When the great European explorers first hit the North American continent, what they were looking for was a way to reach Asia. Even after penetrating parts of the formidable land mass, they did not give up and even tried sailing up the Mississippi and through the Great Lakes, but the imagined route to Asia continued to elude them.
Had the explorers been able to hold off a few centuries, they would have had an easier time. Just last year, with the loss of Arctic Sea ice, there were not one but two Northwest Passages from the North Atlantic to the North Pacific, one north of Canada and the other north of Russia.
If the Arctic continues to lose summertime sea ice, the planet is in big trouble, says Berrien Moore, executive director of Climate Central, a brand new non-profit think tank and communications organization that is just settling into its new Palmer Square offices. “That ice is bright and highly reflective,” explains the Nobel laureate, who was lured to Princeton from the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space, a major research center he built at the University of New Hampshire. “If it is replaced with open water, which is relatively dark, it will reflect less of the sun’s energy in the summer.” The result would be overheating of the ocean and of the atmosphere, which form a single system.
This feedback mechanism could become self-propelling, as more ice melts, more water takes its place, and even less of the sun’s energy is reflected. “We could have a situation where greenhouse gases create the initial step in climate change,” says Moore. “Less Arctic Sea ice, less reflected energy, more warming, less ice, more warming, and we have kicked off something that is now outside of human control.”
This nightmarish but realistic scenario and its potential consequences — increases in severe droughts and intense rain that will depress food production, rising sea levels threatening coastal cities and creating millions of refugees, rising temperatures triggering mass extinctions of plants and animals — got scientists thinking about the need for a central authoritative source for climate information.
At a 2005 conference sponsored by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, a large group of scientists, policymakers, journalists, and other leaders identified the need for such an organization, one that was confirmed by a broad group of climate experts meeting in New York in November, 2006. At about the same time Wendy Schmidt, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, founded the 11th Hour Project to popularize good information about global warming solutions.
Climate Central was established in early 2008 with seed money from the Flora Family Foundation, a Menlo Park, California, foundation created and run by the family of William Hewlett, co-founder of the Hewlett-Packard Company, and his late wife, Flora, and from development funds from the 11th Hour Project. Moore, its director, has a vision is to create a small think tank on climate change. His staff is heavy on communications pros, whose job will be producing scientific information that ordinary people can understand.
“These are very real issues that have to be faced,” says Moore. “We have to understand and anticipate. We can’t wait till the evidence is in.”
Moore and 11 other employees have moved into offices at 1 Palmer Square in Princeton, and Climate Central is opening another bureau near Stanford University. Moore has already hired three top-notch communications experts — Charlie Lyons from ABC News; Michael Lemonick, a Princeton native who was senior science writer at Time magazine for 21 years and who is the author of four books; and Heidi Cullen, who is now director of communications and senior research scientist for Climate Central, but retains a part-time connection with the Weather Channel.
Moore, who will not share details on his organization’s financials, expects eventually to have 15 to 20 PhDs with expertise in climate science, energy technologies, and economics and policy on staff.
Climate Central chose Princeton because it is a hot bed of serious climate research. The Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, based at the Forrestal Campus on Route 1, works under the auspices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and describes its mission as being “a world leader in the production of timely and reliable knowledge and assessments on natural climate variability” and especially on anthropogenic changes, or those wrought by humans. Its climate models, generated by some of the most powerful computers in the world, have been used to establish the extent of global warming. Meanwhile, Princeton University has just received a $100 million gift from an alumnus to create the Gerhard R. Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, and to “transform energy and environment research at Princeton.”
Climate Central plans to use technology to the hilt as it joins these established research institutions. This is especially important because a big part of the new non-profit’s mission is communicating the latest information on climate to a wide range of people. Toward this end Climate Central will be using many of the communications networks made popular by the under-35 crowd, the ones who need to be most concerned about climate change.
“It is the young people who are going to have to handle finiteness on this planet,” says Moore, himself a septugenarian. “We have less climate change to experience than a 30 year old or a two year old.”
Consequently Moore will be reaching out to the next generation where they’re at — through websites like YouTube, and on television. Watching how his 31-year-old daughter gets information, he has accumulated a number of insights. “She reads the newspaper on her Blackberry, sees YouTube, pulls stuff off the Internet, sends videos around, and has videos sent to her,” says Moore. “We’re going to join that form of dialogue and communication.”
Climate Central has already started the process. A student intern from Tufts University is already working on a video blog, or vlog, about how climate changes might affect hurricanes. He has interviewed experts at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory and at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology. Accompanying this and every future vlog will be layers of communication where the popularized material is traced to its solid scientific underpinnings. The layers form a pyramid: right under the video is an annotated version of the video script, including some explanation and scientific references; below these are longer papers dealing in more detail with the findings.
Another early vlog grew out of a dinner table conversation Moore had with his college roommate. When Moore was sharing his interest in climate and the possibility of taking on a new professional responsibility at Climate Central, he remembers his roommate responding, “Berr, there’s no evidence that carbon dioxide is increasing in the atmosphere, is there?”
“Well, yes,” Moore responded and he then told his friend about the daily record of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, which began in the 1950s, and about evidence from ice cores. Moore emphasizes that there is zero debate about yearly increases of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that are due primarily to the burning of fossil fuels.
