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Gerald North

INTERVIEWEE: Gerald North (GN)
INTERVIEWER: David Todd (DT) and David Weisman (DW)
DATE: March 4, 2008
LOCATION: Bryan, Texas
TRANSCRIBER: Jennifer Gumpertz and Robin Johnson
REELS: 2436, 2437, 2438

Please note that the recording includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the reels. Boldfaced numbers mark the time codes for the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera conversation or background noise, unrelated to the interview.

DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. We’re in Bryan, Texas. It’s March 4th, 2008, and we have the good fortune to be visiting with Dr. Gerry North, who is at the Department of—of Atmospheric Science at—at Texas A&M, and has been there since 1986. And he took his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin, and—and later worked at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and the University of—of Missouri at St. Louis, and at the Goddard Spaceflight Center, so has had a long and illustrious career in physics research, but also in climate research and—and in paleoclimatology, and in recent years, has gotten quite involved in some of the—the issues revolving around global warming and climate change. And for all those reasons, and with all that experience, we appreciate you spending time with us today.
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GN: Well, thank you very much, David.
DT: I thought that we might ask you to try and recount your first exposure to—first involvement in climate research. Where—where did that start for you?
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GN: Well, you know, I was a physics professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and time came for a sabbatical, and I had been a little—a little concerned about what I was doing and whether I should change my field a little bit, because it was during the Vietnam War. It was a very bad time for physics research. So it looked like it might be a good thing for me to change. So I was able to get a—a fellowship to go to the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder. So I spent a sabbatical year there. Turned out it was a—it was just a wonderful opportunity for me. I met lots of people. Many people—famous people came through there. It’s a—it’s a wonderful place in Boulder. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there, but it’s a beautiful building designed by I. M. Pei. It sits up on the
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hillside, a gorgeous place and very inspirational place. So during my year there, I s—picked up on a problem to work on in paleoclimatology. So I’m a theoretical physicist, so I started to make trying to make a model that might be useful for studying ice ages, things like that. So I wrote a couple of science papers while I was there, and turned out they were—they were rather influential papers. In fact, when I had left there, I—I won an award for the—for these two papers that I wrote, which led to a lot people knowing about me. And in—in particular, when I went back to St. Louis, one of the—one of the men I had met to Goddard Spa—at—at National Center for Atmospheric Research was starting a laboratory for NASA in Greenbelt, Maryland called the Laboratory for Atmospheres at the Goddard Space Flight Center. So he called me, and I think he thought I was older than I was, because I had gray hair. And—and so he said he would like me to come there and help start a group.
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So he offered me this wonderful job there, and I wasn’t so sure I wanted to leave my teaching position. He says, well, come on anyway. If you don’t like it in a year, you can go back.
DT: What—what year is this?
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GN: That would have been in 1978—’78.
DT: And you had written these papers over about three or four years (?)?
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GN: I’d written those papers couple y—and I was continuing to write papers on climate modeling. So I did go to Goddard Space Flight Center, and continued working in paleoclimatology, especially using these, what we call simplified climate models, and I had a number of really good post-docs there from MIT and elsewhere. So that was a very stimulating thing. But my—my boss there, David Atlas, he told us all later that he was making the gamble that if I would come there and work, that sure enough, later I would become interested in the space program, which did happen. So I became very interested in a new satellite project, and sort of helped put together the first plans for it, called the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission. So we proposed the satellite. I was the first proposer of it in 1984. So we had the competition at NASA headquarters. I believe there were seventeen competitors for
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different missions, and we—and so I went down and made the presentation. So we won the competition. So we went back and—so then begins this long, arduous trail from first proposal to cutting metal to all the re—the other steps. At any time, of course, the whole thing could be canceled. And so it had its ups and downs a long the way. But I actually left Goddard a couple of years later, 1986, to come to Texas A&M. But to make a long story short, the—the—the mission—the satellite was launched in 1997. So it took thirteen years from the—the proposal to the launch, and it was a joint mission with Japan. So I was over there many times in that process, about four times in Japan negotiating with them, and so on. So this was a—a—a great seven s—and actually, I’ve had funding for my graduate students ever since I came to Texas A&M since 1986. So here it is 2008, so twenty-two years later, we’re still getting funding to support students to work on that—that satellite data. So—so it was launched in—and the satellite’s still flying, actually, in 2008. So
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it’s been flying now for almost eleven years. So it’s been a great success helping with hurricane, and—and—but the purpose of the satellite was to help us by getting data that can help us calibrate and test these big climate models that we hear about so much today. So they were just in their infancy in the middle ‘80s. So—so we—we—there—there was a great need for data to help—help test the models, make sure they were getting things right, and so on, in the present climate. And so at that time, it was a very popular venture in climate modeling to produ—to predict what would happen during an El Niño. And so in order to do that, you needed to know the rainfall out over the Pacific Ocean. That’s where the El Niño’s really start. So it’s the ra—it’s the energetics related to the rainfall there that really help in predicting El Niño. So at that time there were no measurements of rain out over the Pacific. So
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this satellite was able to give us measurements of rainfall over the Pacific. So when I came to A&M in ’86, my interest in climate sort of changed a bit. I was always interested in statistics of climate. It’s a very variable system rattling around, as we say. But if you nudge it, it rattles around still, but it kind of wanders uphill or downhill depending on how you’ve nudged it with external forcings, like volcanoes, or putting more greenhouse gases in, or putting a lot of dirt in the atmosphere from our industrial and other processes, or the sun might be wo—wobbling, or, you know, making it’s—it’s brightness change. So there are many possible causes for climate change. So I became interested in separating the trends from the—from the fluxu—the natural fluctuations, what we might call the—the noise in the climate system. So that’s—that’s a way—in my early years here, that occupied me, and actually, was a carryover from work I had done at Goddard also. In fact, the work on the satellite
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was mainly having to do with the statistics of rain, and so on. So that’s when I became very interested. I’d never taken a statistics course. But I—I had the opportunity to teach one—teach a statistics course over at the University of Maryland while I was there, for meteorologists. So that’s when I really was up half the night every night trying to learn about statistics. But since my background was theoretical physics, it was not too hard to learn. So—so that’s how I got into that. So…
DT: You—you gave us a—a brief synopsis of your own career in climate research, which dates back thirty-four years, I think, 1974 when you were at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. But as I’ve understood from you, the climate research, climate studies actually goes back many years even before then. And I was hoping that you could give us the—the—the longer saga of—of climate studies.
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GN: Well, the—there were—there were studies of climate really going back into the 1800’s when people first discovered that the ice sheets had—had—had grown and covered parts of the earth, and receded and perhaps come and gone many times. So there were—there was this Agassi who was French but who worked at Harvard, and—and so on, and who discovered, you know, evidence that the Alp—the Alpine glaciers had obviously, much early, had—had extended much further down into the valleys and back, and that this had perhaps happened more than once. So—so people became interested in paleoclimate back even in the 1800’s. And this interest continued and grew. The Greenhouse Effect, I’d say one that we talked about a minute ago was—was Arrhenius, a famous chemist, who actually did—he was very interested in climate. He won the Nobel Prize for his work in chemistry
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unrelated to climate. But, you know, he actually went to the South Pole, he took measurements there, all sorts of things like—so he was very interested in climate change. And then there were people into the ‘30s and ‘40s who worked on this. But you know, it—it would come and go. Pe—it would not get enough traction. But then I th—I would say the—the real start in serious modern climate studies really actually jumped up in the—about 1970. And there were several reasons for this. One was that—that—that weather forecasting had reached a kind of new stage, and the reason for that was that numerical modeling of weather had begun. The first big computers—actually, the first problem put onto the big computers, the first digital computers, were weather models for predicting weather. Von Neumann and others who, at Princeton, had—now, that was their first ap—one of their first applications.
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Another was nuclear reactors. So those were among the first problems put on the big digital computers. So the oth—so the computers were essential. Number two thing that comes along are the—is the satellite era. So the era of ec—of gathering huge amounts of data about the earth’s climate, first, to initialize clim—weather models for weather fore—so we get a global picture of the weather right now, that helps us to forecast what it will be tomorrow. We have to have this comprehensive global picture. So the temperatures everywhere, the winds everywhere, and so on. So this—this global network of stations emerges. This would be in the ‘60s—‘50s and ‘60s. But then the satellite era starts in the—in the ear—in the middle ‘70s. So we began to have—you remember the TIROS series of satellites when the—all they could do was add a camera. They could look down and see where the clouds were over the globe. Sputnik was in the late ‘50s. And so the first satellites to go up and
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look down, really their first application was weather, looking down at the clouds and things like that. So as computers began to get better and better in the—in the middle ‘70s, just by coincidence, that’s the year that I went out to Boulder to—to spend my—to get myself re-treaded into the—into the climate, you know, business. And so—so just at that time, there were satellites that were in—that were being proposed in the middle ‘70s to look at the sun, measure its—its brightness—outside the earth’s atmosphere, so you wouldn’t have the atmosphere in the way—to measure the sun’s brightness. That was called the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite. And—but it also looked down. It could see the amount of sunlight reflected back. It could also see the infrared sunlight—infrared light emitted by the earth out into space. And so in general, these have to balance. The amount of sun’s radiation absorbed by the earth has to exactly balance the amount of energy going out to space. So that means the earth is in an equilibrium. So those sa—that satellite and others during that period measured those things. So it was the beginning of the
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satellite era. Other satellites, in 1974 there was one launched that looked down at the earth and it could see in the—in the microwave part of the electromagnetic spectrum. So the wavelengths are about an inch, something like that. So you can’t see those. They’re—they’re—it’s like in your microwave oven. So you can’t see the microwaves, but they’re there. And so you can look down in that part of the spectrum with a detector on a satellite. And turns out that sea ice looks very different from open water. So the very first measurements of sea ice over the poles, both poles, and even out into the—into the oceans. So you could see the seasonal s—come and go of sea ice for the first time. So we began to have, in the 1970’s, a kind of global picture of the earth. So this was r—a remarkable kind of change of way of thinking. And then the first climate models. So those occurred at Princeton. Again, a kind of outgrowth of those things that occurred with von Neumann’s work back in the ‘50s. There was a NOAA laboratory, National Oceanographic Atmospheric
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Administration laboratory started right on the campus at Princeton University. So they began climate modeling there. They began building climate models at—in Boulder at the ins—at the institution that I was visiting. It was happening when I was there. And my role was to make these little simple models. Because I’m a theoretician, I wasn’t so interested in the big computer models. What could you do with little simple ones? But in the meantime, in the other parts of the building, and I got to know those people, of course. So I’ve had this interest in both the big models and the little ones through all these—these years. So—so the beginning of the satellite and big computer era was in the 1970’s, and that’s when this whole field really began to change. So it suddenly became, instead of stamp collecting, so to speak, gathering data. It’s what I would call old-fashioned climatology. It turned into a whole new era where the technology was supreme. Getting the satellite
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measurement, interpreting it, putting it into a database that could be digested by these huge computers, and then building models that could actually simulate today’s climate. So at first, they only looked at the annual average of climate. Then a few years later, in the ‘80s, early ‘80s, they started trying to do the seasonal cycle of the climate, the winter-summer cycle in both hemispheres. So—so they were able to do the—the seasonal cycle. So tho—and that really was remarkable how well they were able to do that. And I, with my little what we called toy models, we were showing—I was at Goddard by then—we were showing that you could actually get the little toy models to look very much like earth’s seasonal cycle, which gave you a lot of confidence in the big models. They were—they were essentially b—a piece of—of a hierarchy that the toy models could capture some gross features, like the seasonal
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cycle, and maybe ice ages, things like that. But it—they could only do the surface temperature. The big models, though, could do the winds, the precipitation, the things that were really important for the s—global circulation of climate. And we were not just interested in the temperature, we’re interested in where it’s going to rain, where those patterns are going to move, if they move in the future, and so forth. So that’s—that’s—takes us into the current era. Now, many, many, many of the people who work in climate modeling and satellite research, and so on, they aren’t arm-wavers. They tend to be people trained in physics, chemistry, engineering, so on. So now, about climate models, I promised you a little bit I’d talk
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about philosophy of science. And you know, there was also a time in the 1970’s when the philosophy of science really took a turn. This was when Thomas Kuhn put forth his own theory of the way science proceeds. And so that’s—that really led to what we call now the paradigm of climate theory and modeling. So this paradigm—that’s—he coined that word for this—for these kinds of purposes, and he used many other examples, like the theory of relativity or quantum mechanics, things like that. They were all paradigms, and they were—they were sort of revolutions in their field. Well, this idea of climate models and the comprehensive datasets, and so on, is a kind of revolution in climatology. So the old-fashioned climatologists really could not—they could not really work into this new field. So many of them were stragglers left behind by this—this invasion of the physicists and chemists, and so on—hard scientists, so to speak. So—so things have really changed from where they were in
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the—in the—in the earlier period. It’s now the meteorologist with his equations, her equations, and implementing them on computers, using the laws of physics to drive the models. And so that’s what really is inserted in the models. So just as you could predict the trajectory of a—of a ballistic missile, a bullet, or a—a rock thrown, you can predict exactly where it’s going to land. Well, the theory is you should be able to do that with the fluid motion of the atmosphere and the oceans. Should be able to predict forward. And, you know, we do this kind of thing all the time. You know, nowadays when you—when you build a new airplane, it’s all done on the computer. Right, you do all the—the wind flow over the—over the wings, all the turbulence and so on, it’s done in computer—in the computer by these same equations that we use in the climate model. And so you save millions and millions of testing dollars—of
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course, you have to do some testing. But you save millions and millions of dollars by eliminating all the bad cases with your computer beforehand. So the same equations that people use in those engineering applications are using the weather and climate problem. So what I want to emphasize is that there’s a lot of science in this, physics in it. It isn’t—it’s very, very different from a lot of other models that we’re used to hearing about. And I can go with that, if you like.
DT: Well, maybe just clarify one thing in my mind. This paradigm shift that you’re talking about, where there was kind of a—a schism in the field, and you—some researchers went along, and others held back. I—the—the ones that were maybe on the earlier sort of research profile, were they using physical models…
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GN: No. No.
DT: …tanks? Were they—were they using something—what was the prior model before the (talking over each other)?
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GN: Basically, they collected statistics. That’s why I fishishl—facetiously called them stamp collectors.
DT: Well, (talking over each other).
