First, there is an entire field of science called paleoclimatology—basically, the science of ancient climates. We have learning a fantastic amount about ancient climates and how and why they have varied, based on ice cores, fossil records, pollen layers in soils, tree rings, and much more. For example, there is an 800,000-year long highly accurate record of atmospheric temperature and CO2 concentrations taken from ancient ice cores from Antarctica (See the figure). A pretty remarkable thing: it shows the ups and downs from natural changes, but it also shows the explosion in CO2 in the atmosphere from human activities in the past century. And this evidence shows that the current changes are outside of natural variability.

Second, we understand the physics and the theory of how gases in the atmosphere behave, and we understand very well the factors that caused past, natural climate changes. That understanding lets us test what more CO2 and other gases will and are doing. And these past natural factors simply cannot explain current changes, while rising human-emitted gases DO explain them.

Finally, we have extensive observation that support the theory. It isn’t just rising temperatures, it’s everything else we see happening too: rising sea level, disappearing Arctic ice, changes in how birds migrate, moving plant populations, earlier springs, and on and on.

For fun, here is an incredibly cool graphic that shows the warming we’ve seen in the past century or so, and the influences of natural cycles, the sun, and other factors, compared to human influences. It shows beautifully that ONLY human factors fully explain what we see.

J.P.: And here’s another: “As life on earth is completely dependent on the sun, isn’t sun the most likely suspect in any global warming?”

P.G.: 2, 89, 111, 144, 182 (apropos my number joke above, here are the numbers assigned to this by Skeptical Science).

Sure, the sun is a very likely suspect; so likely that scientists have spent great effort looking into this question—and it has been debunked over, and over, and over again. Indeed, “Isn’t it the sun?” is such an old argument that it was given No. 2 on the Skeptical Science website, along with a few other related arguments (the numbers I list above). I won’t summarize them here, but seriously, do skeptics think that scientists haven’t thought of the sun and pretty much every single other possible factor, tested those ideas, and ruled them out? That’s what scientists do.

Look it would be great if humans weren’t responsible—we’d be off the hook and wouldn’t have to change what we’re doing. But once we learn something is bad and it’s our fault, we have an obligation not to bury our heads in the sand and ignore it.

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J.P.: And lastly, I’ll give him this one: “Computers can’t predict who’ll win the Super Bowl or a horse race or an MMA fight with a minimum of variables. How can they accurately predict climate, with a thousand times more variables?”

P.G.: This is another classic misunderstanding: the confusion between “climate” and “weather.”

It is absolutely true that no computer model can predict the precise weather more than a few days into the future. But “climate” is the long-term average of weather, and climate models can do an excellent job of forecasting future climatic conditions. This is the difference between saying, “There will be a high of 95 degrees and half an inch of rain on February 5, 2083”—which we cannot do, and never will be able to do, versus saying “In the 2080s, the average temperature is going to be around 5 degrees hotter than it is now, seas are going to be around a meter higher, and the Sierra Nevada mountains will have a lot less snow”—which we absolutely can do. And our climate models are getting better every day.

This is, however, a reasonable question in another way. There is a really important “human” component to climate modeling. Just as the “human factor” makes it impossible to accurately predict precise outcomes of sporting events, the human factor limits the ability of climate models. We are getting the physics and climate science down very well in these models (and better all the time), but what happens to future climate also depends on what humans chose to do about it: how much fossil fuel are we going to burn and how fast; how many greenhouse gases are we going to put into the atmosphere; will the countries of the world act to slow emissions, and how soon? These are human/economic/political factors we cannot predict and they will ultimately determine how fast climate changes and how severe the impacts will be.

J.P.: Peter, what’s your life path? I mean, I know you attended Yale to study engineering; know you went to Berkeley for master’s and doctorate; know you are the president and co-founder of Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security. But … when did you know this was what you wanted? How did you know? And when were you first aware of the true peril of climate change?

P.G.: Well, I guess I meander along life’s way, like most people, but I have a basic passion for the environment and science. I had an enlightening conversation with my father when I was young: one day I naively asked him if he could live his life over, what would he do differently, thinking the answer was that he’d not change a thing: he was a lawyer in New York, a good one, with a strong and comfortable family life. Without hesitating, he said he’d be a park ranger in the national parks in the west. This was a huge surprise to me, but what stuck with me was his unspoken message to do what excited me, rather than what anyone else might expect or want.

That has led me to work on climate and water issues from back when I was in graduate school. When I co-founded the Institute, which tackles these issues, I had no idea how long it would last, or whether others would find the idea of doing research and policy work on these difficult problems worthwhile. But here we are, 28 years later, and there is still plenty of interest and plenty to do. I’ve been aware of the threat of climate change since the early 1980s—even then the science was pretty strong and it’s only gotten stronger since then.

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J.P.: You’ve been pretty outspoken against Donald Trump as the potential president. Why?

P.G.: On a professional level, I judge his positions (to the extent one can even figure out what his positions are) to be completely antithetical to the realities of science, the threats to our environment and planet, and the best interests of the United States.

On a personal level, I find his positions (again, to the extent one can figure them out) on issues like women’s rights, ethnic diversity and immigration, racism, international security, basic economics and basic decency to be despicable.

In short, I find the risks of a Trump presidency to be so grave that I intend to keep speaking out against it.

