Today I’d like to introduce you to Erik M. Conway, a fellow Californian who came to Wellington earlier this month to give a keynote speech at the Climate Futures Forum. Hosted at Te Papa, the Forum was organized by Victoria University’s New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute.

Erik M. Conway. Click through for image source.

Erik M. Conway.

Erik is an historian of science and technology at the California Institute of Technology. He studies and documents the history of space exploration, and examines the intersections of space science, Earth science, and technological change.

He has written several books including Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, which he co-authored with Naomi Oreskes. He has received a variety of awards for his work, including from NASA and from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

As Earth Day is fast approaching, I thought it might be interesting and useful to ask Erik a few questions about his research and about the future of climate science.

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DH: Erik, welcome to Wellington.

EC: Thank you, Ambassador. I’m happy to be here.

DH: You have been studying the history of climate science for about 10 years. What are some of the differences you see between information available about climate change today as opposed to a decade ago?

EC: The principal recent finding has been the loss of ice mass from Greenland and Antarctica documented by the joint United States/Germany GRACE gravity satellite mission. Most climate scientists did not expect those two ice sheets to be losing mass this early in the global warming era.

The impact of the ice loss will be a greater rate of sea level rise for the 21st century than forecasted in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fourth assessment report in 2007. The GRACE finding is spawning a great deal of new research on the dynamics of ice sheets that will be interesting to watch evolve over the next few decades.

Another big change is not a scientific finding but the result of policy decision – a lot more climate data is now available online. Both the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have been moving climate data into web-based public repositories accessible to anyone willing to take the time to understand the datasets and their structures.

Polar bears on thin ice. Click through for image source.

Polar bears on thin ice.

DH: Climate change is obviously a topic that generates great political attention and controversy. It seems to me, though, that the underlying science is frequently misunderstood or simply ignored. Your latest book, Merchants of Doubt, deals with that politics/science issue. What is your argument?

EC: Merchants of Doubt is about a small group of scientists who devoted their retirements to casting doubt on the health effects of smoking and on the problems of acid rain, ozone depletion, and climate change. Our argument is that they were doing this to protect their political beliefs.

They were Cold Warriors. In their writings they depicted environmentalists and environmentally interested scientists as socialists bent on overthrowing the capitalist system.

They were also free market fundamentalists, people who believed that markets could solve all problems as long as markets were “free.” Their attacks on science, and on individual scientists, were motivated by their refusal to accept the reality of what economists call “market failure.”

Markets work by price signals, and if there’s no price charged for dumping pollution into the air or water, markets can’t control the pollution. That’s a form of market failure. The basic idea of an emissions trading system (like New Zealand’s new one), or of a pollution fee like a carbon tax, is to fix this market failure by finding ways to price pollution. One of the ironies of our story is that some of the physicists we studied were actually promoters of pollution pricing but simultaneously denied the need to implement it.

From left to right, Fred Pearce (environment writer and author of The Climate Files), Hon. Nick Smith (New Zealand’s Minister for the Environment and Minister for Climate Change), and Erik Conway.

From left to right, Fred Pearce (environment writer and author of “The Climate Files”), Hon. Nick Smith (New Zealand’s Minister for the Environment and Minister for Climate Change), and Erik Conway.

DH: What would you like to see change in the way that the media and the scientific community communicate to the public about climate change?

EC: I’d like to see the media grow out of their fetish with the notion of “balance” in climate science reporting.

Let’s replace the word “climate” with “gravity” for a moment. There’s a great deal we don’t know about gravity. Unlike the other major forces in the universe, gravity seems not to have a carrier particle, and we’ve spent decades theorizing about gravity waves while failing to detect them. Gravity should be pulling the universe back in on itself, but all the latest research reveals the opposite — the universe is actually expanding at an accelerating rate. So there are very large unknowns encompassed in this notion of “gravity.”

Yet I’ve never seen a “gravity skeptic” quoted in a major newspaper.

I would argue that the lack of gravity skeptics has to do with the reality that gravity doesn’t threaten the dominant economic paradigm of neoliberalism or the financial interests of a particular industrial sector. But the greenhouse effect and its offspring, anthropogenic climate change, do. Greenhouse “skeptics” proliferate because it’s threatening to their beliefs, not because there’s anything wrong with the science.

The greenhouse effect was first theorized by the French polymath Jean Jacques Fourier at the beginning of the 19th century. The gases causing the greenhouse effect were discovered by the Irish experimentalist John Tyndall in 1859. We now have satellite instruments like the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder that measure the changing infrared characteristics of the atmosphere constantly.

At what point do we accept that knowledge as settled fact and act on it?

My co-author and I think it’s long past time that the media started treating the greenhouse skeptics the way they treat gravity skeptics and Flat Earthers, and move the debate along to the important questions revolving around how best to incorporate that knowledge into our governance structures.

Appearing at “An Evening with Three Authors at the Cutting Edge of the Climate Change Debate,” co-sponsored by the Embassy and the British High Commission, from left to right:  Sean Plunket (interlocutor), Gareth Renowden, Erik Conway, and Fred Pearce.

From left to right, Sean Plunket (interlocutor), Gareth Renowden, Erik Conway, and Fred Pearce, at “An Evening with Three Authors at the Cutting Edge of the Climate Change Debate,” co-sponsored by the Embassy and the British High Commission.

DH: Where do you see the study of climate science going over the next decade?

EC: By 2022 there will be a lot more data, and perhaps a clearer view of the future of the ice sheets. There’s a great deal of research going into improving the regional fidelity of climate models and of cloud modeling in particular that might improve understanding of future precipitation changes, too.

I’d also expect to see greater contributions from scientists in Asia as India and China develop economically. By then I’d expect a better understanding of how such development will change not only global climate but that huge continent’s own future climate.

What won’t change in any significant way about climate science is the level of uncertainty.

The Earth’s climate system is nonlinear, and we have shoved the greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere beyond what they have been in at least the last few million years. We only have highly detailed records of the Earth’s past one million years of climate. Before that, the climate picture gets increasingly blurry.

So, the geologic record can’t tell us what the climate future will be. Climate models are built to behave the way the Earth has been during that past one million years, which means they probably can’t tell us with much fidelity what the climate future we’ve created will be, either.

We take a huge risk in refusing to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions because we may be imposing a very hostile climate on ourselves. But we won’t know what we’ve done until its too late to stop it.

DH: Erik, thanks for taking the time to talk. I know people are going to want to discuss what you’ve said.

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If you’d like to hear more from Erik, you can listen to his interview with Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand.

If you have any thoughts or comments about Erik’s work, his views, or related topics, don’t be shy. Let me know what you think.