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GN: They were collecting statistics, data. So their—we—we owe these people an enormous debt, because they’re the people who were collecting data for the hundred years, the last hundred years, so that we have all of this data, all this information. And you know, and they did a lot of really important work in learning how to make the measurement, how to avoid biases. Would you put your station next to a tree, under a tree, next to a building? All of these things were ironed out by these people who were essentially geographers. And so they were interested in mapping the temperature fields, the pressure fields, making maps. That’s what they were in. What is the climatology of England, what is the climatology of India, and so forth. So there was a lot of prior work that went into understanding the present climate. And so this, of course, has great application in designing buildings and all kinds of things like that. So the paradigm shift came though when we tried to actually
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forecast climate. Those folks never tried to do that. In fact, they thought it was foolish, couldn’t do it. But when you actually use the—the—the equations and the models that weather forecasters, the meteorologists—so the meteorologists were not really typically the—what I would call the old-fashioned climatologists. Usually, that person would be housed in a geography department in University. Now, I don’t (?)—don’t mean to be putting down geographers. They’re working in this field right now as well. They have a very, very important role in it. But that’s—but you know, back in those days, it was the geo—the climatologist was in the geography department—usually. Sometimes in a meteorology department, but often in a—in a geography department. And so I sort of call them the—the old-fashioned climatol—and they did—but they do important work. And that work was necessary for us to advance into this new period, because we have all the data to base—to try to imitate with our models. So the first thing—so, why do these climate models, how do they differ
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from models that we’re used to? Well, for example, in economics, you can—you know, we have models in economics, so-called econometric models. But there’s a big difference between the econometric model and the climate model. Econometric models are all based on statistics. They tune them up. It’s a re—they—they’re so-called regression models. So you fit past to data, and then maybe you could use that to forecast forward. So there’s no—there’s no physical law involved like the trajectory, where you can do this very, very precisely. But you can’t do that with—with a regression model like—like I just talked about, a statistical model.
DT: (Talking over each other.)
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GN: It’s curve fitting. That’s right. That’s the wor—that’s the right way to say it. In fact, I was just reading Alan Greenspan’s book, and—and what he points out is that, you know, the econometric models are really useful for analyzing where the economy is, the world economy, where it is, why it is where it is, and so on, but it’s of almost no p—value in predicting forward. So you can’t get an economist now to predict even ha—we’re about to go into a recession or not. They know there’s very little predictive value in those models. On the other hand, we can look in climate, and we can see the ocean warm out in the Pacific and predict very, rather nicely, month average rainfall and statistics all around the United States the next year. Not day-by-day, but we can see, oh, it’s going to be a wet January. It’s going to be a dry January. Has a big effect here in Texas, in fact. We can do very, very well. And that’s because of the physics in the models. So there really is predictive value in
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these models. So that’s—that’s a thing that’s often overlooked by the engineers and folks who are used to using those other kinds of models in their work. For example, oilmen, they have regression models and so on they use on their oilfields. And, you know, when they’re—they’re drawing oil out of a—a reservoir, they use those kinds of models often. They’ve—they have very little physics in them. But this kind of model is quite different. I mean we’re looking at energy conservation as well as mass conservation, momentum conservation, other things. So—so there’s a lot more physics, and a lot of people don’t realize that—that there is—that this is a—a different ballgame from the model of econometrics or hydrology. Even hydrology has very little physics. It’s in water—out-water, and then it’s fitting curves to—to river levels. If it rains so much, then you get this much, and so on. It’s not physics,
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it’s just relating to past. And it’s—I mean that’s the only way you can do it, frankly. You can try to put in some physics, but it’s very little. But in the climate system, you have a better chance of moving ahead because you have a lot of conservation laws—energy, momentum, mass, water, all these things you conserve. So you can—you can force those laws to make predictions for you. So that’s the—that’s the paradigm change that’s occurred really just in the last f—thirty-five years. It’s an amazing transition in this field. So…
DT: Well, you—you’ve given us a nice s—synopsis, a little capsule of your history in climate research, which neatly overlaps these—these large changes in—in ap—approaches and understandings in the climate. I was wondering if—if you could sort of spread this out even more, not just the last thirty years, but—but help us understand the paleoclimate, and how it’s changed over hundreds of thousands of years, because I think that that was one of your major interests (talking over each other).
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GN: So—so in fact, one of the books that I was co-author, it was Paleoclimatology, published by Oxford University Press. I guess that was in ’91. It’s out of print now. But—so I—I’ve had this long interest since the ‘70s in paleoclimatology. So this is the climate of ancient climates, so to speak. So in fact, we know the climate has changed. Now we actually have a lot of data gathered by geologists, and geographers, and other kinds of experts over the years. And so we’ve—we’ve learned how to—how to tease out of these data proxies, and so forth, what the climate must have been like over those long time periods. For example, we know that some few millions of years ago, that’s when all the ice formed on Greenland. And we’ve got some pretty good idea of about when that happened—Greenland. And then soon after that, just a few million years ago, the ice actually
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advanced into North America. And you can—we can find exactly where the a—the lead edge of the ice was, and it’s come and gone a number of times, ma—as many as—more than eight times. About every hundred thousand years, we have this huge advance of the ice down into North America. One of them came all the way down to about St. Louis. I think that was the one before last. And the Mis—the—the border of the Missouri River. It was really roughly the edge, the southern edge of the ice sheet. Then it re—it retracted, went back, almost disappeared completely. And about a hundred and twenty-five thousand years ago, we were in interglacial, like we are now. We’re between big—big glaciers. So about a hundred and twenty thousand years ago the ice began to advance again. One other relic of the ice sheet is Long Island. Actually, you know, that’s a—that’s a—a—a—what we call a moraine that was pushed out there, and Cape Cod. The ice came all the way down and
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pushed those features out. And so now they’re islands in the—in the water. When the ice advances, the sea level goes down. And during glacial maximum, which—and it reached its peak about eighteen thousand years ago. We call that last glacial maximum—the sea level was actually lower by about a hundred meters, about a hundred yards, about a football field lower than it is now. So places like the Bering Strait, which now you can’t walk across, fifteen thousand years ago, you could walk across from Siberia right into North America. You didn’t need a canoe, you could walk right across there. And guess who came across there? People. People came from Asia into North America and down the—down the Rocky Mountains all the way to South America over—over that—over those times. So roughly speaking, that’s when those people migrated over. So climate change has had a huge effect on human populations and their movements because barriers that were once there,
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they disappear, and then they come back, they disappear, and they come back, and so on. So humans have been walking around and roughly like us for a hundred thousand years. So people—that was the—that was the opportunity for them to come into North America, but also into Australia, and other places like that. So that sea level was low enough that people could actually walk to those places. Some canoeing maybe, but largely it was shallow. So—so climate change has had a huge effect. So then we come to the—the—what we call the Holocene. The Holocene is the last ten thousand years. All the ice was disappeared from North America, essentially gone. And so if we look at the temperatures in nor—in—in—of the—of the northern hemisphere really, they’ve been rather steady for the last, oh, about eight thousand years. So really quite steady. No—no big changes. And now that we’re starting to look in more detail, we can go back, and this takes me to the study that—that—that we’ve talked about that I was a—a part of two years ago—year and a half ago, and that was the—a question came (?), shall we get into that story?
DT: While we’re still talking about ancient climate, pre-human climate, I was hoping that you could talk about maybe two questions. One is why does the climate fluctuate naturally? What are the influences on it? And—and secondly, what is the kind of evidence that you can depend on to try to track those changes in ancient climate?
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GN: Sure. The—what we’ve learned, and this w—this story was unraveled in that late ‘70s. And the—the evidence comes from deep sea cores. So you go down to, and right here at Texas A&M is the International Ocean Drilling Program, so I can put in a plug for Texas A&M and the Ocean Drilling Program. But this is a ship that goes out, and they dig cores from the bottom of the ocean. So they move around all over the place. And the—so you can—we can learn about the surface temperatures of the ocean by digging these cores out. So what’s—what’s going on? Why does this happen? Well, the surface waters of the ocean are filled with these little critters, little tiny things. You can—you need a microscope. They’re a few millionths of a—of a meter across, smaller than a width of a human hair. But they’re little tiny things that have a lot of calcium in their structure. So what happens is this is the al—the plankton that—that are floating on the—in the surface waters of the ocean.
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Constantly there. And you can look at them under a microscope, and there are many different species. And it’s amazing. You can look under the microscope and see these things. And you know, they are the cocker spaniels and the collies and the h—you know, the Labradors, and so—and so the people, you can—you can sit there and, you know, take a razor blade and separate out all the collies and all the—and—and separate out the little species, the—all of them, and sort of make counts. And it turns out you can use today’s ocean and you see the mix of these creatures in the s—in the surface waters of the ocean today, and you can say, oh, it’s warm here today, and this is the mix. And so—and if I go north to where—where the water’s colder, I find the same mix—I find the mix is different. Now, when I go down in the ocean core, all this stuff eventually settles down to the bottom of the ocean. Goes through a lot of stuff first. Big fish eats small fish, bigger fish eats big fish, finally the feces fall to the bottom of the ocean, and these guys are still intact. They didn’t
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get digested, they make it all the way to the bottom. So you drill out these cores, and they’re many meters long. You bring them home to Texas A&M. And people from all over the world come here, and they go out in the ship, they come here, and you take slices from this core. It’s a m—core of mud, basically. And you can take slices. And as you go deeper, you’re going back in time. And in fact, there are ways to find out exactly how far back in time you’re going as you go down the core. So you can look and you can get the surface temperature record from the part of the ocean at that time. It’s absolutely amazing. There are a lot of other pieces of evidence that you can pull out using isotopes and so on. So you can also tell things about, well, what was sea level at that time using isotopes. I won’t go into how you do that. But it was—so what you have found, though, was this record, sea level
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going up and down, up and down. What’s going on? It took a while to unravel that it was that, and that they—first time they had the timing wrong. Finally they got that right. So this must have been in the—in the ‘60s. They finally got that—the—the timing of these things right. And then someone, Milankovic, a Serbian soldier in World War I, he was a physicist, an astronomer, a celestial mechanic really. So he was interested in orbits of the planets and s—this guy, he was captured and put in prison during World War I, a Serbian scientist. And he sat down, he had a lot of time on his hands, he did a lot of hand calculations of how the orbit of the earth changes with time. He knew how to do this. And it had been—the theory had been worked out a long time before, but he actually did the calculations. What happens is the earth’s spin axis wobbles a little bit. And so he a—he estimated the period of these different effects. It goes in an ellipse, the—the ellipse rotates around so that right
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now we’re closest to the sun during northern hemisphere winter. But eleven thousand years ago, we were at the opposite end of the ellipse, a little further away from the sun. So that cycle takes about twenty-two thousand years. The ellipse takes forty thousand years. And the eccentricity of the ellipse takes about a hundred thousand years. So he says that’s funny. That may be the period—so it was in the ‘70s, though, we had this data from the ocean bottoms. We had Milankovic’ calculations, which now of course, we’re much more modern, because now people can do these calculations on the big computers. So we know the periods of these swings of the earth’s orbital elements we call them. We now have this data. So now people looked, and lo and behold, they match. They match. So the—the p—the period of these oscillations of the earth’s elements—and you can look and you say,
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oh, well, that’s because there’s more sunshine in the winter, less in the summer, so on. So these things matched. Now this was a really great breakthrough by John Imbrie, and a number of other—Nicholas Shackleton, and a number of other really important marine geologists of that time, in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s. So this was a great breakthrough. We finally understand why the ice sheets come and go. They’re in tune with this orbital element business. So Milankovic was m—vindicated. I mean he was just—nobody believed him back when he did that in the 19-teens. Right? Nobody believed him. That’ was nuts. Why believe that? And so—so this—this revolution could not get off the ground. So in the ‘80s though, it suddenly looked like this was going to work. All right. So the climate models now come along and they should be able to reproduce this, right? But they couldn’t. They didn’t have—they would get a little bit of ice, but not very much. Not much. And so I was very
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discouraged at this point about climate modeling in the early ‘90s. There we—we—we’d written this book, but we had no satisfactory explanation for why the ice sheets—the effect was just too small. Now we know why. All these years later, we know why. Well, we have another reason that climate can change. Carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide can change. So—and we know in times past, there’s been a l—there have been a lot more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. During the cretaceous period, oh, there was a—well, far more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than now. And how do we—we—we’re not sure—I can’t—we don’t have a direct measurement of that. That was fifty million years ago when the dinosaurs were tromping around. But we do have pretty good measurements of what the carbon dioxide was going
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back about six hundred thousand years. How did we get that? We can go to Antarctica, drill a core, pull out the ice plug, take it quickly to an ice laboratory. There’s one in—in Grenoble in France. I’ve been there. And, you know, these tiny bubbles that are in that ice core really represent the air that was in the atmosphere at the time that snow fell. And you can go through all the calculations. No, it doesn’t diffuse away. It’s still there. And it should be there. You take that little bubble, you can put it in these modern spectrometers, and see how much CO2 is in the atmosphere compared to now. And lo and behold, it comes and goes with the same rhythm—same rhythm. And Al Gore shows that in his—his film. It’s criticized, though. And I don’t know if Al Gore—I—I’m pretty sure he understands this, but
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maybe in his film he didn’t want to get so technical. But it turns out that carbon dioxide is a feedback. You nudge the ice sheet forward, then the CO2 responds. It’s a big positive feedback.
DT: So it’s a multiplier.