J.P.: Recently coal has been a pretty hot topic, with both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump seeming to pander to miners. But it strikes me that, in 2016, we just need coal to go away. My questions: A. How awful is coal for air quality? B. Do you feel like its eradication as an energy source is inevitable? C. What can we tell miners who are going to lose their jobs? Sources of income?

P.G.: Ha, ha, good pun (hot topic). Yes, coal is a really, really bad fuel—the dirtiest. It’s bad when we dig it out, it’s bad when we burn it, and it’s bad when we dispose of the ash and waste. I do think that the era of coal is ending. There are far better, cleaner, and safer alternatives. But we have a lot of existing coal plants, and many parts of the world depend on them. The challenge is to phase them out as fast as possible and to do so in a way that supports workers in the coal industry. That means retraining and redevelopment in coal mining regions.

It is true, and difficult, when an industry fails and the people who work in that industry lose jobs, but this is not sufficient reason to keep a failing industry going. What did we tell people who manufactured steam locomotives, or telegraphs, or VCRs, or tape decks, or any other industry that became obsolete? This is the free market at work, and if Donald Trump or the GOP truly believed in the free market, they would accept that markets and industries change. Oddly, it seems that Trump would have his government interfere with the market that tells us that coal is on its way out, but would refuse to have his government provide assistance to its workers.

But again, here is some good news: the incredibly rapid expansion of renewable energy: solar and wind in particular, has led to a massive number of new jobs. There are now more people in the United States working in the solar industry than in the coal industry, and this trend will continue.

J.P.: In 1999 you wrote a paper, “The Human Right to Water,” that argued all people deserve safe, clean drinking water. That was 17 years ago. How has the situation changed?

P.G.: This is another area where there is good news! First, though it took years, in 2010 the United Nations formally declared a legal human right to safe water and sanitation. This is a fantastic step forward. The other good news is that while far too many people worldwide still do not have access to safe water, we’re moving in the right direction and the UN has set a goal (one of the “Sustainable Development Goals”) of providing everyone with safe water by 2030.

J.P.: Being serious—how do you sleep? What I mean is, I look around the world and I see soooooo much awfulness and indifference. And I just don’t know what to do; how to enjoy a milkshake when Glacier National Park is disintegrating. Are you able to separate work harshness from personal satisfaction?

P.G.: There is plenty of awfulness and indifference. But there are also so many people committed to trying to do the right thing and make a difference, and I get work satisfaction from tackling difficult problems and seeing progress in the right direction. I’m actually an optimist in the sense that I think we’ll eventually solve these problems of climate change, water scarcity, and environmental injustice. We just have to work as hard as possible so these solutions come sooner rather than later. In the end, we do what we can and we make peace with ourselves. Enjoy your milkshake! (But you’d better go visit Glacier National Park while it still has glaciers.)

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH PETER GLEICK:

• In exactly 23 words, make an argument for scented candles: Scented candles are an abomination, fouling air, assaulting the senses, and probably causing all sorts of horrid diseases. Oh, you meant “for” them?

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Ronald McDonald, Rafael Nadal, Todd Gurley, Poland Springs, “The Breakfast Club,” Marco Rubio, Grateful Dead, corn on the cob, Costco: Grateful Dead, corn on the cob, Rafael Nadal, Todd Gurley, Costco, The Breakfast Club, Ronald McDonald, Poland Springs, Marco Rubio [Rubio might have been ranked higher, except for his endorsement of Donald Trump. I mean, has he no self-respect?]

Donald Trump says there is no drought in California. Why would he say such a thing?: Really, who knows why anything in particular comes out of Trump’s mouth? In this case, it appears he was pandering to some conservative farmers. Oh, and here is the official drought monitor map for California, from the University of Nebraska’s drought center, updated weekly. California’s drought is its worst in 1,200 years, and on top of it, we have nearly 40 million people dependent on the water we have.

• Five all-time favorite scientists?: 1. Eratosthenes (a mathematician, poet, musician and inventor of geography. Also, he was the first person to accurately measure the circumference of the round earth, and he basically did it with a stick.); 2 Albert Einstein (for, well, everything in modern physics. Also that hair.); 3. Charles Darwin (because, evolution.); 4. Galileo Galilei (for speaking scientific truth to religious dogmatism.); 5. Leonardo da Vinci (oh, come on. Have you seen everything he did? I figure he invented a time machine in the future, went back to the past, and got stuck.)

• The world needs to know: How crazy are those US National Academy of Science holiday parties?: The first rule of US National Academy of Science holiday parties is you do not talk about US National Academy of Science holiday parties. The second rule …

• One question you would ask 50 Cent were he here right now: This one stumps me. I met Jay-Z once at a UN event working to solve global water problems and I didn’t know what to ask him either.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: No, never.

• Three memories from your high school gym class: Watching Paul beat up Brendon, two years after Brendon picked on him, once Paul reached puberty and grew; watching the girl’s gymnastics team, because, well, girls and gymnastics; lettering in varsity soccer even though my greatest contribution was warming the bench.

• Would you rather permanently change your name to Celine Dion-Analcavity or spend a year listening to Donald Trump’s “The Art of the Deal” seven hours every day on audio?: Can I gouge my eyes out with sharp sticks? Is that a third choice?

• Do you think the Padres made a mistake trading Ozzie Smith for Garry Templeton?: Channeling my late father, who was a die-hard Cardinal fans, the answer to that would have to be a yes, ha, ha, suck it up, Padres.