It’s easy to talk about the weather. But it’s entirely another matter to talk about “climate change.”
It’s also easy to confuse the two. Some well-meaning person in your office may complain about the intolerably hot days over Memorial Day weekend this year and cite as proof positive of global warming. But another colleague may remind everyone about the snowstorm that hit central New Jersey in late October. If they are truly clever they will turn the title of the Al Gore documentary on global warming on its head and call that October snowstorm an “inconvenient truth” for the global warming alarmists.
The truth is that the science behind the concept of climate change is unbelievably complex. According to the National Weather Service, climate change is a long-term shift in the statistics of the weather, broadly caused by a combination of natural variability and the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels. The body of evidence supports a connection between human activity since the Industrial Revolution and global warming. But, as with most complex science, the truth is in the details that many scientists are working to understand.
As it turns out, exploring those details and pursuing the truth about climate change is a special province of Princeton and the Route 1 corridor. The heft and the breadth of climate scientists clustered who are studying these and other phenomena is comparable to nowhere in the world, suggests Steve Pacala, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and director of the Princeton Environmental Institute, an academic program at Princeton University.
Although not sure of the exact numbers, he says, “The last time I counted, there were hundreds of people who work on climate change, including PhDs, post docs, and scientists.”
Out on Route 1 are two important climate engines, one the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL), an arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), whose metier is developing mathematical models of all the factors that affect climate. Next door is the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, which aims to develop a source of energy that doesn’t damage the environment.
Princeton University, meanwhile, has one of the most extensive and capable investments in climate science of any institution, suggests Pacala, with faculty in departments ranging from ecology and evolutionary biology, geoscience, and civil and environmental engineering to the Woodrow Wilson School and the politics department, which are concerned with policy implications.
In addition to the Princeton Environmental Institute, the university also hosts a number of related interdisciplinary programs, including atmospheric and oceanic science, the Woodrow Wilson School’s program in science, technology, and environmental policy, and a formal joint institute with the GFDL, with about 100 scientists with appointments at both institutions.
With regard to the climate models created by the laboratory, Pacala says, “Princeton faculty are directly involved in the design, creation, analysis, and use of these models for scientific purposes, and the lab has many people who teach courses and advise students at Princeton.”
Via its Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment the university is also in the business of finding practical solutions that enable sustainable energy production and the protection of the environment and global climate from energy-related change.
Founded in 2008 with a $100 million gift from international business leader and Princeton alumnus Gerhard R. Andlinger, the center includes research in energy efficiency, renewable energy, pollutant detection and remediation, the impact of energy and land use, the social science of energy and the environment, waste heat recovery, transmission, nuclear energy, energy storage, clean and efficient fuel combustion, carbon capture and storage, energy systems analysis, and green manufacturing.
Then, across the street from the university on Palmer Square, is Climate Central, with a primary goal of sharing solid science about global warming with the American public. Climate Central is headed by a Princeton and Yale-trained physicist who has made a career of presenting complex scientific subjects to the general public. With climate change such a complex and — for some — controversial subject, Paul Hanle may now have ascended to his most challenging professional role.
Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory
Brian Gross, deputy director of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, suggests that when most people think of climate change, it is about things getting hotter. But today scientists view climate far more broadly, looking at the earth’s processes as a system. “Earth system science takes physical climate, which has historically been the subject of climate research, and adds the interaction of climate and ecosystems,” says Gross.
At GFDL scientists develop complex mathematical models, run on huge supercomputers, that attempt to understand the physical and biogeochemical processes and interactions that describe the behavior of solar radiation, the atmosphere, the oceans, and land ecosystems and their relationship to the earth’s climate.
“One way to think of climate,” says Gross, “is that it sets the likelihood of any particular thing. If you look at seasonal changes of climate, it is far more likely in winter that the temperature will be 40 degrees, but that doesn’t mean that now and then it won’t hit 75.”
The difference between meteorology and climate is the first focuses on the short term and the second on seasonal, interannual, decadal, and centennial timespans.
The lab’s models tease out climate changes due to natural causes and those that may be attributable to human activity; and these models make predictions — over seasons, decades, and hundred-year time scales — regarding hurricanes, seasonal variations, ozone recovery, drought, precipitation, sea-level rise, El Nino-La Nina cycles, global ocean circulation, and chemical transport in the atmosphere that affect both climate and air quality.
By comparing the models’ simulations of past climate changes with actual climate records, the scientists get a sense of whether the models are on the right track and can be legitimately used to predict and project future climate.