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GN: Little nu—it multiplies the output, just like feedback in your sound system can do. It goes back and forth. Right? It—here’s the sound from the speaker, goes in the microphone, back and forth. W—it’s a positive feedback. And so it’s uncontrolled in the sound system. In this case, what happens is when you—ice sheet grows a little bit, it draws down the CI— CO2, makes the planet cooler, ice sheet grows more. This was really only discovered the last few years, so this is a really—I mean at first, when I saw the CO2, that looked like a coincidence, because what’s that got to do with it? And then you see actually the temperature leads the CO2 by a few hundred years. This is often criticized by saying, oh, see, that proves it. The temperature comes first, and then the CO2. But you have to have the temperature change, then the feedback that amplifies it. So—so that gives us some
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idea. So other—so the earth’s orbital elements, the tilt angle of the earth can change the earth’s climate. CO2 in the atmosphere can change the earth’s climate. In fact, it helped us out of this. In fact, it wasn’t a contradiction, it helped us out. I essentially got out of the modeling of paleoclimate because I just didn’t see any way out. I thought, well, we just need more data, because there’s something missing here. Now we know what it was. It’s the CO2 feedback. Now it fits. The re—the magnitudes of the CO2 are just about right to do it. And before we didn’t—we could not make it fit. So this has been a great breakthrough in the last few years, and nobody—you know, there’s no one person that deserves any credit. Just—(?)—now it’s obvious to everyone that’s what it was. So—so that’s—that’s what’s happened there, is that we—we now understand these forcing factors. There were sort of little
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elements, well, they change on many thousands of year timescale, probably not of much—I mean it’s nice that our models now are in good agreement with those. So we now—I mean that gives us confidence in our climate models that we can more or less explain those occurrences, and we can also make the planet much warmer by pumping in CO2. It seems to have been about the right level for the dinosaurs’ period. So we—those things seem to work. So we have a lot of kind of consistent things. No proof or disproof, but a lot of good consistent cor—corroboration between model and those, because none of these are clean experiments. But they make you feel much better about the thing. So science never gives us the final answer. It’s always tentative. And people work—you know, they get into the paradigm, and now we have thousands of people in climate research. Everybody works very, very hard—and this is back to Kuhn and the philosophy of science—everybody works very,
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very hard because there’s a lot of really hard technical problems that have to be solved. Making the models better, making the computers better, putting the new model on the new computer, more satellites, getting the algorithms that retrieve the parameters right. A lot of hard work has to go into this. So most of the people working in climate research today are doing what we call normal science. They’re—they’re just grunting along, grinding, turning the wheels, trying to make the calculations, and so on, to interpret their data to do whatever—you know, the—they just fit in the paradigm. But then there are some people who say, no, I’m—I’m not so sure I believe in that paradigm. So I think that maybe there’s something wrong. So here come, then, the skeptics. And see, they’re—they’re—they’re healthy to come along, because they were instrumental in every revolution and science that’s ever happened. Right? The Copernican Revolution, the—you know, all of these
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things. You know, the sun being the center of the orbits, I mean that was a paradigm that was—that nobody believed. I mean they had the Ptolemaic way of doing it. So they cracked that and put the sun in the center. Took hundreds of years for it to really be accepted. Galileo went on trial, all that, because he—he bought it. The church didn’t at that time. So you know, paradigms have a—you know another one that’s really fun is quantum mechanics in physics which came about in the 1920’s. Einstein, who actually was one—wrote some of the key papers that led to quantum mechanics, he never accepted it. He never believed it. So through his life, he was always trying to find a way out so that he wouldn’t have quantum mechanics.
DT: (Talking over each other.)
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GN: And so here you have a genius, one of the great physicists of all time, who when the paradigm changed, he couldn’t adjust to it. He wouldn’t do it. So see, it’s not—it’s not that the skeptics are dumb, they’re not dumb. But, you know, for one reason or another, they don’t believe this, or they don’t want to believe it, or whatever. So we have—we have skeptics today who are trying to say wait a minute, this may not be the reason. Maybe the sun is changing its brightness. Maybe this, or maybe that. Maybe this is the cause, maybe you guys are getting it all wrong. So this is very healthy to have these guys come along. So—so we—we do have people who champion the sun as the purpose of the recent climate change. And we have people who think maybe it’s something else even. The sun right now I would say is the most popular. But you know what? We’ve been measuring the sun’s brightness
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now since (?) the early 1970’s. And you can see the sunspot cycle. It has an amplitude of about a tenth of a percent. It’s very, very small. I’ve worked on this. My graduate students have written papers. What we’ve tried is find that eleven-year cycle in the earth’s climate using my statistical methods, you know, and these students have worked in—and can you see it? Yes, you can. You can see that eleven-year cycle in the earth’s climate, but it’s very, very tiny. It’s very important from a theoretical point of view because it’s hard to test these models at long timescales like ten years. But you can see it. The models predict, you can see it in the data. So this was a confirmation. But the sun has not been brightening. It just has not been brightening. It would take some very weird mechanism to make a tiny, tiny possible brightening, you know, within the errors. Maybe there is a small brightening. There would have to be some mechanism that works for the sun, but
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doesn’t amplify when you change the CO2. So it—it doesn’t make sense to have—so what—if you increase the sun’s brightness about one percent, that’s close to doubling the carbon dioxide, according to the theories. So if you make the sun go up a little bit, then you have to explain then why the CO2 isn’t even bigger. You can’t—you—you can’t—the—there is a contradiction. It’s very, very hard to get around this. And you know, all of us who—many of us, I included, have tried to find a way to get out of this. We’d love to show this as wrong. I’ve worked on it lots myself. And many, many other people who are in the mainstream have spent a lot of time themselves, sort of in private, trying to think, how can you get out of this because anybody who figures out and can get the mob behind them will win the Nobel Prize. There’s no question about it. So, you know, to show this is wrong would be such an
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important scientific result that they would be celebrated the world over, and they’ve saved the world all this expense of trying to get ready for global warming and all that when it isn’t necessary. So…
DT: (?) there.
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GN: Yeah.
DT: So far you’ve been kind to—to give us a history of climate in—in s—over certain time spans. Your—your research, it might start in 1974 roughly. And then the much longer time span of two to three million years of paleoclimate. I thought you might help us understand the more—sort of the in between period, which would be maybe the last thousand years which has been discussed at great length in the—in the defense, and the—and the opposition to Mr. Mann’s famous 1998 Hockey Stick chart. Can you talk about that, and enlighten us about also the influence of some of the manmade influences on the climate?
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GN: Sure. Sure. Yes. So—so my own personal history with this starts in 2006. I—I h—I was aware of the Mann papers. And in fact, they had—they had gotten into the 2000—the year 2000 IPCC report. This is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. So this is this panel of scientists that meets every five years, and they produce a report on the assessment of the climate research at that time. So in the year 2000, Mann’s paper was highlighted, and it—I mean it—it was so—it was such an icon that it was—I mean people say, oh, they were running around in Congress with—holding this thing up that the globe is warming. Look, it’s—it’s cooled until about a hundred fifty years ago. Then suddenly, we have all this warming up to the present time. And so the—the image of his graph looked like a hockey stick and so this—this name caught on. And so in—in 2006, just as people were beginning to get ready for the next IPCC report, some critics from that 1998 paper had been sort of creeping into the picture—and skeptics. And in—in—in
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particular, a couple of Canadian fellows. One an economist, and one is a retired mining engineer, and retired. Very, very bright fellow. He got into the Mann paper, started reading it, and several of the other papers. And he had an undergraduate degree in mathematics, quite a smart guy, and he had worked his career doing audits and things like that for mining problems. So, you know, before you go and invest a lot of money, you have to—have to make a very careful audit of the problem to make sure that you’ve got all the relevant data, and you’ve done due gil—due—due diligence before you go out and then spend the money. So he got hold of this data, and he started looking at it, and he says I think I’ve found a mistake in the way Mann and his colleagues did this. Mann’s colleagues were tree ring people, and Mann himself is like me, kind of a theoretician, statistician, but very knowledgeable
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about climate, a natural person to bring these people together, pool their data, come out with something really significant. So he did this. The—a whole string a papers beginning in ’98, the so-called hockey stick curve. So these guys, McIntyre was the—the—the more famous one for his objections. And so it—it got into Congress, because Joe Barton, our congressman from Texas happened to be the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. So Joe Barton, Congressman Barton, got involved in the process, and he invited McIntyre and his colleague in to talk. And so they talked, and Barton decided maybe he should have a committee to look into this perhaps erroneous paper, or maybe even intentionally misleading, we don’t know, because there’s an investigation subcommittee. And so then—so there was a lot of hullabaloo. In fact, Barton did something that was totally unprecedented. He actually went to Mann and his two colleagues, Hughes and—what’s the other one’s
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name? Anyway, he went to the colleagues and he wanted—he asked that they send in all of their paperwork related to this problem. Unprecedented. I’ve never heard of anything like that before. I mean it’s not national security or something like that. So he wanted all their paper. He went to the National Science Foundation, and he wanted all of the relevant materials from that project. He went to the IPCC chairman at that time and wanted all of the papers from the IPCC. Coul—you know, some—could be some fraud here. And so then Congressman Bollard, who happened to be the chairman of the Science Committee, said wait a minute, Joe, that’s not the way you do this. The way you do this is you go to the Academy of Sciences and ask them to have a report. So, very short time later, I get a call from Ralph Cicerone, who’s the president, chairman of the N—the president of the National Academy of Sciences. And I’ve known him for a long time. And so he called, and he knew that I
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knew a lot about statistics, and that’s what’s underlying this fuss. So he wondered if I would be willing to chair this committee to look into it. So I said yes. And so we gathered a committee together of twelve people who we very carefully vetted to make sure that none of them had a conflict of interest with any of the other—with any of the authors, or with any of the oil companies, or any of the—any of the competing interests here. So we got this committee together, and we held some hearings in Washington. We brought in people who had an interest in the problem, all sides. Mann and Hughes and the other one, whose name I’ll think of in a minute. And we—so we—we brought in a couple of days of hearings, two and a half days, actually. We took a long time. People from Europe and so on. So it was really quite a—and we had a couple of months to get our report written. So we wrote our report, which turns out to be, oh, a hundred and fifty page long report. We went through all
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of the—we must have read two hundred papers from the literature. And—and this—the committee was a very, very prestigious committee. I mean they were really outstanding people. And—and then, once the report is written, the academy, and their procedures are unbelievable. They send it out to twelve anonymous referees—twelve. Had to be returned in a couple of weeks. These people, they send it—and we didn’t know who they were—send it out to twelve people. Back come the criticisms. The criticisms were as long as the report, sum total. We had to address every one of the criticisms, either do something or explain why we didn’t. They had two monitors, who we also did not know, who saw to it that we addressed every single issue. Fourteen people, two of them just making sure that we answered every one of them. So we had a few more weeks, and then the thing came out because we knew the hearings from Congress were going to be coming up in June. So we got
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the report out, published on the internet, and the hardcopy was available. Meanwhile, Joe Barton had a small committee consisting of three people, one of whom was the graduate student of the other one, and so on. Three statisticians, basically. But, you know, they—and so we—we had our hearing in Congress. And I and the chairman of that other committee sat and were grilled by Joe Barton’s committee for four hours. So we had—we had a break in the middle—one break—for five—just the two of us sitting there at that familiar table, you know, sitting in front. And so it was really—it was quite an interesting experience. At that time, in 2006, the Republicans were in the majority, of course, in the House. And so Joe was the chairman of the big committee. And so this was a subcommittee on investigations.
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So Joe came, Joe Barton came to all the meetings, and he had a few words to say. And of course, we—it was very light exchange with me, because he’s an Aggie. And so he actually asked me in the break if I thought that being an Aggie had any influence on my being chosen. I said, well, it never came up, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. But, you know, he actually asked very good question. He’s a very smart guy. Of course, you know, I d—I—I question where his motives are in all that stuff. But he’s a very bright guy. And he did ask good questions. The democrats on the committee were really very, very well-prepared. Henry Waxman was the majority democrat. And, I mean he was so good. He was unbelievable the way he hammered both me and my opponent. He just really lit into us. But he was very, very good. Well-prepared. And Congressman Stupak, who’s now the—the chairman
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of that part of the committee—he had been a prosecutor before—he was very tough on us. He’s from Detroit, so he had some interest in gas and mileage and that sort of thing. So he was—although a democrat, he was very well-prepared and asked very good—a fellow named Ensley from the Seattle area, democrat, they all—and there was a woman whose name I don’t remember, but she was a congressman, a democrat from Madison, Wisconsin, also very liberal, and very friendly to me. The—the republicans on the committee were scrambling because they didn’t know quite what to do. They were moderate republicans, and they wanted to show off how much research they were doing in their district on this problem. And so they really were playing into—into my hands. In any case, the—the—the—the—the testimony went very, very well. So it was a very successful thing. And what we showed basically in the end was that the Mann papers were—they had some small errors.
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But on the whole, the qualitative feature that they showed was correct. And we concluded that if you were to go back four hundred years, you could say with very high confidence that the last thirty years were the warmest thirty-year period in the last four hundred. And you could say that it was not with high confidence, but at least plausible, that if you went back a thousand years, these last thirty would be the warmest period in the thousand. So we pretty much agreed. I mean their—their statements in their papers were a little stronger than this, but, you know, we really did not modify it very much. And I have to say, you know, people were very objective here. I think many members—and we had some skeptics on the committee, but they came around. So it was—so it was not all a put-up job at all. It was quite objective, I felt. (?)…
DT: Why don’t we stop it there. We’re close to the end of this tape.
[End of Reel 2436]
DT: When we left off, we were talking about the—the National Research Council report that was brought out to try to analyze Mr. Mann’s famous 1998 hockey stick chart of temperature changes. And I thought it would be helpful to us if you could put this in context a little bit with the possible angles and biases that different people might bring to this kind of research. One was that I understood that there was some industry money that was going to challenge the voracity, the accuracy of—of Mr. Mann’s research. And then secondly, I understood that from the congressional standpoint, there was some effort from—from Mr. Barton and Mr. Whitfield to try to control more directly the kind of research that was being done in academia on climate, and maybe other, you know, controversial subjects. And then the third sort of perspective that I was hoping you could talk about is—is from the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, where some critics of—of the IPCC cl—thought that they put too much emphasis on this hockey stick curve, that it’s—it oversimplified what was a very complicated, you know, amount of data and (?). Can you talk about those three different angles?
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GN: Yes. I—I can—I can do that. Well, of course there are economic interests in anything that—that m—calls for change. And—and this might—the—the solution to the problem could call for change, and it could be expensive change. So there will be winners and losers. If we do nothing, there will be winners and losers. If we do something, there will be winners and losers. So obviously, there are big interests, you know, to have this whole thing go away, so that there is no global warming. And one way to do it is to argue that the science is wrong, that the—the people working on this have their own agenda and they’re pushing for it. So those interests are—are pretty obvious. The oil and coal industries, in particular, are the ones that would benefit from this whole thing going away. And so I—I think that, you know, that it’s not necessarily that they want—that they want to tell a lie, it’s that they don’t believe and would like the gov—the country and the world to believe
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that this is bad science, it’s not happening. And so they—they will use their powers to do whatever they can to advance that particular position. And so one—one way to do it is to discredit organizations like the IPCC and their procedures. Now, in the case of the hockey stick, going back to it, I—I certainly—I don’t know of any—I don’t know of any money passing. I don’t think that the chairman of the other committee received any funds as—and I did not—for his or my activities. I’m pretty sure that he did not. I do believe him. I think he’s an honest person. Of course, Joe Barton, I mean it’s well known that he gets a lot of money for campaign purposes from these industries that we’re talking about. And—and I think it’s natural that these industries essentially do what they did. It’s their obligation to their stockholders to
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try to make as much money as they can. To me, though, of course, it’s the—it’s the job of the government to step in and do the—the—the right thing, in quotes, for—for—in—that’s in the interest of the people and the economy and all of the other thing—and the long-term interests of the country. So—so the—the natural thing, as I said, is for the—the in—industry to do. And I think the analogy with the cigarette and lung cancer back in the 1970s is a very, very good analogy. In fact, they’re almost parallel. F—you know, in the beginning, there’s the—the—the denial that there’s any warming at all. Sort of just—there’s—there’s no warming. It’s not happening. Well, now the—the evidence is so convincing that even the most blatant, and the most open skeptics, the most loud skeptics, say, oh, well, there is warming.
