Texas A&M Climate Scientist Andrew Dessler will be discussing climate change at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens on Sunday.
Texas A&M Climate Scientist Andrew Dessler will be discussing climate change at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens on Sunday. Credit: Courtesy / Andrew Dessler

Climate scientist Andrew Dessler will be the first to tell you he has a “very low threshold for outrage.”

That’s one reason why, outside of his scientific publications, Dessler has written books on climate change and politics, and is a frequent op-ed writer in popular media. He’s active on Twitter, where he’s not shy about critiquing journalists, politicians, and climate skeptics for their factual errors.

Dessler, 54, is a professor in Texas A&M University’s Atmospheric Sciences department whose work centers around water vapor, clouds, and their influence on the climate system.

A native Texan, Dessler started his career studying the upper layers of the Earth’s atmosphere and stratospheric ozone before eventually transitioning to climate science. In 2000, he served as a senior policy analyst for the Clinton White House.

The Rivard Report spoke with Dessler by phone about his experience studying climate change and his policy views on tackling the problem. Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Rivard Report: Can you give us a preview of the talk you’ll be giving on Sunday?

Andrew Dessler: Here’s sort of the two-minute bottom line of the talk: If you go back to the ‘80s, there was this idea that people want freedom; we should get the government out of their lives. This idea that people should rule themselves, they shouldn’t be ruled by the government.

It turns out that while that’s a noble goal in a lot of respects, in some aspects of your life, you can’t rule yourself. You cannot determine what kind of atmosphere you have. You cannot determine what kind of climate you live in – the individual can’t. That’s a collective decision. And right now, if the government doesn’t do it, then essentially you’re saying that you’re going to leave it up to corporations to do it because the corporations are the major emitters. They have no interest in stabilizing the climate.

There’s a real need, if stabilizing the climate is important, that you realize that we need to have government regulation on this. I realize lots of people don’t like government regulation, but the alternative is an out-of-control climate. Those are your choices on this.

RR: As an actively publishing researcher in your field, why do you want to wade into the public debate and the political side of this issue and keep writing op-eds, giving talks to the public, and being on Twitter?

AD: Every science communicator has to decide what he or she is comfortable saying. For me, I really try to stick to the science. I talk very generally about policy.

If you read the thing I wrote about the Green New Deal, I really wasn’t advocating for a particular policy. I was just saying this is something we need to talk about. This is a risk that we’re facing and the wrong thing to do is to deny it exists, and the right thing to do is have a public debate about what we should do about it.

I feel completely comfortable doing that because I know the science better than most other people, and I can justify all the scientific statements I make. There’s always a little bit of opinion in an op-ed, and I think what I’m saying is pretty milquetoast. I’m not saying we need to have a carbon tax or that we need to get fossil-fueled cars off the road. I don’t think I’d really feel comfortable, at least at this point.

My salary gets paid by the state and the federal government. I’m paid by your tax dollars. Those of us that are supported by the public have a responsibility to tell the public what the results of our research are. Now, unfortunately, a lot of people don’t want to hear that. They’d rather us shut up, but that’s not what I’m going to do.

When I hear somebody, a politician, say something which is completely wrong about science, it gives me a really untenable choice. One, I can do nothing. I can not say anything and let that error go uncorrected. Or I can speak out about it.

RR: What do you say to people who say you’re just publishing this stuff to drive up grant funding and get job security?

AD: Look, if you go to an astronomy department and you say all the people there that say the Earth is round, they’re just doing it to get grant money – that’s essentially the argument.

You’re completely appropriate being skeptical of individuals. But if you look at the entire field, the entire field agrees on these points. There’s never been a case where an entire field has essentially fraudulently pushed an agenda in order to get grant money or push a political agenda.

There have been lots of examples where people try to cast doubt on science that’s quite solid in order to advance their own interests. If you have people saying this entire field is wrong, look at them very skeptically, because they’re making a historically unprecedented claim.

RR: How does an entire field of research quality-control itself? How do you check each other as a community?

AD: The way science works is the individual scientist does individual work, comes up with a hypothesis, tests it, and then at the end, the individual scientist reaches some conclusion. That scientist then submits that paper for peer-review, it gets sent out to anonymous experts, and that’s sort of a first check.

The second check that’s the most important one is that important ideas get tested in what I call the crucible of science. Here’s an example: let’s say you publish tomorrow that you could turn lead into gold. I guarantee you, the day that comes out, there would be 10 labs trying to reproduce that. What would quickly happen is either they would reproduce it or they wouldn’t reproduce it. Pretty quickly, people would either decide that’s either crap or it’s a Nobel Prize-winning work. Essentially, that’s what happens in all science. Important ideas are retested.

For example, surface temperature records. We’ve been measuring temperatures with liquid and glass thermometers up until the last few decades all over the Earth for about 150 years with enough density that we can measure the global temperature.

Making the global average temperature from those is not an easy thing. There’s a lot of adjustments that have to be made to the data, there’s a lot of analysis that has to go into it. There are regions that are missing, you have to figure how to fill those in, how are you going to handle that?

So if one group does that, you could legitimately say, “I don’t know if I believe that,” because that’s just one group, they might have made a mistake. But then, let’s say another group does it, a completely unrelated group, and they come up with the same answer. And then another group does it, and they come up with the same answer. And another group does it. After a while, you’ve got to say that I can’t imagine that all of these groups have made the same mistake or they’re all involved in a massive conspiracy.

The surface temperature record has been verified many times. And, most importantly, it fits in with everything else we think we know. The ice people are saying ice is disappearing. The surface temperature people say the temperature is warming in the regions where ice is disappearing, so you expect that. The sea level people say sea level is going up. Well, that’s what you expect if the planet’s warming and if you’re losing ice. So all these things fit together, and it’s impossible for me to believe that all these people have made mistakes all in the same direction or all these people are involved in the same conspiracy.

RR: What aspect of climate science are you working on right now?

AD: I work on understanding water vapor in the stratosphere. That’s really something where there’s sort of zero public interest in that.

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The other thing which is more interesting in terms of the public climate debate goes is trying to estimate climate sensitivity, which is how much warming you get if you double carbon dioxide. If we double carbon dioxide and let the planet go to equilibrium, how warm would it get? That’s a measure of how sensitive the climate is to carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere, and that predicts in a lot of respects how much warming you’ll get.

Every time you double carbon dioxide, you get about the same amount of warming. If you go from 280 to 560 parts per million, you get about 3 degrees. If you go from 560 to 1,120 parts per million, you get another 3 degrees. You go from 1,120 to 2,240 parts per million, you get about another 3 degrees.

It turns out that the unit we picked is probably pretty close to what we’ll do. I find it hard to believe we’re not going to double carbon dioxide this century, but hopefully, I’ll be surprised.

RR: The goals of the Paris Climate Agreement are to keep warming “well below” 2 degrees Celsius and shoot for 1.5 degrees. Do you think that’s going to actually happen?

AD: I think well below 2 degrees is unlikely. I think 1.5 degrees is almost impossible without something like geoengineering where we’re actively cooling the climate by injecting aerosols into the stratosphere.

I think we could limit it to 2 degrees if we really work hard, but I’m not that optimistic that emissions reductions are going to keep the temperature down. I could easily imagine that in five or 10 years, we decide we’re going to start actively trying to engineer the climate system.

The price of renewables is coming down very quickly, so if there’s any flash of hope in the world, it’s that. Renewables are coming down to the point where they’re price-competitive with fossil fuels, and so I think that there will be this inexorable switch to renewables, even without any government policy. The question is, is it going to happen fast enough?

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is the Rivard Report's environment and energy reporter.