Another area important to the study of climate change and hence the GFDL’s models involves determining the impact of the atmosphere’s composition on climate, especially two components: greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane, which absorb the heat escaping from earth’s surface and thus heat the earth’s surface and the lower atmosphere; and aerosols — “little bits of things,” according to Gross — that may come from fossil fuel combustion, refuse burning, and industrial pollution as well as from natural causes like sea spray, volcanos, forest fires, and dust. Aerosols are also created and modified by chemical processes in the atmosphere.
Aerosols, which can be damaging to human health, can actually shade the earth because some forms of aerosols reflect sunlight. Most aerosols therefore counter the effects of greenhouse gases, though those we call “soot” are dark colored and hence absorb sunlight and heat the atmosphere.
Gross observes, “It’s ironic — the very thing that may be mitigating global warming is something we may want to get rid of for health reasons.”
The GFDL does quite a bit of research on aerosols. One area is modeling how various natural and human-induced emissions contribute to aerosols around the globe and how other aerosols are produced by chemical reactions in the atmosphere.
To develop such a model requires knowledge of the sources of aerosols, their emission rates, and human contribution, and GFDL scientists are working on delving into some of the uncertainties around these variables. Other scientists are studying the physical, chemical, and optical properties of different aerosol types, and still others aerosol effects on radiation.
“If you start from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, you can see how increasing emissions impact the historical record of temperature changes over the globe,” says Gross, adding that trying to figure out past emissions is a science in itself. Some of this work is done at the global monitoring division at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, which takes periodic measurements of carbon dioxide.
The geophysical lab’s scientists are trying to figure out the quantitative impact of aerosol emissions on climate, in terms of their direct effects by shading the earth, and indirect effects by way of changing how clouds form, which may in turn modify how much precipitation can form.
The lab also studies the radiation coming into the earth system and what happens to it based on the atmosphere’s composition.
Also playing an important role in climate and hence in the lab’s predictive models are the earth’s oceans. Scientists need to understand how the oceans transport heat and how they exchange heat and carbon dioxide with the atmosphere.
“We’re all worried about the atmosphere because we live in the atmosphere. The ocean, on the other hand, has so much inertia to it, it can absorb more heat than the atmosphere,” says Gross, who adds that what is probably the most-used global ocean model in the world was built at the lab.
An important ocean phenomenon is that its waters transport heat, as does the atmosphere. The Gulf Stream, for example, moves north the ocean water that was heated by the sun in the tropics and is the source of the climate that has allowed palm trees to grow on Great Britain’s southern coast.
“The atmosphere and the ocean can move that heat,” says Gross, “and where they move the heat determines what the overall climate is going to be.” He notes that if the heat were not redistributed, the poles would be frozen all the time, and Great Britain would have the same climate as Canada, which is about the same latitude.
Today scientists are also building models of the land ecosystems and of the cryosphere, which comprises the sea ice of the polar regions and the land ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica. “We want to understand how land ice sheets behave so we will know about their melting and a potential rise in sea level,” says Gross.
One area of research is the ability of moisture in the soil to affect climate. The energy to evaporate moisture from soil comes from heat in the atmosphere, hence evaporation serves to cool the air. If the soil is dry and has no moisture to evaporate, then no heat is removed from the atmosphere; droughts, therefore, can bring with them very hot weather.
Soil moisture also factors into the type of vegetation that grows in an ecosystem, which affects its albedo or reflectivity, which in turn affects climate.
Another important feature of the climate system is polar ice, and one area being investigated is whether an ice-albedo feedback loop exists whereby polar regions might be warming more quickly than the rest of the globe.
The theory is that as the amount of ice diminishes because of warming, the areas of water, which are darker and absorb more solar radiation, increase. The resulting increase in water temperature will reduce the ice further, creating darker ocean areas and so forth — a feedback loop.
“This is one of the ideas behind what might cause global warming to be amplified at the poles, and we’re trying to figure out if that’s actually true and quantitatively what is the response of the polar region to global warming,” says Gross, adding that changes in clouds at the poles may also contribute to the overall response in the polar regions. “We’re trying to explore practically every relevant process that might impact climate,” he says.
Gross grew up in Rockville, Maryland, where he says he “was a weather weenie from the get go.” His father was an attorney for the Federal Communications Commission and worked on enforcement of the “fairness doctrine,” which mandated that opposing political candidates were to have equal time on broadcasts.