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But it’s not due to mankind, it’s—it’s natural variability in the climate system. So—so there—there—so they’ve—they’ve—they’ve accepted now the fact that the data is probably correct. And going back to the hockey stick and the—the last thousand years, actually, I think most of the skeptics have even accepted that now. I mean not the original two guys. I mean they—they’re not going to. And by the way, I don’t believe they get any money from these interest groups. I do think that McIntyre and his colleague d—I don’t think they got any money for this. So I do think, you know, that they’re honest people who believe what they believe, and they were pursuing this as honest people. So I do think that, and I—you know, even talked to them a lot. And by the way, we were very cordial with them on the
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committee, and so on. And I think that to this day, on their blogs, which they—they hammer everybody, but they’re generally nice to me because I was nice to them and showed respect to them during the whole process. But there are people, you know, going back now to the—the critics and their—their criticism, if we—at one point, before the IPCC report was written, I was approached by one of the think tanks in Washington, because, you know, I’ve—and this—part—part of the reason for this is I—I know a lot of skeptics, and the—many of them I consider to be friends of mine. And I’ve always been a kind of moderate on this issue. Not an extremist, but a moderate. And I try to educate. And, you know, as the data comes in, as more and more evidence comes in, you know, mainstream keeps moving up, up, up in the warming. And so I follow, you know, what I think the evidence, where it leads me.
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But many of the skeptics, and they used to come to—to my talks here in Texas, and so forth, they will come, and, you know, we have a good conversation afterward. And so one of them wound up at a think tank in Washington. And so before the IPCC report came out, actually, I was called by one of these fellows, and he said, oh, we’d like you write an essay on the IPCC report. We’re—we’re going to do a volume on it, and we’ll pay you ten thousand dollars to write an essay on this. And I said, well, I’ll—I’ll think about it. So I thought about it for a couple of days. And you know, I thought, well, what about conditions? You know, maybe I would write it and they wouldn’t—you know, maybe they wouldn’t want to publish it. That’d be fine, as long as they send me the ten thousand dollars. But they wouldn’t get any opportunity to change anything I said. And no negotiating about what I say. I thought about it.
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And then the more I thought about it—then I called them up and I said, I guess you’re going to have Mr. So-and-so, Dr. So-and-so, and Dr. So-and-so as chapter editors of this thing? Yeah, yeah, that’s right. How’d you—how’d you know? I said, well, you know, I’ve—I’ve decided that I’m—I’m really very busy, I don’t think I can do it. So—and that actually turned out to be some embarrassment for that particular think tank, which I won’t name, well, because it’s got into the newspapers. I didn’t tell, but somebody—it got around the—around the bend this got in the news. Manchester Guardian picked it up first, of all things. How they got it, I’m not sure. In any case, that did come out, and then it got into a few other things. The fir—and you know, I was called by CNN and various people, and I said, no, I don’t think it’s
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much of a story. Andy Rifkin from New York Times called, and, no, I don’t think there’s any. So we didn’t go anywhere with it. But—you know, and another thing that happens, which is somewhat like this, reminds me of this, is when you see on CNN or FOX or MSNBC, they will often have two and two—two skeptics, and two believers. And this is in—this is very, very misleading, because really, I think I’ve seen surveys that show that about ninety-five percent of the people who are actively doing research in this field go along with the IPCC. About ninety-five percent. So you really—you really need about twenty people, one of whom—you know, if you were to have a representative group on one of those programs, that’s about what you need. So right after my congressional testimony, I got this call from McNeil
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Lehrer, actually, it was an e-mail from McNeil Lehrer wondering would I be willing to come on. And so I said, well, if it’s going to be one of these two on two, I won’t do it. And so—but otherwise, you know, if you’re—if you’re going—if—I will—will not do it under those circumstances. The guy never actually came back to me. They did do the show. It was like the next day. I mean there was very little notice. We would have to arrange to have—you know, be on a camera here at Texas A&M. So—it turned out they did a good job, the—the Lehrer Program did a good job. They—in fact, they had one skeptic on, but in fact, he already bought the whole thing. He was a libertarian, which many of the skeptics are. He—he bought into it, but he said, oh, but the government can’t do—can’t do anything about it. But he bought the whole thing. But he said, still, the government will just muck it up. So that was very interesting. So in fact they did turn out to do it well in the end. So—so—but,
00:11:06 – 2437
you know, that—that is what happens. A number of the people who give a lot of these speeches do collect a lot of money from the oil, and gas, and coal. Coal really is the big culprit in the long run. We’re going to run out of oil. Next thirty years, it’ll all be gone. I’ve been reading a lot about this. And probably peak oil production has now happened. And so now it’s downhill in the production, and—so natural gas will go a few more years before it—it starts down. So then we’re going to have to make some big adjust—in the process, we’re going to have to be making some huge adjustments in this country, and really, all over the world. But coal and—but—but gas and oil are not the problem, it’s coal because there’s enough coal to go on for another century or two. So if we’re going to put all that CO2 in the atmosphere,
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that’s where the problem is. And the coal industry is now really the—the place where the battle is taking place against climate change, and—and believing it, and going along with it.
DT: This might be a good opportunity to—to talk about another way that you’ve had to interface between science and policy, and to get involved in educating maybe a lay community. I understand that—that you were called to give a deposition when TXU, a local utility based in Dallas, was proposing, I believe it was eleven new coal-powered utilities here in—in Texas. And there was a challenge to it. And—and you were called as one of the witnesses.
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GN: Right. So I was—I was asked by w—a law firm, that was doing it pro bono, if I would be willing to make a deposition, which I did. So I went up to Dallas. And there—there was a TXU lawyer there, and I was prepped a little bit on how to do it, and so forth. And I—I wasn’t—I—I wasn’t all that good at it, frankly. The—the—my lawyer friend on that end, he said, well, you know, you’re the sort of the person who tries to find middle ground, and that sort of thing. He says, that’s not what we’re doing here. And—and so I guess I got better after he criticized me during the breaks. I got a little bit better at it. But it turns out that—I don’t know that this pert—and this went on for four hours. It was really quite grueling because, you know, it—it—most people have never done a deposition. Certainly, I had not. And—
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but you know, they really try to catch you. They—you know, they ask you the same—and an hour later they come back and ask—start asking same thing again, only put just a little change to it. Well, why this? Why that? Anyway, it was quite an interesting thing, and I was pretty tired when we finished that evening. But within just a few days, I don’t think my testimony was the straw that broke the camel’s back. But it was just within a few days there was announced that the TXU was selling out to this other organization where they—where they would change the way they—they did things. So in effect, I think we’ve—we’ve won, but the whole story is not over yet. So there was a coalition of city mayors who were opposed to it. Their reasons were slightly different from mine. Mine was based on the carbon dioxide and climate change. Most of the mayors, I mean they were sympathetic to
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my—and I gave a number of talks to the coalition of mayors who were concerned about it. But for example, I mean what—what they were worried about more than this was that coal-fired power plants were going to be releasing a lot of pollutants which were going to dirty up the air in their cities. And for example, Waco is now in compliance with clean air standards. But if they put in those power plants, that one may go over and suddenly be in noncompliance. So they were—their concerns were mainly a little bit different from mine, although they were sympathetic. They would take any friend they could get, I guess, to prevent the—the power plants from going in. And so, you know, my—my contention was that a fraction of a percent of the CO2 emissions from the United States—and Texas, by the way, is—would be about the eighth—if—if you were—consider Texas to be a separate country, it would be ranked
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about number eight in total carbon dioxide emissions. So if you looked at the output of those seven or—or eleven, whichever it was—I can’t remember now because they—they keep juggling back and forth, but I—it—it was a f—it was a fraction of a percent, like a half a percent to one percent of CO2 produced in the United States would be produced by those seven or eleven, whichever it was. So they (?) kept asking me, well, that’s not much, that’s not much. But the answer is no. Anything—you know, when it’s big enough to see it as a fraction of a percent, that’s a lot. It is significant. And so that’s where I drew my line. And so that—that, I think, was m—that—that’s what I stuck with, and I thought we ended there. And I think that they were really unable to refute that particular point of mine. So—but…
DT: Oh. While we’re talking about presentations you’ve made, and you’ve s—spoken to the Congress, you’ve spoken to a group of lawyers in this sort of deposition framework. But I understand that you’ve also gone to speak to churches and rotary groups…
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GN: Oh, yes.
DT: …and trade associations. And I’d—I’d really appreciate hearing what sort of people are interested in hearing from you, and what sort of reaction you get, and how you—you try to explain these technical issues to maybe a skeptical crowd?
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GN: The—the interest in this ki—kind of periodic. I think every—every five years, when the IPCC comes out with its report, there’s a lot of publicity about it, and so there’s more interest in the public. And so people start to—scurrying around trying to find somebody to speak on the subject. And when I first came here, I think I was the only person in Texas, the only scientist or professor in Texas, who had any interest in this problem, certainly from the atmospheric point of view. And—and I know I was the only one. In my department here at Texas A&M, the other people were all interested in weather forecasting, not in climate of this type. And we had one old-fashioned climatologist in the department, and he—he was a skeptic. He—and so I was the only one. And there was no department at UT at that time. There
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was a small department at Texas Tech with about three people, and so they had no interest in it. Now they have someone. And at UT, there’s actually been a large change. They have a new dean who absol—hacke—happens to be a climatologist like myself. And so they’re beginning a large program over there, and I’m very supportive of that. So we take off the gloves when we’re not playing football. And—so we’re—we’re partners on—in trying to improve the—the public service in the state, and to have more science going on in the state. It’s actually very good research area, so there’s a lot of government funding for it. So, you know, we should be—Texas should be getting its share. So I have a lot of attitudes like that. You know, I live here. I want us to get our share of the money. We pay our share
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of the taxes, so—so we—so we have interests in this, and I would like to raise the—the—the level of knowledge about this subject in our state. It’s woefully low. Our governor says—quote—is that the—the only hot air that he’s aware of is the hot air coming from Al Gore’s mouth. So that’s a quote from our Governor Perry. And a number of the legislators have made comments like that, which, you know, this is a really not a part—is nig—has nothing to do with politics. A lot of the people—a lot of the scientists who work on this are republicans. This is not—this is not that at all. So—so that ge—somewhat disappointing, and I’m—so, you know, we would like to raise the—the level of consciousness. So—so I’m going around doing this, and some of my colleagues are doing the same. They’re younger than I am so they’re really deep into their careers, and I don’t want them to be as distracted as I’m able to be.
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And my career is towards its end, and so I’m willing to do this. I’ve made my fame, or whatever—what little of it there is. So I’ve done that part of my career. So I do a lot of this. When asked, I do. So just a couple of weeks ago, I gave a talk at a trade association over in Austin, and I had about seventy engineers who work on food service equipment and that sort of thing. And they were interested in what’s going to happen to their business in the future. And so I gave them an hour-long talk, and I had good questions, and they were all very interested. Not a single negative comment. But I’ve been in quite the opposite situation as well. I’ve given talks to garden clubs. I’ve—I gave a talk some years ago, not recently, some years ago to a large accounting firm in Houston where all of the audi—it was a breakfast meeting, and all of the audience were energy people who were clients of this accounting firm.
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So I get them—there must have been fifty people in the group for breakfast. And so—and they were all so very, very polite to me. It was very nice. So I had no problem with them. In a few weeks, I’m going down to give a talk at a meeting of the American Association of Petroleum Engineers. I expect that to be very contentious. I’ll be—in fact, the topic of my talk is what we just talked about here, the hockey stick curve, the last thousand years. Then there are three f—other speakers right after me. The chairman of that session at that meeting is the dean from UT that I just mentioned, Eric Barron. So he got this session together. And there—there is a group of people in the Petroleum Engineering s—Association who are accepting this. They’re the young people. The older people are denying, and so
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there’s a huge battle going on in that scientific organization. And so Barron is trying to get them some experts in to talk about it. I mean nobody in that field is actually—I mean they have a—they have an economic interest in it going away, but they don’t really know very much about it. But they are geologists, so they know something about long-term changes on earth. So—so that’s—so I’ve done garden clubs, as I’ve said. Oh, a few—few months ago I went up to Longview and gave a—gave a talk at LeTourneau University, which is a fundamentalist Christian school. About a thousand people in the audience. It was a—an evening lecture. Actually, they showed Al Gore’s movie first, and then I spoke with two other people on a panel about it. One was on my side. The other was the dean there who was an Al Gore
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disliker. And he was a scientist, but he was very much a fundamentalist Christian and he felt that this was a political thing. I’m a honest person trying to express his view. But I really thought that we carried the day with that thousand, because, you know, this is not a matter of religion either, fundamentalism. And—in fact, many, many fundamentalists—religious people are coming over. You know, it—there’s this question of, well, the—the—the—the dichotomy is was the earth put here for our pleasure, and so on. The other way of looking at it is we’re the stewards of this earth. And so—so, you know, there is this kind of split in the—in the fundamentalist community as to exactly how they should address this. And there’s this wonderful
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book by E. O. Wilson, the ants—the ants guy, who’s written a book called Creation, in which he tries to address. And he also comes from the south, as I did, from a Baptist background back there in my childhood, and in his childhood. Neither of us are—are really religious people now. But, you know, we have sympathy because we grew up in that community. We’re not haters of those people. We, in fact, are very sympathetic. But we—we would like them to take care of their planet because their—their generations after them we think could be affected by this, and so forth. So—so I’ve y—I’ve just given—and, you know, American Association of Physics Teachers was—let’s see, where—what—Abilene Christian University, and I went out there with my wife to Abilene, and we gave a talk one Saturday morning, the—m—
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three hundred physics teachers from little colleges and high schools and universities were there, and so I gave a hour-long talk there. And so, you know, just all kinds of groups. It’s been really quite a—a pleasure to do. And of course, testifying that, you know, (?) staffers, I’ve gone up and testified. Not testified, but just invited to stop by the next time I’m in Washington to speak to Senator Cornyn’s staff. And I was assured that he was very, very interested in this, and so on. But of course, I’ve not seen any (?) interest. But maybe he is. He might be. B—and his staff was very cordial to me, and very interested, apparently. Now, I’ll tell you one other little story about politicians, if you—if you’ve got the time for one more anecdotal like the—along these lines. You know, the reason—one of the reasons that my friendship
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with Ralph Cicerone, who gave me that phone call from National Academy, was that at—at—some years ago in the year 2001, Ralph Cicerone was the chancellor of the University of California, Irvine. Now, I knew him before because he’s an atmospheric scientist, as I am, and we had worked together once. So I—I’ve known him. But he went up the ranks in California universities. And—and then he became the president of the academy. So—but at that time in 2001, he was still the chancellor. He was a chemist, worked in atmospheric chemistry, and at that time the—the president of UT, Austin, was a fellow named Larry Faulkner. He’s now at the Houston Endowment. And so Larry Faulkner was called by—who was the secretary of commerce? Don Evans. So Don Evans had just been given the job of secretary of commerce. Bush was just elected. And so Evans found himself with a handful of
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problems immediately. He discovered that inside the Department of Commerce is NOAA, the National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration. And of course, he’s a very nice man, as you can easily imagine. He’s—I mean he’s a very good-natured fellow. And he was Bush’s campaign manager, so often given the Department of Commerce job. So—so he—he wanted—he had been the chairman of the UT Board of Trustees when Bush was governor. So he knew Larry Faulkner very well. So Faulkner calls me and he says, you’re the only guy I can find in Texas who knows anything about this. Don Evans wants somebody to brief him on the subject. So he said I found one other guy, Ralph Cicerone, who’s out at Irvine. He’s going to come—because I know him. We’re both chemists. I know him. So we met, and a
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young—one young fellow from UT, a hydrologist, came also. Yeah, he was an assistant professor, I believe. And so we converged in Austin at one of the big hotels right down by the river. And Don Evans had us up to his suite, and we went up and talked to him about it. And anyway, he—he preempted us. He says, look, I want t—I want you to get—get it straight right now. George Bush takes this very, very seriously. And so, you know, you don’t really have to worry about convincing, because we take this very, very seriously. And so we went on for—for forty-five minutes, and he thanked us, and—and I gave him a copy—copy of this book.
