“How’s the Weather?” “Extreme!”

climate intro

By Donald Gilpin

The question has taken on a renewed urgency and importance in the past year, both locally and internationally. There was Pope Francis’s environmental encyclical in June, an historic agreement to limit carbon emissions from 200 world leaders at the Paris Climate Change Conference in December, dire warnings from Democratic presidential candidates—and, of course, the most striking admonitions of all, from the weather itself, with a balmy December, the hottest and wettest month on record to culminate a year that was also the hottest in history, then January following up with a massive blizzard that dumped two feet of snow on the Princeton area and brought severe flooding again to the Jersey shore. Extremes of weather indeed!

What’s going on?

We asked six authorities with different backgrounds and perspectives on the subject to help explain.  They not only did that. They also offered some thoughts about what we might expect in the future and what we should do about it.

Our experts included two bona fide climate scientists: 

Michael Oppenheimer, Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, director of the Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy (STEP)  and Faculty Associate of the Atmospheric and Ocean Sciences Program, Princeton Environmental Institute and the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies.  

Stephen Pacala, Frederick D. Petrie Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University and the director of the Princeton Environmental Institute, an environmental engineer:

Denise Mauzerall, professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and International Affairs at Princeton University a behavioral scientist:

Sander van der Linden, postdoctoral research associate and lecturer in psychology, at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton University
an architect and environmental activist:

Callie Hancock, Princeton architect with Joshua Zinder Architecture and Design and group leader of the local chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby and a novelist:

Huck Fairman, author of five novels and a number of screenplays and writer of the Solutions environmental column in the Princeton Packet

The current problem is both a scientific/environmental matter and a political/behavioral issue. Climate change is an undeniable fact, but what people, individually and collectively, should, can and will do about it is a big question. All six experts are hopeful, but all are hesitant to express optimism in the face of a problem that is so unpredictable in both its scientific and its human behavioral manifestations.

“I don’t want to say I’m optimistic, but I do see a lot of activity going on around the world to solve this problem,” Oppenheimer states, “and much of it is making at least incremental progress.  Last year global emissions from combustion did decrease for the first time although a good deal of that reduction may have been due to the slackening economy in China. There’s also a revolution going on in the renewable energy sector. Solar and wind energy are becoming much cheaper. There’s a possibility that we will gradually turn the corner, but that isn’t good enough. Emissions have to be reduced sharply—very sharply from today’s levels in order to avoid dangerous climate change, so I don’t want to be optimistic, but I will say there’s no reason to give up.  Enough trails have opened up that head in the right direction. If we pursue them vigorously at least we’ll avoid disaster.”

Oppenheimer, who served as chief scientist and manager of the Climate and Air Program of The Environmental Defense Fund, an NGO (non-governmental organization), before he came to Princeton, claims that, though there is much controversy over political responses to these environmental challenges, and uncertainty in the science community over exact outcomes, “there’s no uncertainty about the fact that warming will continue for decades to come. What there is argument about is how much and how fast. The fact is there’s no argument about sea levels rising, no argument about storm surges, and no argument that in order to make a difference you have to cut emission levels substantially.

“What policies should be implemented by what countries, who should pay the cost, how much—those are all up for grabs.  Those are political, not specifically scientific, questions.  But in the science itself there’s not much controversy.”

As an observer at the COP 21 in Paris in December, Oppenheimer, a long-time member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, participated in a number of presentations and discussions on different aspects of the climate problem.

Also in attendance at the historic Paris session, Denise Mauzerall describes the event as “a major breakthrough. The approach of having countries submit their intended emission reductions rather than attempting to have a global agreement with set targets appears to have facilitated commitments for substantial reductions.”  She noted that the accord received a boost from recent dramatic drops in the cost of renewable energy, which make “moving away from fossil fuels increasingly economically attractive.”

Pacala, calling climate change “one of the defining issues of our time,” describes the Paris accord as “a sensible agreement that will make a significant difference.”  He contends that “the most surprising element in it is the statement that by mid-century carbon sources must be balanced by carbon sinks.  What that means is that there would be no net emissions from fossil fuels.  Any net emissions from fossil fuels would be taken up by some sink on the surface, and you can’t make very large sinks so that essentially means the end of the fossil fuel era.  That’s a big deal.  It’s amazing you had all those people sign on for that.  There’s been a change in opinion polls, and one reason is everybody knows the weather’s gone crazy.  You can’t deny it.”

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Dangerous Effects

Oppenheimer, much of whose research examines dangerous outcomes of increasing levels of greenhouse gases and explores the effects of global warming on the ice sheets and sea level, is pursuing a number of ongoing studies on projecting sea level rise at particular locations, along the Jersey shore and elsewhere.