He graduated from the University of Maryland in 1983 with a bachelor of science in physics and astronomy. After what he describes as “a detour into astrophysics,” he returned to the physical sciences, earning a master of science and a doctorate in atmospheric science at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
His first position was as a research associate at the Goddard Space Flight Center. Then he became a visiting scientist at Princeton University. Two years later, in 1993, he moved to GFDL as a physical scientist, modeling weather and climate with an emphasis on storm tracks; he built the first version of a model now being used to study hurricane activity in the Atlantic Basin.
In 2001, he was promoted to head of the modeling services group and in 2003 became deputy director. His responsibilities include program planning, coordination, and review; and management of the administrative and technical services of the laboratory, including high performance computing.
Not only is the laboratory looking at the causes of climate change but also at its potential effects, for example through research on what relationship may exist between climate and hurricanes and other extreme weather events. That research is being pioneered by GFDL and Princeton University researchers who work at the GDFL through the Cooperative Institute for Climate Science.
Gross says, “One of the more interesting research results out of this lab — it turns out there is very high predictability of what we call Atlantic hurricane activity, driven in large part by sea surface temperatures.” This surface temperature affects the transfer of heat and moisture between the ocean and the atmosphere.
Whereas the lab has built models that capture sea surface temperature and do long-term prediction of hurricanes in the Atlantic over the course of a summer, forecasting the intensity of these storms has been much trickier. The degree of hurricane activity turns out to be related to the warmth of the Atlantic in relation to the rest of the tropics.
If the Atlantic is warm and the rest of the tropics are warm, the hurricane season is likely to be normal. If the Atlantic is warm and the rest of the tropics are cool, the likelihood is that the season will be very active.
Researchers are trying to discover the relationships of hurricane activity to global warming, and Gross has a prediction. “Global warming, particularly anthropogenic global warming, by the end of the 21st century, will likely cause hurricanes globally to be more intense on average,” he says.
He bases this on the fact that heat is the driver of hurricanes; hence, if carbon dioxide is trapping more heat in the atmosphere-ocean system, then more energy overall will be available to form and strengthen hurricanes.
Other aspects of climate change that the lab’s scientists are exploring include: the impact of increasing heat in the ocean on fish and other sea creatures; the impacts of El Nino and El Nina, which start with changes in ocean temperature in the tropical Pacific; and the mixing of layers of ocean water, for example, when ocean currents flow over a bump, ridge, or mountain, and how this affects the amount of nutrients and temperature at the surface, which in turn affects fish stocks.
The lab, whose research has been useful to people ranging from western governors concerned about water availability to a fishing industry worrying about how fish stocks will be affected by climate change, also serves as a huge resource for the entire climate research community, in the form of the 165 terabytes of climate model data it makes available.
It is not by happenstance that the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory is located so close to Princeton University. In fact what is arguably the first modern climate model was built by a Princeton professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, Syukuro Manabe, who is jointly appointed at both institutions.
This model, created in the early 1960s, explored the role of greenhouse gases in maintaining and changing the thermal structure of the atmosphere. Then in the late 1960s, with Kirk Bryan, Manabe began to develop a general circulation model of the coupled atmosphere-ocean-land system, a version of which is used today to simulate global warning.
Another jointly appointed model designer is Isaac Held, in atmospheric and oceanic sciences. He focuses on the fundamental, large-scale mathematical dynamics of the atmosphere and how to apply the understanding gained from this work to global warming.
Some of the topics he has focused on are how best to think of the atmosphere as a whole as a “heat engine”; how changes in the water vapor distribution in the atmosphere as the climate warms produce a positive feedback on this warming; and the factors that control how the poleward energy transport is divided between the atmosphere and the ocean.
Jorge Sarmiento, also in atmospheric and oceanic sciences, has done more than anyone else to understand the dynamics of the ocean’s carbon cycle and how to predict its future, says Pacala. He combines empirical study and data analysis on the ocean that ranges from satellite data to shipboard campaigns with the mathematics of water flow and the biogeochemistry of oceans to produce a dynamic model of the oceans.
In particular he is exploring the fundamental processes that control the distribution of climatically important chemicals, especially carbon dioxide in the ocean and the atmosphere and how these have changed over time.
Francois Morel, in the geophysics department, is an ocean chemist who studies carbon dioxide uptake by phytoplankton and more generally the interactions between the chemistry and microbiology of aquatic systems. He is one of a cadre of Princeton scientists who are exploring how carbon dioxide cycles.
