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    November 04, 2011 | 11:20 AM

    Answering Your WCRP Questions

    © 2009 Flickr/Larry Johnson cc by 2.0

    Last week, I attended the World Climate Research Programme Open Science Conference, a gathering of more than 1900 scientists from 86 countries.

    The conference participants discussed a wide range of topics from the recent heat wave in Russia, to how drought might affect farming in Africa, to how Arctic sea ice cover responds to winter storms.

    I wanted to know what questions you would ask the scientists, and you delivered! So now, here are a few answers...

    Q. Are we starting to better understand how increased cloud cover will influence the global heat budget?

    Sandrine Bony said that climate scientists have made significant strides in understanding clouds since 1979. There are still uncertainties, but it's important to note that these uncertainties are more important at a regional scale than at a global scale. And overall, clouds won't stop the inexorable trend of global warming - only cutting carbon pollution can do that.

    Q. Have we passed the tipping point?

    First a quick definition: tipping points are thresholds that mark a dramatic change from one state to another. Think of a completely ice-free Arctic Ocean, or the permanent shift of a species from one region to another.

    There are a lot of different kinds of tipping points, and we're closer to some of them than others. One speaker suggested that the Amazon rainforest has already tipped toward a permanent transition to a drier savannah habitat. Tipping points in permafrost - frozen ground that contains vast amounts of carbon - could be reached as early as the 2020s. Tipping points for the Antarctic ice sheet, however, are probably many decades away, if not centuries.

    Unfortunately, tipping points often can't be detected until after we've crossed them -- meaning it's important to stay as far back from the edge of the cliff as we can.

    Q. Is there a role for religious or ethics education in the fight against climate change?

    Bruce Hewitson made a case for ethics education. He talked about "climate services": climate knowledge and expertise packaged to help specific user communities make decisions and solve problems. Dr. Hewitson argued that climate services are only useful if they bridge cultural differences (especially different value systems), and if they include a measure of accountability. For example, who is responsible if an incorrect climate projection leads to bad management decisions?

    Q. Why don't climate scientists get more respect?

    The public conversation in the U.S. tends to be dominated by climate deniers, but scientists get more respect than you might think! Lindene Patton, of Zurich Financial Services, told scientists at the conference that the business community was "begging" for their help. We also heard from former Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, who talked about cities around the country that are working with scientists to develop climate action plans.

    Q. Why aren't scientists doing more to refute climate deniers?

    There are many reasons scientists don't engage in public fights with deniers. Some scientists aren't good at communicating with the public or feel they don't have time. Some scientists feel science and advocacy don't mix. Some institutions restrict or discourage communication with the public. And some scientists aren't willing to put their personal lives or their families at risk. Deniers can be very aggressive, and their tactics range from personal attacks in emails to "things left on your doorstep."

    I flipped the question on its head and asked one scientist why he does engage with deniers, despite the inconveniences and risks. He said it's partly because climate change is such an important issue. But perhaps just as important: he's irked by the false debate presented by deniers. The science is clear that we have a problem, and now it is up to society to decide what to do about that problem. Hiding from those choices behind a so-called "lack of science" is inexcusable.

    And so I wrap up this Q&A with a question for you: What are you doing to fight back against that false debate, and why? Because this isn't just a fight for scientists to take's a fight for everyone.

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