DT: That’ll look good.
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GN: I gave him a copy of this—this book to take back with him for the airplane. And that’s the last we ever heard of it. And I think, you know, what happened was I suspected they were very interested in the beginning. And it was soon after that things happened in Washington that made them turn very deaf ear toward doing anything about climate change.
DT: So this was before President Bush decided not to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant.
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GN: Yes. Yes. It was before that. So I think what happened was that soon after, you know, Cheney brought together all of his energy experts, and they sort of got together and decided what the position of the administration would be, and it was not mine. It was not my position. I think they should do something about it. And in fact—well, you know, we could go on and on about that. I don’t think that’s your purpose here, though, is to have me go on and on about those things—about, you know, what’s happened in the last eight—seven years. It’s not been particularly good. And, you know, other countries are way ahead of us in terms of wanting to do things. Now it turns out, I’m a bit pe—pessimistic. I think that the cost of doing this is actually going to be quite high. And I think that—this is—it makes me very, very sad, because the cost of doing this is not going to be low. And I think it’s easy for
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the Europeans to talk about doing it. I think doing it is another matter. And I think getting China onboard, and getting India onboard is a—in fact, very, very difficult, because they’re developing nations. They say you’ve had your turn, now we want our turn. So I’m rather pessimistic. So I’m telling people, look, if we’re—we’re—we’re going to have an impact, this state is going to be perhaps the most vulnerable state, maybe—maybe second or third.
DT: Well, let’s—let’s see if you can…
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GN: We can come to that.
DT: …if you can lay that out, because you wrote this book in ’95…
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GN: Right. Right.
DT: …called The Impact of Global Warming on Texas. And then I understand that you’re—you’re editing this for (talking over each other).
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GN: We’re—we’re—we’re revising the book now, the same editors, Jurgen Schmandt, who is a re—a—a Pro—Professor Emeritus at the LBJ School. He’s a political scientist at the University of Texas, and we have another editor, Judith Clarkson. So she—the three of us are getting back together. We’re working through HARC, the Houston Advanced Research Center. So they’ve gotten the funding to finance getting a group of people together to have another look at this now thirteen years later. So it’s—so we—I was just in a conference call with them this morning. So—so we’re moving ahead. We hope to have the publication available on the web January 1 for policymaker. So—so in time for the next legislative session, we hope to have this available for policymakers. Not just the government, but, you know,
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industrial leaders, leader—dir—boards of directors of industry and nonprofits, we—we hope to have the information available.
DT: Well, maybe you could help us understand why you think it’s important that India and China and Europe and the United States take this very seriously, climate change, that is by looking at some of the impacts that maybe you identified back in ’95. And then if you could help us track how those impacts and understanding of them has changed in the intervening thirteen years now.
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GN: Well, we—what we have—actually, many of the predictions have essentially been stable through this period. I mean we’ve—I mean what we—what we had was less confidence in the predictions. I think now the confidence has increased. We understand the system better thirteen years later than we did then. In fact, at the time we wrote this book, we did not use the climate models to project the future temperature. We simply said, suppose the temperature goes up two degrees all across Texas. That’s sort of what the climate model said over the next century, a couple of degrees Celsius, or three or four degrees Fahrenheit, temperature goes up that much. So we—we didn’t—we didn’t use the models much in this study. We simply said, okay, of the temperature goes up this much, what happens in Texas? If the precipitation goes up a little bit, how does that work with it? Precipitation goes
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down a little bit, how does that work? And one of the things we found, which was really rather s—bothersome, striking, was that if the precipitation goes down, say ten percent, and if the temperature even stays the same or gets warmer, many of the Texas rivers, there will be years when they do not reach the Gulf, they don’t make it to the Gulf, because the water, the evaporation because of the increased temperature will dominate the inflow into the rivers, and so they just won’t make it to the Gulf. So this will have profound impact on the estuaries, all kinds of things. Even nuclear power. There are nuclear power plants in Texas near the mouths of those rivers. They need that water for cooling. So if those rivers don’t make it to the Gulf, they got to shut down until they do. So, you know, it will be periodic droughts. We expect that. We’ve had them in the past. And now, if—if—if—if—the
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model simulations in recent years suggest that Texas, particularly the western part of Texas, will be much dryer. In fact, it will be dry—dry compared to the 1957 drought in Texas, the drought of record they would call it. That may be the normal in West Texas, west of I-35. That may be the normal climate, the—the drought of the ‘50s, which is much more severe than the Dust Bowl drought of the ‘30s. So—so, see, this has a huge impact if it happens that way. And now the model simulation suggests that in West Texas, the precipitation will go down, temperature will go up. So it’s just as bad as we actually—I mean on of our scenarios was that. So this—this is a—this is a concern. Now, will this happen? I mean are we going to do anything to prevent it? Well, I’m rather pessimistic. I think we better take the position that nothing is going to happen to change this, that it’s likely to happen. So
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we’ve got to worry about what to do to pr—pr—to provide water and other resources in this state during that period. During the next fifty years, we expect the population of Texas to double. And the [Texas] Water Development Board suggests that we’ll probably need about fifty percent more water. Most of the population increase will be in the cities, not out in the agricultural areas, so they use less water. And you can recycle the water. So we’re aware of that, and they know that. But maybe it will be worse—maybe it will be harder to get that fifty percent if you just use today’s climate than if you let the climate—let the temperature warm a few degrees, and cut the rain dow—down a little bit. So we better worry about this. I’m not so sure I believe everything the models are saying. It’s too much down—the models do a really great job at the global level, hemisphere level. By the time you get down to areas like Texas, they’re a lot more unreliable. We just cannot pin down sharply the—the
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answers we would like to get. So—we—not we’d like to get, we would like to get good answers. I don’t know what’s the an—I don’t know what is good and bad here. We want to know the truth. And so right now, down at the—at the area of Texas, the uncertainty is quite large. And, you know, the rainfall from year to year is quite large, too. So, you know, those things go together. It’s hard to predict when the fluctuations from year—the noise is very high, so to speak. So we have—we have big problems for Texas if these things really do happen. And in these thirteen years, our confidence in the models, because of more data, more be—means of testing, and so on, our confidence has grown. And now, this thing about West Texas I just talked about, that was evident in 1990. That was evident in the model simulations. But
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nobody took it seriously because it was just too crude back then. It was there five years ago—2001. There it was in the model simulation. Now it’s in the model simulations. Now they have sh—much finer resolution. The little boxes that the model—or the model may—models make predictions are now finer and finer, maybe twenty or thirty of them in Texas. So now we’re down to a much finer scale because of the increased computing speed and capacity, so that we can make these predictions right at pretty small. But, you know, there’s still a lot of uncertainty. But when you get the same answer you were getting with the cruder and cruder models, it starts to increase your confidence that something was right about that. And now we kind of have a feeling for why it’s happening. The—the overturning air from—
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that rises near the equator and sinks, that’s probably moving a little bit pole-ward some. So we’re going to have more sinking air in this part of the country, and less rising air. Rising air gives you rain. Sinking air, no rain. The air sinks over the Sahara, over the western deserts, over the Gobi Desert, over—and in the other hemisphere, it’s Namibia, it’s Australia. So when the air is around twenty to thirty degrees latitude, north and south, you tend to have sinking air and deserts. If you push north of that, you go into the rainy zones where we have the storms, the tornados, all that stuff that cross our country mostly in the wintertime. In summertime, right in here in Texas, we don’t get anymore fronts. We’re—we’ll see the last front coming to Austin and College Station in the middle of June. We won’t see another one until September. That’s when we’re in tropical. No more fronts.
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Just little afternoon showers occasionally. No more fronts. What could happen, what’s likely to happen is that period will extend, and we’ll become a more tropical climate. But it’s the tropical climate you don’t like, namely, desert—desert. Now it may—so it—the Gulf of Mexico, fortunately, is going to stay where it is in terms of climate change. So we still have all that moist air coming up from the Gulf. But you see, the air coming up from the south in West Texas all comes from Mexico—dry—dry air. But from College Station to the east in the United States, probably more rain. So the Gulf will continue feeding rain in the eastern part of the country, the western part of the country all the way to the coast, less rain. So that seems to be the—this kind of gelling crystallizing thinking about what’s going to happen. So—so…
DT: You’ve—you’ve mentioned some of the—the impacts in West Texas. Could you give us an idea of some of the impacts that—that you and your coauthors are seeing along the coast?
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GN: Well, along the coastal regions, especially from—from, say, Corpus Christi to the east, it may very well be that we get more rain. See, what could happen, it could be very strange, you know, un—unfamiliar to us. You know, if you go inland from Corpus Christi—down in South Texas, if you go inland, it’s—it’s moist, but it’s dry. It’s a very strange thing. They get no rain, but it’s high humidity. The King Ranch, all along there—Brownsville, no rain, but it’s humid. It’s about the worst that you can imagine. No rain, but it’s humid. A lot more of Texas could be like that in coming years—out in the west. Now, to the east, you know, here, the Piney Woods, all this over to Louisiana, could be wetter here. Could be wetter. From about here to the east could be wetter. The tree line—notice—notice as you go west from here,
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every hundred—every hundred miles you drop about ten inches in rain. Here it’s about thirty-six, thirty-seven inches, thirty-eight inches of rain per year. It’s about fifty over in Beaumont. You go to Austin, it’s about thirty. By the time you get to El Paso, it’s about six inches per year. And you probably get it in one day. Right? So this huge gradient of rain across there. And a kind of rule of thumb you can use is, where it rains, it’ll rain more. Where it doesn’t rain, it will rain less. That’s a pretty good rule.
DT: What about—it—I—when I think of the coast, I also wonder about climate change impact on two things. One would be storms, and how extreme they are and how frequent they are. And then secondly, sea level.
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GN: Yes. Those are the two big things.
DT: Can you talk of those two things?