A self-proclaimed “weather nerd,” Oppenheimer followed the late January record-setting snowstorm with interest and concern.   “It certainly provides a lesson,” he said, “that we are more and more vulnerable to coastal damage from storm surge, and that’s because sea level is rising, which means that when a storm like that comes along it pushes water into places where it rarely goes or never went before.  We’re going to see more of that.”  Oppenheimer describes sea level rise as “a complicated and difficult problem to grapple with,” both technically and politically, “but we really don’t have too much choice, or the water will be in our laps.”

He warns that we will see more of this kind of weather and its alarming effects in the future.  “It was a terrible storm,” he says, “and it was a good exposition of the power of nature, plus nature juiced up by global warming.  Global warming may have put more water vapor into the air and made a contribution to the huge amount of snow falling and the ice and sea water pushing in.  The cold season may be shorter in duration, but whenever you get a storm you’ll never be without a mess, so we have to be prepared and be better able to defend ourselves along the coast.”

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Human Behavior and 
the Environment

Even more complex and challenging than climate science perhaps is the science of human behavior, and Sander van der Linden’s focus, as a psychologist and behavioral scientist, is on how to engage the public on the issue of climate change and how to promote public support for the climate policies that will address the major challenges.

“In terms of policy support,” van der Linden says, “we’re definitely moving forward.  Across party lines we’ve made some progress.  People are more aware of the issue of climate change.  Of course, the real question is how people are actually changing behaviors that have an impact.”

Van der Linden applauds recent government initiatives in addressing the problem, but he emphasizes the crucial interplay between government and society.  “It’s strange because when people feel they can shift the responsibility to government it makes people less likely to act on the issue because they think the government is going to take care of it.  Obama has been very outspoken about the issue and about using insights from behavioral science to make the changes. That’s good because it illustrates that people need to make those changes themselves.”

In addressing the psychological challenges, van der Linden explains, “Part of the challenge is to figure out what are the main barriers for people psychologically and how do we overcome them.”  He points out that the term “global warming” can be confusing for people, and that “extreme weather” is more helpful in focusing people on the dangers of long-term trends rather than the vicissitudes of the daily weather.  “Global warming is much more than just rises in the average temperature, so you get these oddball responses where members of Congress walk in with a snowball and say that’s evidence against global warming.  The variations in daily weather are high, but people need to think about climate change in terms of trends.  Extreme weather illustrates the trends more than the daily weather.”

To make climate change more concrete, van der Linden accentuates the experiential dimension.    “We learn things by experience, and there’s been some success in pointing to the increase in extreme weather events and relating them to climate change because weather events are things that people can relate to, things that have an impact.“ Social factors also influence people’s behavior and engage them with important issues.  Van der Linden, who teaches a Princeton University course on the “Psychology of Environmental Decision-Making” and directs the Social and Environmental Decision-Making Lab, claims that “social norms are hugely influential in affecting people’s behavior,” but that many current norms are harmful to the environment.   “We have to see what interventions will work to influence people.”

As an example of using behavioral science and social norms to influence people, he mentions OPower, an energy company that gives customers feedback about the energy consumption of their neighbors. That feedback improves people’s behavior in reducing energy consumption.  Van der Linden also urges schools at all levels to take the lead in teaching climate science. “The decision-makers of the future need to be on board in regard to these issues. Climate change should be a part of the basic science course.  It should be part of the curriculum and people should be educated about this.”

As a writer, Huck Fairman takes a different perspective on environmental challenges and different approaches, both fictional and non-fictional, to confronting climate change. The main character in his 2010 novel Noah’s Children: One Man’s Response to the Environmental Crises struggles with his responsibility as an individual in facing an environment in decline.   ”It’s about a journalist in a town like Princeton that has a lake like Carnegie,” Fairman says, “and he decides he can’t just be reporting on local stuff—looking at the trees and forgetting the forests, so he asks what he can do for the big overall picture and he runs into some of his own problems and other problems and it’s not so easy to embrace that.”

In the non-fiction realm, in the Solutions column that he has written for the Princeton Packet over the past four years, Fairman focuses directly on positive responses to local environmental issues. Topics he has written about include electric cars, Princeton as a bike-friendly community, switching to solar panels, using geothermal energy, and finding cheaper, greener energy systems.

“I don’t know if I persuaded any people,” he says modestly, “but at least it made me feel better.”   And as a supporter of Sustainable Princeton and Climate Central and co-founder of the Princeton Chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL), Fairman takes his environmental activism a step further.

“I think we could solve this problem,” he contends.  “The CCL is pushing for a carbon tax as the best way.  Europe has already adopted it in many places. British Columbia has adopted it. It’s to cut down on the use of carbon fuels. Taxing them and making people, for many reasons, turn to other solutions is a simple and very effective strategy.  People are taxed. You take the tax money and give it back to the people. The question is, will we adopt it soon enough?”

Allied with Fairman in the battle to establish a national carbon tax is Callie Hancock, co-founder and leader of the local CCL chapter.  Hancock emphasizes the need to “put a price on burning carbon and sending carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, because it’s causing warming of the planet.”