Currently, through the use of fossil fuels and changes in land use, like deforestation, human beings are responsible for annual emissions of about 10 billion metric tons of carbon atoms, which is equivalent to 44 billion tons of carbon dioxide.
About half of this human-caused greenhouse-gas problem is being taken care of and removed by natural processes on the surface of the earth: the ocean takes up a net of about 2 tons as it exchanges more than 100 billion tons of carbon with the atmosphere each year, and the land biosphere takes up about 3 more.
Pacala, referring to what he calls “monsters behind the door,” notes that if the 10 billion number changes, which scientific evidence suggests will happen, then we need to know how they will change. He says, “If the 100 billion tons changes by a reasonable fraction, it could have critical consequences for human beings.”
The carbon taken up by the ocean is moved through the action of two different “pumps.” The first is a biological pump, meaning that the carbon dioxide is moved via biological processes.
The cycle begins as the phytoplankton on the surface of the ocean “eat carbon dioxide for a living and turn it into more plant,” says Pacala, who continues, “Those organisms in the oceans are almost immediately slaughtered by their predators — they live three days before they meet their death. Their bodies get packaged into fecal pellets that sink into the deep blue sea.”
As the pellets plunge from the surface to the abyss, the carbon dioxide in them becomes concentrated in the ocean’s depths rather than at the surface. The consequent lighter density of carbon dioxide on the surface keeps more flowing in from the air.
The second pump results from increases of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which then cause more carbon dioxide to dissolve in seawater.
Accounting for the removal of another 3 of the 10 billion tons is the terrestro biosphere, that is, the land ecosystem. Pacala explains that plants on the land eat carbon dioxide for a living. For example, in a forest the trees take in carbon dioxide that is stored in the wood. This means that as the biosphere “gains weight,” it pulls carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and keeps it from warming the planet.
Another serious worry for the future, says Pacala, is the trillion tons of carbon atoms stored as undecomposed organic matter, mostly peat, in high latitudes in the Arctic.
“It’s like when you put vegetables in the fridge to keep them from decomposing,” says Pacala, explaining that decomposition basically means bacteria eating your vegetables, turning them into carbon dioxide, and returning it to the atmosphere.
The cold in the Arctic has similarly, for 10,000 years, kept plant matter from decomposing, but additional heat at the poles could start an autocatalytic process of carbon dioxide release.
“Global warming is the same as keeping the refrigerator door open and releasing carbon dioxide,” says Pacala. “At risk are a trillion tons of carbon that could come out into the atmosphere, and if we pass a critical level of warming, it could become autocatalytic — the carbon dioxide out of the ground adds to the heat, which then causes more to decompose.”
Pacala’s work involves the mathematics of the biosphere and large-scale ecology, which includes the global carbon cycle and the distribution of vegetation in the world — “what creates the dominant patterns we see in the world.”
Pacala grew up mostly in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where his father — the son of Romanian immigrants with a PhD in religion from Yale University — was dean at Bucknell University. Pacala graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in biology in 1978 and earned a doctorate from Stanford in biology and mathematics in 1982.
He says, “On a large scale biology is not random at all, but is determined by patterns that are so ubiquitous that simple laws must govern them.” Pacala works on these mathematical laws that are codified in models of the biosphere that regulate the climate. But he quickly adds, “There is still a ton that we don’t know.”
Another area of research at Princeton occurs under the umbrella of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative; it focuses on how to fix the climate. Directed by Pacala and Rob Sokolow, its scientists work on low greenhouse-gas energy, carbon capture and storage, climate science, and climate policy and the interaction of these.
Working in policy areas including cap and trade, carbon tax, how the effort should be distributed among the rich and the poor and among nations, and on mechanisms to enforce any agreements in these areas, the researchers also analyze the effects of alternative policies on energy consumption.
Pacala describes Michael Oppenheimer, professor of geosciences and international affairs, as “the lead spokesperson for climate science in the United States.”
Oppenheimer’s research group works in cooperation with the GFDL on the physical processes that determine how much ice is moving into the ocean in Greenland and Antarctica and how that will play out in the next decade and century. That same information is used to determine the probability of losing a particular amount of ice at a particular time.
Because Princeton is a relatively small university, says Pacala, most departments have very high-quality faculty but only a few. In climate change and a handful of other areas, small is not the appropriate word.
“We have large numbers, because we’re spread all over the university and because we have a NOAA lab co-located here; and this was not by accident. It was due to cooperation among NOAA, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the university in the dawn of the computer age, when people realized the computer could be used to predict the weather and the climate.”
