State climatologist and Texas A&M professor John Nielsen-Gammon discusses climate change, skeptics, and the future with Texas Climate News editor Bill Dawson:
Odds are, many Texans had no idea Texas has an official state climatologist until last year’s record-breaking heat and drought.
On top of everything else it did, 2011′s brutal weather catapulted the person who holds the climatologist position – John Nielsen-Gammon, a professor in the Atmospheric Sciences Department at Texas A&M University – into a much more prominent place in the public eye.
In a recent conversation with Texas Climate News editor Bill Dawson, Nielsen-Gammon discussed various subjects including:
- His dealings with the media;
- His views on manmade global warming – its role in last year’s heat and drought, what he thinks should be done about it, and what it will mean for Texas in the future;
- His worry that climate-change skepticism may hamper Texans’ ability to deal with the phenomenon;
- The state’s water-supply challenges;
- The weather outlook for this summer.
Q: You were appointed state climatologist by former Gov. George W. Bush. When did that happen? What are the basic duties, for those who don’t know what the state climatologist does? What other things do you do as a member of the Atmospheric Sciences faculty there?
A: I was appointed in the spring of 2000. The only present statutory duty is serving as a member of the state [Drought] Preparedness Council. As a recognized climate office by the Association of American State Climatologists, we do provide access to climate data, issue reports and climate updates, do case study analyses of climate events and separate climate outlooks, and basically make climate information as useful as possible for the people of the state of Texas.
Q: I wanted to ask you a few questions about anthropogenic global warming, as it’s called, or manmade global warming, or manmade climate change, and just climate change in general, whether it’s anthropogenic or naturally occurring.
Based on my interviews with you in the past and the comments I’ve gotten from you and based on what I’ve read and heard you say in other interviews and public forums, I would describe you, in very basic terms, as an explainer and defender of the mainstream scientific view on these subjects – that it to say, a consensus of a broad majority of scientists to the effect that human activities are heating up the atmosphere and changing the earth’s climate.
Which isn’t to say necessarily that you concur with every single finding or projection within that broad body of science. I know you’ve taken issue with some of them – publicly. Are you comfortable with that basic description – as an explainer and defender of the mainstream scientific view?
A: I am comfortable with that description with one qualification, which is that I don’t think the general public has a really good sense of what the mainstream scientific view is, because news coverage tends to push issues outward so that the people they hear about tend to be taking extreme stances, one way or the other. And I think the public thinks that mainstream climate science generally takes an extreme view, which is not the case.
The mainstream scientific view is firmly that man is one of the factors that alter the climate and that man has been the primary influence over the past half-century or so and that at the present rate we’re going to continue producing a warmer climate on the order of several degrees over the next century. There is disagreement in the mainstream scientific community about how serious the consequences are going to be to that.
Certainly, there is a variety of consequences. What the skeptics characterize as catastrophic anthropogenic global warming is actually a minority scientific view, depending upon what set of polls you look at.
Q: You alluded to this next point just a moment ago, and I wish you could elaborate on it just a bit. What is your view about the role in last year’s drought and heat wave of anthropogenic global warming. I’ve reported it in Texas Climate News previously but I wonder if you could reiterate and let me know if it’s changed somewhat since then.
I think it’s fair to point out by way of context for my readers that last year you were considerably more limited in your attribution of Texas’s weather situation to manmade climate change than were some other scientists like NASA’s James Hansen. Am I correct about that?
A: That’s right. And I think I still disagree with Dr. Hansen, both on his interpretation and some of his analysis. But that’s a discussion to work out on a technical level.
In the meantime, I made some rough, preliminary estimates back in the fall and since then I’ve collaborated on a paper with a group of scientists from NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] that we submitted last month to the Journal of Climate and haven’t gotten the reviews back to see if the reviewers agree with our conclusion, but the conclusion at least agrees with my original assessment, so I was lucky in that regard that it stood up to further scrutiny.
And basically, the primary factor in the event itself was a sea-surface temperature pattern, and La Niña specifically, which led to lack of rainfall and that normally produces dry and warm weather across Texas, although this was at the extreme dry end of the historical distribution. So there was a lot of bad luck or atmospheric chaos or weather noise, however you want to characterize it, that also played a role.
There is no evidence that climate change contributed to the lack of rainfall, because rainfall has risen over the past century in the state. Scientists have not come to a conclusion regarding whether La Niña, the triggering event, is going to become more or less severe or frequent.
But climate change did play a role in the temperatures being as high as they were. They were warmer than you’d expect, even given the lack of rainfall, and the contribution [by climate change] to that is probably about in the neighborhood of a degree Celsius, or half a degree Celsius to a degree Celsius.
Which means that essentially we would have broken the record with this drought in terms of high temperatures even without climate change, but we ended up breaking it by quite a comfortable margin with climate change.
Now it sounds like that I’m saying that climate change had almost no effect, but the trouble with extreme events is that as they get more extreme the consequences sort of grow exponentially, and so the extra high temperatures affected the drought by leading to higher evaporation and greater demand for water by plants that lead to reduced streamflow, increased loss of water from reservoirs and so forth. So it did take a significant toll on water supplies and also on the extent of the the wildfires that affected the state.
Q: Are you worried that skepticism about climate science may mean that Texans are at risk of missing some important opportunities to avert some of the hardships that may lie ahead, or handle them more skillfully?
A: Yeah, I am, actually. I think it’s an economic issue, really. If you can plan ahead of time for things that are going to happen in the future, it’s a lot easier to deal with and you can generally put in much more cost-effective solutions, unlike cities having to scramble to develop alternative sources for water with this drought. If they had been constructed at a normal rate rather than in a mad scramble to avoid disaster, it’s a lot better for all concerned.
Climate change itself is not going to cause, I don’t think, any particular individual disaster for the state, but it’s sort of this incremental contributor to all sorts of things that can go wrong if you assume that the worst that can happen is the worst that’s already happened, and you don’t have to plan for something that could be worse than that.