She describes how it was Hurricane Sandy three years ago that motivated her to create the Princeton chapter of CCL.  “I would never have started a chapter or joined.  I’ve never been an environmentalist,” she says, “but the superstorm made things seem so terribly concrete in terms of extreme weather and what happens when you don’t have power.  My realization of how dependent we are on fossil fuels came right about then.”

Hancock followed up this realization with action.  “I saw that CCL has a positive focus instead of just fighting everything.  I thought, this is a great place to start a chapter and someone needs to do it.  It would be me.  I’ve been the executive in the group and Huck’s been our writer, muse and mentor.”

CCL meets monthly, usually at Hancock’s house, often with a guest speaker, perhaps a scientist, policy expert or sociologist.  The members are constantly writing letters to legislators and to newspapers to make their carbon tax argument, and in June Hancock and other members from throughout the country travel to Washington D.C. to speak with government officials.
“Every year I have been involved, there have been more people in the Princeton chapter and in Washington,” Hancock says.  “We started as 400 people on the Capitol steps, went to 600 in 2013, 900 in 2015 and the steps are getting full, and, more importantly, the conversations in Congress are moving forward.”

She urges others to join CCL and to get involved in whatever way they can.  “Whatever concerns you about climate change,” she says, “don’t ignore it.  Bring it up.  Let your elected officials know that you’re concerned, because they may be concerned too but not feel there’s public support.  Subscribe to an online source of climate news and write a letter to your representative. It’s an economic solution we’re offering so you don’t even have to mention climate.  So what people can do is to not be frightened of the problem.  I feel hope and despair all the time.  I look my kids in the eye and I say—hey—we’re doing what we can.”

Optimism and “The 
Environmental Nexus”

For Professor Pacala, doing what he can includes creating and teaching a new course for University students, “The Environmental Nexus.” “It’s about the intersection of the climate, food, water and biodiversity,” Pacala says.  “The real problem the current generation faces is that it’s not enough just to solve one of those problems.  If you take one course on this, what do you need to know to prepare yourself for your responsibilities as a citizen?  As a teacher, I’m devoting what amounts to the rest of my career to answering that.

“I’m spending the next year preparing.  It’s got ethicists involved and social scientists and economists, because there are so many different dimensions to the problem.  I want to make it as big as I possibly can, to get the largest possible cross-campus conversation going.”

And, in the meantime, Pacala continues the many different facets of his academic work, including his teaching, his work with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) climate modeling center at the geophysical fluid dynamics laboratory on the Forrestal Campus on Route One, as a board member with the Environmental Defense Fund in New York, and with a number of environmental NGOs.

Though quick to acknowledge the enormity of the climate problem, Pacala sees cause for optimism.  “If you travel around universities now,” he says, “so many of the brilliant young people are working on this problem.  And I would bet on human ingenuity in the end.  The discovery of information that would save the world from global warming is likely to involve some of the most lucrative inventions in the history of human beings, to make people absolutely titanically wealthy while saving the planet.  What greater incentive could there be for an ambitious and capable young person? And that’s why so many are involved in this effort.  It wasn’t that way 10-15 years ago, and so I’m betting on human ingenuity because the incentives are just so strong.”

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A Role for Everyone

Pacala urges the public to act on one or more of three different levels:  1) “As a consumer you can buy products and energy, and travel in such a way that you reduce your impact on the planet.” 2)”You can vote in such a way” that supports environmental causes you believe in; and 3) “If you’re a genius you can invent something.”

Though all of the experts I consulted emphasized the necessity for individual responsibility to vote and stay involved politically, Mauzerall was explicit in her assertion that “the most important thing people can do to take action on climate change is to help elect a Democratic president.  Both potential Democratic candidates have made it clear that they are very concerned about climate change and are committed to reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and increasing the fraction of energy that comes from renewable sources.  The Republican candidates continue to deny that climate change is real, an absurdity in the face of the scientific evidence, and could easily reverse the progress the U.S. has been making to reduce emissions.”

In reflecting on the fact that “people often do not take action,” van der Linden endorses the kind of involvement and political action that Hancock and Fairman pursue, and he advocates a focus on how climate change will affect people personally in the not-so-distant future. “Something that resonates with people when we do research is that people, regardless of political party,” he says, “do care about how climate change might affect their in-group (family, grandchildren).  If we want future generations to be OK, then it’s important that we do something about it now and not leave it up to them to clean up the mess.”

In summing up, Oppenheimer also reflects on young people.  “It’s important that they understand that the world is not beyond their control, that if we all make diligent efforts both in our own lives and in contributing more broadly in whatever way we can to the larger effort to rein in climate change, we can move on into a livable world, one that we’re happy to pass on even if it’s not perfect.  So everybody can find a way that they can contribute to this, whether it’s the way I do as a scientist or as an educator or as someone who understands the social aspect of dealing with climate change.  Everybody has their own special abilities.  Maybe it’s political organizing.  This is not a problem to be solved just by scientists.  Everybody has a role to play.”