Steve Pacala, who is Climate Central’s cofounder and chair of its board, understands the value of an organization whose goal is to elevate climate change in the nation’s priorities list.
One might say, in fact, that Climate Central is a repackager of climate science into a form digestible by the general public. By synthesizing and connecting the discrete pieces of necessarily narrow research that are the focus of individual scientists, Climate Central reaches out to the public both to inform people and to inspire the action needed to prevent a worsening of the crisis. It also does scientific research of its own that moves along the debate on climate and its impacts and on energy.
Climate Central was conceived in 2007 in the wake of a conference about what was needed to reach the public regarding climate change. Paul Hanle, who came on as president and chief executive officer in April, 2011, explains, “The charter was to create an organization that was a bridge between the science community and the public in its many audiences. It was to convey the state of the science in plain English that is accessible and interesting to lay readers and viewers.”
In line with this mission, Hanle explains the role of his organization’s researchers. “Our scientists look at some of the most important and striking manifestations of climate change, in weather, droughts, wildfires, sea level rise, and other phenomena that are documented as really happening and really being caused by climate change.”
Beyond conveying to the public that climate change is real and human-caused, Climate Central is telling citizens of the world that we are past due in acting to address it. But that’s where the organization stops: it does not advocate any policy or specific legislation.
“But having said that,” says Hanle, “it is really important that the science, which is so unequivocal, be understood by the public and policy makers.”
One recent success was a research report on sea level rise by Climate Central research scientist Ben Strauss, the organization’s chief operating officer and director of the program on sea level rise. His 2.5-year project with the University of Arizona, and with some guidance from Pacala, showed that the risk of flooding in low-lying coastal areas has doubled or tripled for millions of people because of climate change over the past 150 years.
The report was highlighted in leading mainstream media including newspapers like the New York Times and USA Today as well as the AP, Reuters, and major national television and radio channels, and through Climate Central’s own website, climatecentral.org.
The peer-reviewed research, published in the journal “Environmental Research Letters,” on March 17, looked at local differences in sea level, at the zip code level, over the entire coast of the lower 48 states, using data over the last 100 years. The model predicts a substantial rise in sea level, projecting a 1 to 8-inch increase by 2030, and a 4 to 19-inch increase by 2050, depending upon location.
Hanle calls the sea level rise “a slow tsunami,” which happens over decades, not years. Suggesting that it is important not to exaggerate the results, Hanle nonetheless notes that a foot of sea level rise — and we’ve had an eight-inch rise over the last century — is enough to put Manhattan under water.
Indeed the world has begun to make adaptations to climate change beyond building barriers, says Hanle. People are rebuilding critical infrastructure, raising roads, and adjusting sewage systems so they will not back up. They also need to address nuclear power plants that are often located right off the coast so that they can use natural water for cooling.
“County executives and state officials are saying, ‘We have a problem here,’” says Hanle, “and in the case of Florida, it is really serious.” Particularly worrisome to local officials is the Turkey Bay nuclear power plant south of Miami, which is only a few feet above sea level.
Further, it is not possible to put up a barrier there against the sea because the underlying rock is a semipermeable calcium carbonate, and sea water would bubble up through it.
Noting that 800 articles reported on Strauss’s paper, Hanle says, “Virtually everyone in America had the opportunity to see this, and because of its impact we were asked to testify in a special hearing of the Senate energy committee.”
Another recent research project was a state-by-state comparison of the climate friendliness and greenhouse emissions of electric cars versus gas-powered vehicles. Because an electric car is fueled by electricity from power plants, its “emissions” are what the power plants have emitted to produce the electricity the car needs to run.
Some states, says Hanle, generate electricity from coal, some mostly from hydroelectric, gas, or nuclear; and as a result their carbon dioxide emissions vary a lot. In West Virginia, where electricity comes from highly polluting coal-operated plants, electric cars generate relatively high emissions, equivalent to those of a 30-mile-per gallon gas-fueled vehicle.
In this state, therefore, any higher-mileage conventional vehicle would have lower emissions than those produced by an electric car. In California, on the other hand, electric cars do better than anything else because the electricity there is generated from a variety of cleaner fuels.
The scientists on the Climate Central staff not only do cutting-edge work themselves but also play a liaison role to the community of leading climate scientists at universities and government labs, which Hanle likens to that of program managers at the National Institutes of Health.