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GN: Those are the two big things. Right now the tropical storms, the hurricanes, typhoons, and so forth, this is a very big controversial subject in meteorology, is how these things change with global warming, and that we’re kind of divided into two camps right now. And it’s not clear. There’s a good theoretical reason to think that they would be more intense. But when you look at the data, the trends, and so on, you don’t see as much of that as you—as you should. So I’m going to leave that one. I think that one’s still in the air. I think that’s a solvable problem, but our models are not quite good enough yet to do it. So I’d say before we—we’d be another five or ten years before we have definitive answers on the storms. It’s almost the same story with the—the sea level. What happens with sea level is if we raise the temperature, well the water’s going to expand. Four thousand meters of
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water, if you heat up some water, one part in four thousand, one meter, you just heat it and it expands a little bit. That’s one. Okay? That’s one thing that happens. Another way that sea level can rise is if ice sheets melt and flow into the—into the ocean. So it ju—sea ice doesn’t count because that’s like the water—the ice floating on your drink, your evening drink, which you’re probably looking forward to by now. So the—the—the ice cubes float, and when they melt, the sea le—the—you—your—your glass does not overflow. So—but when the ice flows into the water from land, like on Greenland, Antarctica, or the mountain glaciers—and the mountain glaciers are retreating. They’re retreating like crazy. All over the world they’re retreating. So they’re just shrinking back. And you can go to the national parks in
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Canada, and Glacier National Park, and you can—you can just walk up the canyons from the—the glacier canyon, the u-shaped glacier canyons, and they have markers that show you where it was in 1900, 1950, and more recently. You can just walk—it’s a mile up the line into the terminus of the glacier. Now you can go up to Banff and—and the—the—some of those glaciers, you can take those walks. It’s really quite disturbing really. And so that’s been going on now for a hundred years. So that water’s going into the ocean. Turns out that’s only a tiny fraction of the total ice on the planet, on these mountain glaciers. It’s not much. The big ice is on Greenland and Antarctica. If all of Greenland melted, it’s about eighteen feet of sea level. Eighteen feet. I think if all the mountain glaciers, maybe a few inches, eighteen feet for Greenland, and if the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, just the west part,
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that’s the low-level part. Antarctica is a big ice dome that covers most of the continent. That’s a hundred meters of w—water—seventy—seventy meters. But if you just look at the West Antarctic I—that’s where we’ve had some of these big icebergs peal off in the last ten years. If—if that one melts, if that part melts, it’s eighteen feet. So you get—so eighteen feet—eight—so six meters—eighteen feet. So if either Greenland or the West Antarctic Ice Sheet goes, we could get eighteen feet of sea level rise. If they both go, it’s thirty-six. So we don’t know, we don’t understand this very well. Our models for the atmosphere and the ocean—don’t forget, we’ve had fifty years of weather forecasting with computers. We’ve had a lot of experience. We’ve known, we’ve figured out how to go in and fix things so that
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we don’t make that error in tomorrow’s forecast. So we have a lot of day-in/day-out discipline and learning. We’re learning now to do the oceans. We’ll be able to predict ocean currents. They do that now, oil spills and things like that, be very important. We’re learning to do that. You have—you need more data to input and run the model forward. So oceans, not too hard to do. Those are equations that we understand pretty well. They’re like the flow over an airplane wing. We can trust those. When we get to the glaciers though, the physics is very complicated. It’s very difficult because what happens is, first of all, the glaciers don’t flow like fluid, they break, they crack. Water runs down the cracks and lubricates down below. The pressure from the ice above melts the ice below. There’s all kinds of crazy things
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that happen in the ice sheets. Furthermore, it’s very hard to get data. It’s a pretty hostile part of the world. Look at the Discovery Channel, or whoever, and you see it’s hard to go up there and take data. Satellites help a lot, and they’ve been telling us about the topography of the top of Greenland and Antarctica. So we can see melting, but it’s not these catastrophic slides. That’s where the danger would be. What’s happening is it’s melting at the edges, sort of melting inland. So we’re—we’re seeing the sea level rise, we’re seeing the melting, but it’s not the kind of flow stuff. We see a little bit of increased flow, but—so we have two problems. Modeling is difficult, observing is very difficult, too. So it’s—it’s a hard place to go. People—you know, you—it’s a hard place to camp out and work there. Antarctica, same way. So we’re in the dark on this. The IPCC just says, oh, we don’t know how to do this,
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so we’ll ignore it. So when they say sea level is going to go up one foot or two feet in the next century, they’re not talking about that. They’re leaving that out. Jim Hansen, who’s always a little ahead of the curve, he—he’s a dear friend of mine. Not a dear, he’s a good friend of mine. He is really very, very concerned about—about sea level and the big ice sheets sliding in. So who knows. It’s probably less than a five percent chance that that would happen. That’s just pure my own seat of the pants guess. Probably less than five percent. But it is there. That chance is there. So you know, we need to redouble our efforts understanding the ice—I mean that would probably only happen, say, over a hundred year period. So if you look at Gore’s movie as it happened in a week. Right, the fl—water’s flowing down New York City, the streets, and The Day After Tomorrow, the same kind of thing, you
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know. Well, that is not in the cards. These processes do take decades to happen. So—you know, I don’t want to be an alarmist. I’m not. Many of the things that we’re talking about are gradual, and it’s generational. People will simply stop living in West Texas. There’ll be ghost towns there just like there are in the high plains. Right? So people will simply stop living out there doing the same old thing. We’re going to stop pulling water out of the Ogallala Glacier in a few years because you keep having to go deeper and deeper to get it. It’s not being replenished. And those little beautiful windmills up in the Panhandle will soon disappear, and they’re going to give way to those giant windmills. And so those ranchers and farmers are going to get along fine, only they’re not going to live there, they’re going to live in
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Florida, and on the land, and somebody’s going to go out and, you know, they’re going to rent their land to those big windmills, and so forth. So, you know, this will be generational. Just at the time that ranching and farming of the wheat and so on out there is going to go under, other things will emerge. So I—I’m kind of an optimistic in that sense. But it will be somewhat generational. And I told them, my food service engineers, look, you know, this is probably not the end of the world for you guys. You know, people live in Minneapolis, people live in Houston. Pretty different climates, right? It’s the adjustment. And if it happens slowly enough, we will adapt, and, you know, life will go on. What you don’t want is some of these catastrophic things, and of course, we’re the—we’re the lucky people in the world,
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you know. There are places in the world where their whole country will be under water, even with a few feet. Fiji and some of those places out in the Pacific are just atolls, you know.
DT: Let me ask one last question about—about the global warming impacts on Texas. We’ve talked about West Texas and the Panhandle, and—and the coast. I’d be curious about the southern reaches of Texas in two respects. One is that I had heard that there have been reports of Dengue Fever, and that one of the projections is that if—if climate changes, that we’ll have tropical disease that will move north. And the second is that—that the impacts on Mexico could be quite severe and then we might have movements of people across the borders and—and that that would be dissettling to—unsettling for a lot of people. Could you speak to those two (talking over each other?)
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GN: Yeah. I—I—I don’t know—I don’t know as much about the health connection as I do some of these other things. We—we were trying to get someone to write a chapter on health. We did not really have one in the first edition of this book. So we—and we’re not having a lot of success. And in fact, part of the call this morning was about that. The person that we thought we had lined up, well, wouldn’t do it. So this is a problem. And I think there are some people in Texas who may know enough about this. And I don’t know enough about Dengue Fever, so I’m not going to—I think I would rather not—not get into that one. What was the other point that you…
DT: Well, just that—that climate may change in Mexico (talking over each other.)
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GN: Oh, yes. Oh, and the migration of people. I did want to mention that. Actually, I—I—this is another little personal anecdote, but let me—let me bring it up. It’s name-dropping, but—but I—I was down a few months ago giving a—a little presentation to the Houston Endowment, which is a very—wh—who called me but Larry Faulkner who’s now the president of the Houston Endowment, who was the president of UT. And so he called me and said, hey, we—you know, we’re interested in climate and we’re wondering what ought to happen, and so we’ve invited Neil Lane, who is former provost at Rice—he’s a physicist also, and he’s—has an office at Rice still. But during the Clinton Administration, he was Clinton’s science advisor for part of the time. He was also the director administrator of the National
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Science Foundation. So I’d never met Neil Lane, so this was a big—a big thrill for me to meet him. And so we gave—we got up and gave a talk, a little small boardroom thing. And—but Neil Lane’s point—and he’s not a climatologist and doesn’t pretend to be. But he knows, he understands what we’re talking about, and he thinks of it more from the policy side than I’m able to. And he said, look, this will be a disaster if we go on and don’t do anything about this. And the—one of the things he brought up he thought was the most important was the migration of people from places where things are hard to places where things are better. So he says, you know, just think about the migration of peoples in the next twenty-fifty years. If things get worse some places, they’re going to moving to where there is water and so forth. They’re going—they’re not going to stay put. Very interesting. So in fact, we did get the money. I didn’t get it, but—but Hark and other people got the money. And you know, the primary purpose of their spending is to promote with—I mean they’re
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financing the next edition of this book basically, and to promote public awareness in schools and other places like that. So that—so I—I was really taken by Neil Lane’s strong statement about migration of people. So you—what you said reminded me of that. So…
DT: We’ve been talking about climate predictions. And I thought—there are two issues that you might be able to help us with that have to do with these projections. And both of them have to do with time. And as I understand it, some of the more recent models are seeing climate changing more rapidly. And I was wondering if that’s the case. And secondly, I—curious if—if you see change at whatever pace possibly happening in a step-wise fashion rather than in a gradual fashion. And then we’ve got a—a second question that’s sort of a similar time related thing that has to do with generations, and how scientific research happens in the context of—of a culture. And—and the generation of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s when climate studies was beginning was—was politically active, and—and in some ways, perhaps similar to what’s happening now where there’s a resurgence of interest in climate change among the—the lay public. And I was wondering if you could pin research interest to public interest.
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GN: Well, let—let’s first talk a little bit about the uncertainties. Really, this is not a precise science at this point because there are uncertainties in the model simulations. And one way of taking into account our uncertainties is to look at the diff—the out—the models that are run in different countries. And so when—when we see a spread of what the res—of their results, well, that’s maybe an indicator of how little we understand the thing. It’s like saying, well, if I—if I have an ailment and I find a bunch of doctors don’t agree with each other, then, you know, I’m—I have—I have some doubts about it. But, you know, you can have—but they—the disagreement may be only about size or about exactly how much warming. All of the models say it’s going to warm. But when you look at the median warming, let’s say,
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over the whole century, the next century, it looks like it would be about three degrees, which would be about five or six degrees Fahrenheit. But I would put on there error bars of something like a margin of errors, something like plus/minus fifty percent. So it co—probably could be as much as four and a half degrees Celsius—double it to get nine degrees Fahrenheit—or fifty percent less—one and a half, so three. So from three to nine degrees, that’s its range. So how do we live with that? And down at the bottom of the three, not too bad. Nine, terrible. Tree lines are going to move, you know, m—the forested areas are going to become plains areas, and so on. So we’re—we’re—we’re having to deal with this uncertainty. And I know
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that successful companies have to deal with risk and these things all the time. That’s what they do. In fact, I heard a speech once by the president of BP Oil Company, British Petroleum. And—I mean his opening line was, you know, this is uncertainty. We have to do—that’s what we do. That’s what our business is all about is dealing with uncertainty. So businesses, they—they crave certainty, but in fact, the successful ones are the ones that know how to deal with uncertainty. And so what you do is make your plans accordingly. You know that it could be as bad as this, or you know, you guard against he worst possible thing. You know what the most likely thing is, and then the least likely thing, well, maybe it isn’t too—you
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know, you—then—then we’re all he—we all end up happy if we overprotect it. Of course, there are questions of money, how much money do you spend, and so on. But I think that sensible engineers and economists, they know how to do those things, so this really should not—they are all the time having to deal with uncertainty. Look at the uncertainty in the economic forecast, for goodness sakes. You know, when you go to step across the street, you’re dealing with uncertainty. We all do it everyday in our lives. When you take an airplane trip, and so forth, you d—you get in your car and drive to the store or drive across the country, you know there’s risk involved. There’s a certain probability it’s not going to end well. But, you know, you—you do what you can, you wear your seatbelt, you do those
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things, and that’s I think the way proceed. By listening to science, paying attention to what they say. When you—when you have some ailment, you ask your neighbor, maybe. But you don’t just ask him, you ask him who’s a good—you know a good doctor on this? So, you know, you do pay attention to the experts. Of course, there’s a range of opinions among the experts. So now how do you go about resolving what’s—what—what to do? Well, the way you do this in—in current science policy is you go to the National Academy of Sciences just as we described earlier, and you ask them to com—convene a committee and find out—assess. Don’t do research, assess what the research community is saying. They do this with—with the hockey stick, but they also do it with a new drug, or a drug like Vioxx, or
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something like that, you know, where there’s some controversial thing that sprung up after the drug has been approved. They will call together a committee exactly like mine, and they’ll go through all the literature, all the studies, and this is constantly happening with these new—all—all kinds of new drugs, and so on. So in medicine, you know, we’re much more familiar. You can do this—and we—the—the academy does it in all kinds of—nuclear power, how dangerous is it? What to do with the waster. Many, many studies like that. So, you know, you don’t know what to do with the waste. I don’t know what to do with it. But, you know, you ask the experts. You vet it; you go through their academy process. It’s a good way to do it. Other—other things you can do, or for example, you can ask the scientific
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societies, for example, the one I mentioned earlier of which is in such turmoil, The American Association of Petroleum Geologists, well, they’re way over on one side. But you can ask the American Geophysical Union. This is an organization that has about forty thousand member. Forty thousand members. It’s geologists out in the field, it’s oceanographers, it’s atmospheric scientists, atmospheric chemists, all k—hydrologists, all these people, about thirty-five thousand of them. And they recently convened a committee to decide on a statement about this problem. The answer, well, I happen to be on the committee. The answer was, IPC got it right. IPCC got it right. Go ask the American Meteorological Society. It’s a c—it’s a society with about twelve thousand members. I was not on that committee. But they have a strong
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statement also. American Association for Advancement of Science, same thing. So, you know, if you go and ask the people who are working on the problem who are involved in it, and, you know, you might ask, well, they’ve got an agenda, though, you know, as long as this is a problem, they get their funding. But I don’t think—I—I think that, you know, science is a kind of a ru—it’s kind of a contact sport. You know? I mean we are friends. But, you know, when it comes to my getting it right, and you getting it wrong, it’s pretty hard to keep me down. And so, you know, there are big prizes to be won. Scientists don’t make a lot of money. They’re upper middle class people, but, you know, they’re not millionaires. I mean they’re not—they’re not people who—who make the kind of money that executives in industry do.
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So they really are not in it for that. They’re in it for other reasons that are very complicated, of course. It’s not all altruism. In fact, it’s probably more ego-fulfillment, and that sort of thing. But that works in the public interest for them to do that because they’re after the truth. They want to find the truth. And as we talked about earlier, you know, there are other skeptics who are trying to knock down the paradigm. Well, that’s healthy. We need them around. Sometimes they’re just goofy, and you know, there’s nothing to it, or they’re representing some special interest. But generally that’s—that’s the way the—the process works. And it really works pretty well, if you think about it. So, you know, I say trust that process. Listen to these guys. They’re not all in agreement. But, you know, you listen to
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them. You listen to what their scientific organizations say, what the academy says, and when they’re all saying the same thing, you know, it’s a little hard to go against that.
[End of Reel 2437]
DT: When we left off, you were explaining how science and policy can deal with uncertainty and risk, and things that just aren’t sure. I was hoping that you might be able to talk about how maybe there is less uncertainty, and more convergence on ideas of h—how fast the climate is changing. What’s the new consensus, and how has it changed from earlier?
