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Interview with a Climate Scientist

Lately, discussions around these here parts have stalled for lack of a qualified climate scientist to articulate various points about global warming.

So, I went and found one. One of Lubbock’s treasures is Texas Tech Professor Katharine Hayhoe, an active climate scientist who was involved with the Nobel Prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. She was kind enough to let me interview her via email for this blog.

Here is the unedited interview:

Can you explain the consensus view of climate change and humankind’s effect on it in lay terms?

Among scientists who study the Earth’s climate, there is no debate regarding the reality of climate change, and the fact that humans are the primary cause. The basic science that explains what is happening to our world has been well-established for more than two hundred years.
Our earth has a natural blanket around it—a blanket perfectly suited for life. This blanket is made up of water vapor, carbon dioxide, and other heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. Together, these gases keep our world about 70 degrees F warmer than it would be otherwise.
So what’s the problem? Well, ever since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we have been burning increasing amounts of coal, gas, and oil. Every time we burn these fuels, we produce carbon dioxide. We can measure it at the tailpipe of any car, or the smokestack of any factory.
As a result of our energy habits, levels of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases have built up in the atmosphere far beyond their natural levels. Adding all these extra heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere is like putting an extra blanket around the Earth. And the Earth is starting to sweat.

Isn’t there still a big debate about the science?

There’s certainly a great deal of media hype about what is happening to our world. But we need to be careful how much we pay attention to propaganda that is not based on solid fact.
When an organization like NASA posts their climate data for the world to see, we must conclude that either all of NASA’s scientists and engineers have been duped, or quite possibly, there’s some truth to this warming.
In “A Climate for Change,” we provide evidence for the scientific consensus that the world is warming: from the National Academies of 32 nations, from every major scientific organization in the United States, and even from authorities such as the Pentagon, which views climate change as a serious threat to our national security.

Your latest book A Climate for Change makes the case that Christians should care about global warming. What prompted you to write this book?

Every time we turn on the TV, it seems, there’s people talking about climate change. But what we hear can be very confusing. One person may say it’s warming, while the next person tells us that it’s cooling. The first person tells us humans are causing this warming, the second says it’s all just natural cycles.
This book is the result of hundreds of conversations we have had with people who are genuinely curious about global warming, but who are confused by all the rhetoric flying across the airwaves these days. We know everything we hear can’t be true—but which part is fact, and which is fiction?
We wrote this book to tackle these questions head-on, and to provide simple, straightforward answers to many of the perplexing questions we’ve been asked, again and again. We hope our readers will see that we have no political agenda in doing so. Neither of us have any stake in whether or not certain policies are adopted. To us, climate change is not about politics: it is about sharing the truth of what we see happening to our world.

Can you summarize that position and describe the relationship between Christianity and science in general?

Climate change is already affecting our planet and its inhabitants. Its impacts are already being felt by the poor and the disadvantaged, who lack the resources to adapt. This is true both here in the United States, as well as in developing nations around the world.
As Christians, we are called to love God and love others. Recognizing the reality of climate change and reaching out to help our global neighbors is a tangible expression of this love.
Already, we’ve seen the first American refugees from climate change. Just this year, the inhabitants of Newtok, Alaska were forced to abandon their homes forever as warming temperatures caused the ground beneath them to flood, and melt away. And what has happened in Newtok is just a small “snapshot” of what we might expect over the longer term if we continue to bury our heads in the sand and argue that climate change is not happening.
At the same time, our book is not a guilt trip. As my co-author Andrew Farley points out in his book The Naked Gospel, as Christians we should be motivated by freedom and love, not guilt or duty. Climate change represents an opportunity, perhaps the greatest of our generation, to “serve one another in love.”

What is your opinion about the alleged stolen East Anglia University emails, commonly referred to as “climategate?” Does climategate disprove global warming?

A few emails written by several of the thousands of scientists who study climate change does not alter the fact that data collected from all over the world, for more than 150 years, shows a consistent warming.
In addition, this conclusion doesn’t just rest on one set of temperature data or tree rings. Sea level is rising; ice sheets are melting; spring is coming earlier in the year; insect, bird, and animal species are now seen further north than ever before. More than 25,000 of these types of changes have been seen around the world, all of them telling us that the world is warming.
So in assessing the implications of the stolen emails for the overall science of climate change, we need to take a step back and look at the big picture. We have to weigh those few emails from certain scientists against an overwhelming, world-wide consensus from thousands of researchers.
I’m not defending these scientists’ actions or their words, because I don’t know them or work with them at all. What I am saying is that this is no call for us to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Climate change is a very real problem, and we need to move ahead by looking for solutions, not dragging our feet every time the media tells us to.

As the Copenhagen conference on climate change begins this week, what are your predictions for its outcome?

This week, nations from around the world are meeting in Copenhagen to discuss the issue of climate change, and what can be done about it.
This process started way back in 1992, when the United States and over 150 other nations ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. In this document, nations agreed to take steps to prevent “dangerous human interference” with the climate system. If necessary, these steps were to include reducing our emissions of heat-trapping gases.
Today, we have reached a point where the science tells us that the potential for dangerous consequences from climate change is inevitable, if we continue on our current pathway. So world leaders are discussing ways and means to for industrialized nations, like the United States, to reduce their own emissions and help developing nations do the same.

As individuals, what are some steps we can take to solve the climate crisis?

There are many things we can do to reduce the effect we are having on our planet. Opportunity lies in every crisis. And in this case, we have an unparalleled opportunity to re-think the way we live: to transition from the constraints of coal and oil to the freedom of endlessly renewable, homegrown solar and wind energy; to replace outdated, wasteful technologies with the most efficient state-of-the-art alternatives; and to better our environment and, with it, our own welfare.
We can start with small, simple steps. If every household in the U.S., for example, replaced one of its old incandescent light bulbs with a new compact fluorescent bulb, each of us would save $30 in electricity over the lifetime of the bulb. We would also achieve the equivalent of taking a million cars off the road.
We can do what our grandparents told us to and turn off or unplug anything we’re not using: our lights, our TVs, our computers, and even our cell phone chargers. When we make large purchases, such as appliances, cars, and even houses, we can pay attention to how much energy they use. These are just a few of the many things we can do that have the potential to greatly reduce our personal impact on the planet.
Ultimately, however, we need to implement the many technological solutions—many of these already well within our grasp—that will radically reduce our reliance on dirty, outdated, and foreign sources of energy. Protecting our environment is about living in more intelligent and more sustainable ways. The challenge of climate change calls for creative solutions and the discovery of previously unimagined ways of doing, living, and being. We already know how to do so many extraordinary things. Now we need to do those kinds of things more, and in smarter ways.

Thanks again to Professor Hayhoe for agreeing to the interview. She did say that she would respond to followup questions, so feel free to leave those in the comments.

Katharine Hayhoe website
Purchase A Climate for Change


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