Its scientists’ areas of specialty include, in addition to sea level rise, investigation of the potential relationship between human-caused climate change and extreme weather events; and of changes in ecosystems due to climate change, for example, the movement north of species as the date of spring onset has moved earlier and the deleterious affect of diseases attributed to warmer temperatures. Its scientists work out of its Princeton offices as well as offices in Boulder, Colorado, and Stanford, California.
Where Climate Central’s special expertise lies is in communicating science to the public. For example, its writers helped the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change translate its November, 2011, report on extreme weather events and disasters into language that would reach the public.
One of its primary communication mechanisms, its website, offers a journalistic presentation of a variety of information and perspectives on climate change. At present, as the organization is rethinking the website and how it serves the cause of conveying solid science, it is also trying to decide whether it is a good idea to have personal opinions in its blogs.
Hanle observes, “We shouldn’t shy away from discourse in scientific discussion and the discussion of the science. If decision makers are talking about the state of the science, it is appropriate for us to report on how the general discourse in American society, including Capitol Hill, is getting the science right or not.”
Climate Central is also working with television meteorologists who want to explain to their viewers the relationship of climate change to weather extremes in their region. During a heat wave, for example, they might send graphs of changes in average temperature over the last decades.
Or they might send data on how climate change relates to hurricane intensity, increases in precipitation, or drought. Or, when severe thunderstorms went through Missouri, leading to an increase in tornadoes, they offered information on how increases in extreme weather patterns are driven by a complex of increases in temperature that elevates humidity, thereby pumping more moisture into the atmosphere.
“There is an impression that some TV meteorologists may be skeptical of climate change,” says Hanle, “but we have found that a significant number of TV weatherpeople are asking for help in explaining climate or climate change.”
Along with the American Meteorological Society, Yale and George Mason universities, the National Weather Service, NOAA, and NASA, Climate Central is part of an effort to identify and support a group of meteorologists around the country who want to do this kind of integration; the project is funded by the National Science Foundation.
Another recent effort by the organization has been to look more carefully at the publics it is trying to reach. “We are always asking who are our audiences,” says Hanle. “Even when we try to address the general public, the question arises: where on the continuum of understanding of climate change are these particular audiences? Our interest is in engaging and conveying the science to people who don’t necessarily understand it.”
Hanle came to Princeton with the Class of 1969 (along with U.S. 1 editor Richard K. Rein) and initially planned to study engineering. He switched to physics and earned a Ph.D. in physics at Yale and began a career that has been focussed on presenting complex scientific subjects to the public.
A fellowship at the Smithsonian Institute led to a job as a junior curator to oversee construction and exhibition at the new Air & Space Museum. In the late 1980s, Hanle became head of the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore. After nine years there Hanle was hired by the Academy of Natural Sciences on the Parkway in Philadelphia.
The next stop: the Biotechnology Institute in Washington. At about the same time his daughter was keen on the problem of global warming, and when she heard her father was thinking about helping, she urged him on, and he took the job as president and CEO of Climate Central.
One audience climate scientists have a real opportunity to engage in-depth is high school students. Climate Central is collaborating with the GFDL on a proposal to the National Science Foundation to develop curriculum materials and videos for high school students. The organization also partners with scientists at Princeton and Rutgers universities and at the Franklin Institute.
To further fine tune its scientific messages to its publics, the organization is working with social scientists who are experts in how to reach people with scientific communication and how to affect people’s attitudes and opinions.
Currently they have been surveying people to see where their views are and if what Climate Central says is making a difference. They are also doing message testing by giving audiences different messages to see which are most effective at conveying the science. Finally, they are trying to understand and synthesize earlier research to enable more effective communications.
As much as climate scientists on both sides of Route 1 are invested in finding all the pieces of the climate puzzle, they are also scientists and as such maintain their skepticism throughout their investigations. Pacala says, “Every year we try to disprove the hypothesis that humans are interfering with climate in ways that are already dangerous and will become more so in the future.”
One example is the research of Michael Bender, also part of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative. He is looking at air bubbles trapped in some of the oldest ice in the world, from Antarctica, in an effort to find out whether in the distant past, when carbon dioxide concentrations were higher, the climate was indeed warmer.
Pacala notes that he and his fellow scientists are constantly looking for information like this that could indicate any problems in the current consensus, and they are not finding anything to upend it. “The problem for humanity now is that the scientific consensus is supported by so many lines of evidence — every time we look as skeptical scientists, it just looks worse.”