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GN: Well, I think that when we look at the—the—the period of the hockey stick, let’s say the last thousand years, things are really pretty steady there. It’s a little bit warmer in the Middle Ages, a little bit cooler in the period centered around 1650, something like that—the Little Ice Age called. And then we see this rapid rise. It’s—it’s n—it’s really a very, very steep curve put on that perspective, as the hockey stick curve suggested. Our curve is a little different, but not much. So we have this really steep incline. This change in one century of one degree Celsius, or one—1.8 degrees Fahrenheit in one century, and even in the last thirty years it’s accelerated. It’s going much faster now. And there have been even periods during the century where it—where it cooled a little bit for a while, for a decade or two, then
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took off again. So does it happen in a—in a smooth, straight line? Well, probably not. And I think we will probably see sort of these stagger steps upward. So that’s one thing. But what about this hundred years compared with natural climate changes that we’re aware of in the past for the whole globe? Well, the Ice Age has really took many thousands of years to build up the ice sheets. Now, that’s governed because there isn’t enough snow up near the poles to actually build up a very big ice sheet very fast. But even the decay. The decay of the ice sheets is much more rapid as they retreat. Even that, though, took four, five thousand years. So the temperature decreased during the last glacial maximum, was maybe four degrees Celsius. And so that took a hundred thousand years to happen. Four
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degrees of cooling took a hundred thousand years to happen. And so that gives you some feeling. Now, we’ve moved up almost one degree Cel—about one degree Celsius in the last one hundred years. Not hundred thousand, hundred years. The decay of the ice sheet went more rapid than that, maybe ten times faster. So—and during the Holocene, during the last ten thousand years, we’ve not seen anything like the rise in the last century. So it—it’s very, very unusual. So we don’t—we don’t know for sure about global scale changes on hundred year periods like this. We—w—so there’s no evidence of it ever jumping that fast—I mean that much that fast. So—but it could have happened, but we don’t—we don’t know of any events like that. So this appears to be a very, very unusual happening. Now, if you look at
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our climate models, we run them with no external changes, no changes in carbon dioxide, no—no nothing. So we just run them to get the stationary climate of a planet if nothing like that were happening. And you can run these things thousands of years and you never get something like the last hundred years. You have to put in the carbon dioxide to make it go up like that. It does rattle. It rattles all over the place. But you never see that happen. So this appears to be an extraordinarily unusual warming, and seems very, very improbable, probably less than five percent, or even—even more than that that—that—that this was just a natural fluctuation of the climate. I mean—and I think our models are now realistic enough to say that, you know, we can look back at the last hundred years, and we didn’t have any big ice sheets or anything like that. We know enough about the climate to know that nothing crazy like that happened. And all of a sudden, this happens. So I think it’s
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very unusual. And all of the other climate changes that people talk about have all happened very, very gradually. When CO2 was allowed to build up to, you know, ten-hundred times what it is now during the dinosaur period, we can explain those on the basis of chemical changes in the surface rocks of the earth, all those s—all those kinds of things. And there are pretty good models for that, but they’re outside the realm of what we’re talking about here. So most of the changes that—that we—that geologists think about, they’re very, very gradual. I mean million years or—or thousands of years. Not a hundred years, not a couple of hundred years. So this is a—a very extraordinary event when we see something this big happen this fast. So I think that’s one of the things that rules out natural variability. You know, now, in the last thirty years, we not only have all these satellite measurements, we have
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measurements of under the surface of the ocean. It wasn’t a warm blob of water that came up and caused this. That would be natural variability. And that does happen sometimes, by the way. There was one that k—that—there was a warming in the Arctic that was natural variability in the ‘40s. So it does happen. But you know, since then, we have such comprehensive data over the entire ocean, not just at the surface. Ships crossing the sea, they drop things down, take measurements down below. We now have moorings everywhere. So it’s really—that’s not n—we cannot—we cannot find any other explanation much as people would like to. And somebody is like—would like to. I’d love to. But we just can’t find any other explanation. So that—that’s the—I think that’s the sol—that’s the answer there. This is a very unusual fast warming period.
DT: And has the understanding of the speed of this change changed from, say, the—over the last five years since the previous IPCC report?
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GN: Hmm—I don’t think so. I—I think, you know, there are some people who are m—more pessimistic about it than I am, such as Jim Hansen. He’s a little more pessimistic, I would say, although I do value his opinion greatly. And he’s worrying about the worst case scenario, of course. And we should, because it would be so disastrous. But I think—no, I think that things are following pretty much what the models would suggest. Pretty much what they would suggest. You know, we haven’t had a volcanic eruption of any serious magnitude since ’92—Mt. Pinatubo. That caused a cooling of the whole planet. And in—the models explained that, too, by the way, very well. The dust veil over the planet. So they do very good job with that. But since then, you know, there’s been nothing to hold it back, so it’s been really going the last twenty—fifteen-twenty years. Really warming. So very
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little dust in the atmosphere to—up—up at that level in the stratosphere to—to cause cool—to—to retre—to retard the warming. And, you know, in fact, we’re even cleaning up the air. Right? The dust that—from in the cities actually reflects back sunlight. It actually works against the greenhouse effect. So when we clean the air, the greenhouse just gets stronger. So that’s another problem that we have.
DW: Going back to the—where we began, which was your discussion how around 1970 or ’71 you began doing research, Goddard Space Center, the development of both high speed computers and satellites, which allowed you to look at infrared images of the earth to look at the clouds to study the planet. And you had lots of data, and you went and did this in scientific institutions.
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GN: Right. Not just me, hundreds of people.
DW: But—right. But in (?) you were—you were (?). Now, at the same time, there’s another picture of the earth that’s not infrared. It’s a regular old snapshot picture. It incites people to take to the streets. They’re responding not to data and—and the input, but to the Cuyahoga River burning, to oil spills off of Santa Barbara, to decidedly tactile, not theoretical things. Was there at that time, do you recall, a disconnect between the research being done by people like yourself at the scientific level and the grassroots environmental movement, because you don’t recall seeing many scientists at the forefront of that movement. I see politicians and actors. Has that changed over thirty years and—or forty years, and has—is gl—global climate change been the issue that’s brought the convergence when you have now actors like Leonardo DiCaprio doing science, so to speak? And can you recall the change in those fifty years (talking over each other)?
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GN: Actors like Al Gore.
DW: Well, so to speak. You can answer that to David—David Todd.
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GN: Yes. So—well, I—I do remember that picture of the earth, the sphere, and it’s a beautiful picture taken by Harrison Schmitt. As I said, we were on a committee together. He actually gave me a poster of that picture—and it did give us a different view. But, you know, if you look back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, there was this great ecological movement. Ecology was the word in those days. And a lot of young people went into ecology. And this, of course, is the study of the populations in—of—of animals in—in their habitats, and so forth. And so there was a great deal of concern about population. Paul Ehrlich and The Population Bomb. So there was this sudden kind of panic about shortages. You know, it was—the ‘70s was the time of the lines at the gas station, and so on. So I think there was a—there was a kind of sudden recognition of the finiteness of resources and all that. And—and of
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course, there were all the other problems that were going on at the time. Civil rights and so on were happening during that period as well. And so—so those things happened. But I think it was mainly an awareness of pollution, and how pollution was affecting our air, the air we breath, the rivers that provide our water. And you remember the—the—the rivers burning right to—the one that’s—that you just referred to. So we—we had to—we had all of those things going on, and—and really air pollution was g—was really out of con—out of control. And waste management was out of control. So people did get busy. It’s amazing to me that people did what they did. Voluntarily, people recycled. I—I just can’t imagine—I mean as a
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pessimist about this (?) we talked about earlier. But people did do that, didn’t they? They did recycle. You—I mean we still do it, but at not—at a much toned down level now. But you know, there was this time that they—you know, they were burning paper and things like that in—in waste disposal plants, and all that kind of thing. So that has—that—that—that was a—a really big movement at that time. And—and, you know, I think it did quiet down because the people who were behind this climate change project, I might call it, were really quite different from the ecologists who were the center of that flare-up of interest in science in the ‘70s. It was—I would say—this is probably an insult, don’t mean it to be—it was more of a kind of a touchy-feely thing in—in those times. I think—I think this group that’s emerged now is a w—a group that’s worried about the globe as a whole, not the local problem
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of the endangered species, which was so much at the forefront in that period. Now, it’s the globe of—as a whole. The habitability of our planet, the very habitability of it is somewhat in question with these things. And I think that that scientists, many of them, like myself, who might have been touched by the ecology movement, we’re really mostly hard scientists. You know, we didn’t get involved in that stuff. We were in our ivory towers, David says. And so, you know, we were—I was working on elementary particle physics, that sort of stuff, you know. But I—I did—I did worry that, you know, I’ve wanted to do something that was a little more relevant, as we used to say. So—so there was a difference between these two movements. And the IPCC, every per—periodically, when it—when it does do their—their five-year report, there is a flare-up of interest. But I think this time, it really was like a resonance, it
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was so strong. You know, the confluence of the IPCC report, with Al Gore’s movie, and with, you know, more and more alarming reports in the news. You know, other things like the melting of the big—those big ice sheets off the coast of Antarctica, those ice sheets that spread out over the ocean, and then when they broke away—there was one the size of Rhode Island that broke away, I mean these things are so visual that they really do capture people’s attention. And so I think those—and—and the polar bears. You know, the—the—the very dramatic depictions of polar bears. I know Andrew Revkin at the New York Times, that’s one of his pet things is the—the—the polar bears, the disappearance of them, the potential disappearance of the polar bears and other—so he—I think he kind of dates back to that—that s—that—that ecology movement. I (?) lot of ecologists now have gotten into this problem,
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too, which they should be, because you know, this is going to have a big affect on ecology. Just as local pollution and other things did back in the ‘70s, now we see that ecologically and (?)—you know, we’ll have a chapter in the book. We did then, and we’ll have another one about ecology and how it will be impacted by global warming if—if this continues. And we already see some effects of it. Clearly the—in the polar regions, you know, we expected warmth. We’ve know this for twenty years. That as the warming proceeds, it will be much more in the polar regions than it is in the middle latitudes and the tropics. Tropics will be less. Middle latitudes will be about like the global average, and the poles will be more. So we’ve known this would happen. Since the ‘70s when I did my first papers, we knew this was going to be the case. But, you know, it didn’t seem enough to bother with at that point. So I
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think there’s a—a different kind of scientific culture that’s involved in this work compared with the—you know, the—one of the—the—the hard scientists back in the ‘70s were worried about a different thing. One that I can remember was there was a huge movement. And I actually spoke on a Earth Day, I think, back in that time about the antiballistic missile. That was a—that was the rage back in the ‘70s, the ant—the ABM’s, and could they work or could they not. Well, the physicists were involved in answering that question, would these things work or not work, and what is the effect of a nuclear bomb, and so on and so forth. So—so I was actually giving s—a few talks here and there. Not—not like now. But, you know, among students and that—that sort of thing. So…
DT: (?)—is this the concern that I think Carl Sagan brought up about nuclear winter?
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GN: Nuclear winter was yet another thing that—that w—that came up. Excuse—let’s turn—can we stop just a second?
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GN: So the question is about Carl Sagan and the business of nuclear winter.
DT: Well, some people dismiss global warming by saying, ah, but we had nuclear winter, and (talking over each other).
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GN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. When another fad comes along, right, right. Well, I remember when that happened. I was here at Texas A&M at the time, and there were—there were—there were people who were doing climate models. And I don’t know why they got into that. But they got into nuclear winter, and the idea was, well, if we had a—if there was a nuclear exchange between the Soviets and the Americans, this could throw a huge amount of debris into the stratosphere. This would screen out sunlight and it could lead to m—millions and millions of deaths, and perhaps even destroy all life on the earth. So there was this question, if that happens, how long would it take the earth to go into a deepfreeze, and all these kinds of things? So actually, I remember when that happened. And then there were some general circulation model—big model experiments that sort of showed it. And, you know, I—I got one of my students, and we just did the simulation with our toy model, and we got essentially the same thing. It would cool. If you screen out the sunlight, the place gets cold. Right? But I thought that this was such a political
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football, Carl Sagan actually called me one time to ask if I would be interested in working with them on all this, and so on. And I was rather edgy about it. And one of his former students, a guy by the name of Jim Pollack who worked at Jet Propulsion Lab, then he called me a few times about it, and—and—but I just sort of went away. I never got involved in it. But that—that was a—an interesting period. And there were a bunch of Russians. You see, this would—did have some impact on foreign relations. The Russians got very interested in it, too. And there was one particular Russian involved by the name of Alexandroff. And Laura and I were living in Maryland at that time, and he actually came to our house. I’ve been into his apartment in Moscow. And it was very interesting. He was very, very interested in nuclear winter, and what this all meant, and so on. And he was doing simulations in
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Moscow with a—a general circulation model that had been borrowed from the United States. And you—you see, I think they were both—both sides were trying to make something political out of it. The Russians were trying to say, you see, those Americans, you know, this could happen. And—and on our end, it was the sort of far left who were saying, no, look what could happen. You know, they were—it was kind of allied with these Russian scientists who were saying the same thing. And in my v—you know, my view of this was kind of a side issue with it. If there was a nuclear exchange, that’s pretty bad. I don’t worry about global winter. So—so that was my—my take about it was this. (?) like there’s far more serious things than that. Think of the radioactivity. You’re going to glow after this. Who cares if it’s cold. So that was my take. Well, I l—final—the finish of the story is, Alexandroff disappeared
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in Spain. He was in Madrid at a meeting, and he disappeared off the face of the earth. No one knows what happened to him. His wallet was found in a trashcan, and there are all stories to this day. He had many friends in this country that his wife has not seen hide nor hair of him since. This happened in the late ’70—whe—what would you say? We were still at Goddard, so wasn’t here—we weren’t’ here yet—about ’84 when that happened—’83-’84. But he came to our house many times. I always suspected he was KGB. But—and so—but you know, we were good friends anyway. I didn’t let that bother me. So—so that was a very—that—sort—sort of a kind of an interesting personal twist on the end of that story. He was the gl—he was the—the global warming guy in Russia, and he disappeared. So there were several possibilities. One is the KGB had him killed. Another is the CIA had him killed, which was—nobody knows. Nobody knows. I do think…
DT: We—you were just talking about the interesting interplay that you had with scientists from the U.S.S.R. And I was interested in hearing your comments about—about climate science as being a—a very collaborative effort in that it involves people from many different countries as well as many different disciplines. And (?) that’s been one of the spin-offs from this whole research effort that—that you’ve had to somehow collaborate so heavily.
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GN: Hm-mmm. Yeah. Actually, I can tell—I can tell you a little personal story, again. In 1976 was my first trip to the Soviet Union. And this was an initiative from President Nixon. What he did was—I don’t know if Kissinger was involved. Anyway, there—there—there was a working group between the Soviet Union and the United States on pollution and climate change. 1976—long time ago. And so there was a group of people that were assembled—Americans—a delegation to go over. I’d only been in this field a very short time. And somebody cancelled and couldn’t go, and they asked me to go. It was the most magnificent opportunity ever. So I went. And we went to Tashkent, which is in Uzbekistan. That’s where the meeting—first we were in Moscow. Then we went—it was a fifteen-day trip. We were over there for—my first time going to Europe. So we go to Uzbekistan, Tashkent, and we—so
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we met all of these Russians who were working on these things. And, you know, they were—some of them were really quite good. I would say the level of science was much lower than the United States. But this was an effort by Nixon to try to melt some of the ice between these two country. It was really quite an interesting thing, something we usually don’t think of Nixon for doing. Be he did. And so he did this. And so there—this working group went on for many years, well into the Carter years. And so—so there was this—this warming up on both sides. And a lot of friends were made, and a lot of exchange. M—not very many Russians at that time could come to the United States. In fact, very few. Anybody that got to come to the United States, you’d suspected them—right—of being a KGB agent. And so
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occasionally, you know, it would almost obvious, they were so stupid. Not stupid, but, you know, they didn’t know anything about the science. They were out of place. So—so there—there was this—this attempt to warm up the relations. And so you can do this with sports, and you can do it with science, and there are a few other things like that. So this did happen, and it did go on. And I’ll never forget, in the Carter years, I was again over there on one of these trips, and we were in Soviet Georgia—Tbilisi. And we—we were having a—a banquet. And everybody was getting drunk and they—we—we were having toasts, and all this stuff, this lovely gor—Georgian wine. And one of the toa—w—the—the—it was rather embarrassing for all of us because Jimmy Carter was just hammering like crazy on the Soviets.
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And here we were, among all these friends who were so kind to us, and so nice. And you know, it wasn’t all political. I mean there was a lot of affection and—and concern for people. And so we were there. And I, afterward, expended a lot of effort trying to help some refuzniks get out of Russia. Anyway, so we were there, and I remember that there were—there was an apology. One of the—one of the toasts and speeches was, please, don’t think of us—don’t think of the two governments, think of us, because at the—at the moment, you know, the two governments are wrestling a little bit. But think of us and our—our relationship, and the science, and so on, what we have in common. So—and so it—it—wa—it’s—it was a very interesting thing. So now the IPCC, I think, while I’m not so much traveling with them. I mean we l—the 2001 one, we actually had a workshop here at Texas
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A&M in preparation for the report. And a lot of people came from foreign countries to—to be here. But—and so, you know, the traveling thing, going from country to country, they try to, you know, s—pass it around. I think that friendships are made, and there are—there is the possibility of opening some of these gulfs. But I do—I will tell you this. A very good friend of mine was the chairman this time of the IPCC. That’s Susan Solomon. And she’s a—a wonderful scientist. And anyway, she—she told me afterward that during the meetings, at the final stages, you know, when the politics gets mixed with the science, she said the Chinese were really mean. They questioned her integrity. They did all these things. So, you know, the—the only enemies of getting anything done were the United States, China, and India. That
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was about it. Maybe Australia at that time. They’ve changed their tune now that they got a new president. But—but the—so sh—you know, the Chinese were really playing hardball. But they gave in in the end on the report. So the Chinese were playing hardball. I mean they do not want to change their acceleration. And who would blame them, you know? But they can’t get involved in the science. You can’t turn the science back. I mean if you want—maybe that’s—that’s a different issue, you know. It’s a—that’s a—that’s what we call a normative issue as opposed to a positive. Positive means the facts, the science. Normative means, well, what should I do about it? Or who’s to blame? Or some—that’s something else. You go—you don’t want that to contaminate what the facts are about the science. So…
DT: Well, trying to think about what we could go—go and talk about next, I—I—I’d suggest this. We’ve—we’ve talked about some of the—the academic and technical aspects of your study of the climate. And then some of the geopolitical and economic issues as well. I was wondering if we could bring it to maybe a second—third aspect here and talk about it as a personal interest of yours. Is there a way you could explain to us why you personally care about this climate research? I mean aside from being a researcher and professor, why does this matter to you? And secondly, how would you explain it to your children or grandchildren about why it should matter to them
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GN: Yeah. Well, I came into this looking for good problems to work on. So when I went to the National Center for Atmospheric Research in 1974, I wanted to make a career change to something that would be more interesting and—but something also relevant. So relevant. But for—as soon as I got there, of course, I started working on ice ages, which is pretty irrelevant. I’m sure, in—you know, in the way we would think today, it’s not an alarmist issue at all. In fact, I didn’t really get into it for that reason. But it does grow on you. You—even the problems become more and more interesting as the science progresses. And so I’m a guy who gets bored. I can’t stay on the same thing for more than a few year—five years maybe. I’ve got to change and do something else. So as you change, you know, you—you get—got involved in the space program. But then the global warming thing just kept coming. Jim Hansen’s influence. I was very skeptical about it in those days, twenty years ago, twenty-five. Very, very skeptical about it. Even though he and I were very good friends, I was very skeptical, and I—I didn’t see that you could eliminate natural
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variability. But then, you know, as it becomes more and more evident that something is happening, my first talks around here in Texas were just to inform people of the situation. And I was somewhat conservative—reserved, though. But, you know, this is something we ought to be paying attention to. Maybe not something we should go out and stir up a lot of new projects, and so on. You pro—more science is needed to better understand it so we will know whether this is important or not. But that time I felt the uncertainties were so large it was not worth doing something. But as time goes on, you become more and more convinced. And I think it isn’t just sociology that’s c—you know, nobody wants to be the outlier. Right? It’s not just that. It’s that the evidence does become more compelling. All the pieces seem to point in the same direction. All these pieces that seem to be more or less independent of one another all point in the same direction.
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You know, you find out that the increase in carbon dioxide actually is caused by the fossil fuel burning. You can tell from the isotope composition of the carbon. It’s not old carbon—I mean it’s not new carbon, it’s old carbon. It’s carbon that was buried and the carbon-14 all decayed out of it million years ago. It’s old carbon that you see that’s new in the atmosphere. It’s coal burning and oil burning that’s doing it. It’s not wood, it’s coal and oil. That’s what’s—that’s what’s g—being burnt and left in the atmosphere. So you become more m—as these different pieces of information come in from all different directions—the tree rings, the ice cores, the sea cores, all of it seems to point in the same direction. So then, well, so here I am. I’m not a strong do-gooder, but on the other hand, I do think that university professors and
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scientists have an obligation, if they have time, you know, and if it isn’t going to destroy their careers—and by the way, that is a danger. People who go public too young can have their careers destroyed. Carl Sagan suffered from this terrifically. I mean he never made it in the National Academy of Sciences because he was too popular. Scientists don’t—they resent that kind of behavior. So it’s okay if you get to be my age and you do it. So you know, I’m just following norms here. But you see—so, you know, you don’t—you don’t do that. I would not have dreamed of doing that a long, long time ago. But, you know, as you get older, you have a science reputation for having accomplished a number of things. Now, that makes it legitimate for you to talk about these things out in public. So the science culture is
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kind of peculiar that way. They don’t like people bailing out. They don’t want people who are publicity seekers. So, you know, by—by this time I’m not a publicity seeker. I’m happy to do this. And I never asked to do something like this, I’m always asked to do it. And I think most people who you see doing it are in that category, except for the skeptics. The skeptics in global warming are—they’re—and it’s the same ones over and over again. You might notice, they’re always there. They’re always at the phone ready to be—and they take—they take lessons on debating, and so on. They’re very good at it. It’s only a handful of guys. Same ones over and over. There’s this guy at University of Virginia, and there—there’s a guy at Huntsville,
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Alabama, there—two of them there. And they’re, you know, a half a dozen people, and they’re always the same guys. Same guys. And you don’t see the same guy on the other side, because there are thousands of us. So—so that’s—that’s another little sociological issue there. Some of them for religious purposes, you know. They’re—they do—they don’t believe. I know two people who are very religious. And they’re good scientists, outspoken, but they’re skeptics because they really just don’t believe that the earth is changing. They just don’t believe this can happen. So—that happens. And—and I know one fellow who’s a very, very good scientist at MIT. I don’t think I want to use his name. But he’s a very reputable scientist. But he has staked out this position of skeptic more than twenty years ago-twenty-five
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years ago. He’s—no, it’s all—it’s all hoax. It’s not true. And he’s on TV every opportunity he gets, writing up ads in the Wall Street Journal and so on. Very good scientist. I know him very well. He had a marvelous career up until about that time. And in my opinion, he’s really over the top now.
DT: Well, and—and…
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GN: And he’s alienated all—almost all of his old colleagues, which is a shame. I once had an argument with this guy about smoking causing cancer. He’s a—he’s a chain smoker. And it was in our living room in Maryland. We were having a party there, and he was there. He and I stood off and had a—had a—had a debate with a lot of people standing around with their drinks, you know. And we were debating as to whether cigarettes were bad for your health. And he took the position that it didn’t—they were not bad for your health. And as far as I can tell, he still smokes. Same guy, the famous skeptic from MIT. Hope he doesn’t see this.
DT: Well, some people are…
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GN: He’s a very, very smart man. And he can beat me—by the way, and the debate in my roo—in my—in our living room, he won the debate because he’s so much smarter than I am. I mean he’s a brilliant guy, and very, very astute at debating. You know, de—good debaters, that—that’s not—ha—it has nothing to do with their expertise, it’s their expertise in debating that matters. You know, they know how to pull strings, and you know, put your buttons, and—they’re good.
DT: Well, speaking of what—what matters, maybe we can—we can close this out by—by trying to get some comments from you about why this should matter for the next generation. And maybe you can use someone that’s near to you like your children or your grandchildren
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GN: Sure. Grandchildren. Yeah. I do have grandchildren.
DT: How would you explain what you’ve done to them?
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GN: Well, they’re a little too young to explain to right now, but—but the…
DT: Or why, maybe.
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GN: But why. Well, I do think the earth will change, i—i—if we go on like this and we’re likely to for at least fifty years. Probably nothing will be done for forty, fifty years, nothing significant. So this warming is going to continue. And even when we straighten up and do it and—and level it off and stop doing this, it’s still going to warm a little longer, because than investment in the whole system, and it’s going to keep on warming another half degree. So I think that the planet will change, and I think that as Neil Lane emphasized, and I told you earlier, the migration of peoples, the dislocation. The thing we’re seeing now coming into—from Central, South America, Mexico, that will just increase. And so I think that—that, you know, there w—the—the—we don’t like to see change. It’s expensive. It’s—it’s—it’s harmful to people. When we—we’re used to a certain lifestyle, we live—we—w—place is
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important to us. We don’t want to have to move, all those things, although in our generation, you know, people do move, our friend here from California to Texas, and so on. But still, I—I grew up in—you know, I’ve lived all over the country. So—you know, but—but most people don’t like to change. And we will see changes in—in the—in the Midwest and—I mean out in the plain. The Midwest and the eastern part of the country is going to do fine. But we will see migrations of people even in this coun—even in—in the United States. So styles of living will change, and so forth. I think that water will become very, very expensive. Energy is going to become very, very expensive. Other things that will—are going to happen. You know, we will be harmed in Texas, and we even mention this in this book. You know, Texas produces an enormous amount of energy. This is the energy capital of the world, Houston,
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Texas. And so we produce a lot of energy and chemicals here in this state. Well, if you move that industry—we—so we’re the villains. We’re the villains. But suppose you take one of those industries, one of those coal-fired power plants and move it over to Mississippi. The effect on the global environment is the same. It doesn’t matter. CO2 stays in the atmosphere a hundred years. So it doesn’t matter whether it originated in Mississippi or Texas. So Texas is vulnerable in this respect, too, because we’re the leaders in producing energy, and chemicals, and so on. So we’re going to get hammered by ignorant people for something that really won’t make any difference if you move it somewhere else. And so, you know, and we will—we will be facing some really stupid positions in the next ten, twenty years, such as bio-fuels and this taking corn—you know, taking corn out of our thing and—and, you know, d—growing something else that you can make fuels out of. That—that’s a loser. That is never going to work. But it’s very easy for politicians to pander to that in Iowa, so on, both sides. It’s—this is nonpartisan. They all do it. So—so, you know,
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that—that is a—you know, there will—there will be a lot of dislocations and—and unhappy situations, I think, in—in—in—in coming years. So I think it’s—look, we—I like it the way it is. And maybe I’m very conservative in that sense. Maybe that’s the conservationist in me. I don’t like to see these things change. I don’t like to see ecology change. I like—I appreciate the world that we live in right now. And of course, geographers will tell you that the way it is right now is not the pristine world. We know that. But still, we hate to see it change. Right? I mean even the redwoods have been influenced for hundreds of years by the impact of people. But still, we don’t want to see it eroded anymore than it has. I don’t. So I do have a little spiritual part of me that—that says I—I like nature the way it is. I used to
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when I grew up I used to walk all the trails in the Smokey Mountains, and things like that. So I—you know, I appreciate these things, as your—many of your conservation friends have done. And I hate to see rivers go, like this Goodbye To a River, you know. I’ve—I’ve read some of those books, and you do hate to see these things change. So, you know, there is a—there is a bit of a spiritual thing to it that I can’t m—you know, I can’t really take a way. So—so there’s something there for me.
DT: Well, let me—let me ask one last question.
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GN: I usually don’t talk a lot about that in my—in my talks, by the way.
DT: (?)—but I—I (talking over each other)
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GN: But my wife and I do.
DT: Do—yeah, to the extent that we can at things that are important to you, that’s—that’s always good. And—and I would ask one last question. You mentioned your—you—your walks in the Smokies. We often ask people if there’s a favorite place that they can recall they—that, you know, gives them great joy to—to go to, or remember visiting. And I was curious if that (talking over each other)
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GN: Hm-mmm. Right. Well, there are places that I—that I certainly remember going to in nature, and the Smokies would be one of them. I have a daughter who lives in Eastern Oregon. You step out on her front porch and there’s snow-covered peaks right—right in the summertime. So we like to go out there in the summertime and go up to the top of the mountain, and things like that. So—so—and I’ve spent that time in Colorado. I used to go there a lot on visits, and so I like doing those things, too. So they—they do bring back a very pleasant memory. But, you know, in fact, I like being right here. I’m very happy being right here. I love this town, this place, this state. I—and I love some of the crazy antics that our Texas friends do. I—I laugh at them, and I’m one of them. But I do. And both of us, we—my
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wife and I have—we’ve been here these twenty-one and a half years. We—we love it. And I don’t want to see it change. So that’s part of it, too. I want to be able to go to the Hill Country and see it the way it is now. Go to the Pedernales, and see it the way it is—has been for the last twenty years. I want to see that continue, for my kids, and—and so on.
DT: Well, well-said. It—is there anything you’d like to add?
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GN: No, I’m happy. I appreciate you coming. I’m actually quite flattered. And I’m sorry I s—I’m—I’m about as verbose as a—anyway, but that’s—that’s so typical of me. I—I talk a lot.
DT: No. Thank—thank you very much. We appreciate hearing you.
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GN: You’re welcome. You’re welcome.
[End of Reel 2438]
[End of Interview with Gerald North]