“I realized,” says Moore, “if a smart guy like my college roommate doesn’t know the ABCs, we have a long way to go. We’d better start this going and communicate. We need to get to XYZ, and he doesn’t know ABC.”
Not too long after Moore had this conversation, the organization he heads began work on a two-minute piece that explains how atmospheric carbon dioxide is measured and connects its increases in the atmosphere to the burning of fossil fuels.
The video, created by Lyons and Cullen, features the work of Charles David Keeling, who in 1958 started using a spectrometer to track carbon dioxide in Mauna Loa, Hawaii. The data from the spectrometer, which enables scientists to see the invisible gases that make up the atmosphere, show that the long-term trend is up, despite spring drops and autumn spikes as well as higher levels in the northern hemisphere due to greater industrial activity.
Although today there are 50 to 60 spots on the globe where measurements are done, that initial choice of the Mauna Loa observatory to get a snapshot of world carbon dioxide levels was important. The area has no industry or automobile exhaust, which would yield higher concentrations, and no massive stretches of corn fields like those found in America’s heartland, which would yield lower concentrations because plants take up carbon dioxide during photosynthesis. “There is no vegetation or industry on Mauna Loa,” says Lyons. “Not a blade of grass, no vegetation of any kind, and it is high in the atmosphere, at 12,000 feet, with the Pacific Ocean all around, so you get a good planetary measurement.”
Not only does the observatory measure carbon dioxide levels, but it can distinguish between carbon dioxide emitted when a log or a forest burns from that emitted by the burning of fossil fuels. The carbon in coal is very old and has no carbon 14, whose half life is only 5,000 years. A 100-year-old log, however, produces a certain amount of carbon 14. Because carbon 14 can be measured, scientists are able to tell how much of the increases in the total carbon buildup is attributable to one versus the other.
The video, however, does not deal with the nitty gritty of carbon 14; it simply notes that carbon from a log versus a fossil fuel has “a different chemical signature.” The white paper that includes the video script, however, will explain the science of carbon 14 and isotopes. Had the details been included in the video, says Moore, people would be scratching their heads and saying: “There they go. I was just beginning to understand it and they go over my head.”
Another video under consideration concerns biofuels. “We are thinking about something on biofuels that we might call `the good, bad, and the ugly,’” says Moore, based on a recent article suggesting that biofuels, while they have certainly been helpful in creating the high standard of living in industrialized countries, may not be such a good idea long term.
In a related area, Climate Central will be going out to California to film new biofuel plants that process green waste like the trimmings of shrubs, waste from timber and furniture, and industrial waste that is cellulose. This process is very different from growing corn and investing tremendous energy in terms of fertilizer, water, tillage, and transportation, then using it to produce gasoline. He hopes to have this piece wrapped up by the end of the summer.
People simply lack of knowledge about climate basics, says Moore, and our language reflects our ignorance. Take what we choose to term “the Western drought,” for example.
“We are still referring to the Western droughts in language that makes it feel like a drought is something that has a beginning and an end and will go away,” says Moore. “What we may be seeing, in fact there is good evidence for, is that the climate system for the western part of the U.S. has started to change in a fundamental way.”
Average March temperatures in Montana, for example, have been increasing about one degree per decade, since 1950, and a rise of five degrees represents a very significant change. “We may have to accept that some of these changes are not temporary,” says Moore. “We don’t refer to a drought in Saudi Arabia or the Sahara Desert. We say it is a desert, a climatological regime.”
Not all claims about climate are solidly science based. Moore deems as farfetched the suggestion in the 2004 movie “The Day After Tomorrow” that climate change will bring on a new Ice Age. The argument is that the transfer of heat by the Gulf Stream, which takes warm water from the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Coast up to England, may be slowed by client change and cause a significant cooling down of Northern Europe. The result would be increases in the ice cover — a bright object that would reflect more of the sun’s energy, creating cooler weather, and so forth. “I think it’s a movie, not a reality,” says Moore.
As for Al Gore’s film, Moore deems it a worthy contribution, but one more political in tone than what Moore has in mind for Climate Central. “We’re not going to go there,” he says. “We’ll let others engage in the political dialogue.” Granting that he would like to see Obama and McCain debate the issue of climate change, Moore says that Climate Central will not engage in party politics or propose legislation.
Take the area of biofuels, where Climate Central may create a set of communications. “We may say some are good and bad,” says Moore. “I may think ethanol is a dumb idea, which I do, but we will just deal with the facts, and let the political process take care of that.”
Cullen says that these facts will include potential strategies for adapting to the changes brought by global warming as well as technology and policy solutions, but from a nonpartisan, nonadvocacy perspective. “We will only present the solutions that are out there and provide detailed information to help people make better decisions,” says Cullen.
Because of the close relationship between Cullen’s work at Climate Central and her role as climate expert at the Weather Channel, she will be working for both organizations. Every other week she will fly to Atlanta to tape the one-hour “Forecast Earth” show, and she will regularly send news stories and suggestions about content to the Weather Channel.
When Cullen was still fulltime at the Weather Channel and mentioned that Climate Central was forming, everyone agreed that a mutual arrangement was a great opportunity for the Weather Channel.
At Climate Central Cullen is the place where research science and communications meet. “I am a scientist working on taking data and trying to develop compelling ways to visualize it,” she says.
Cullen also plans to provide the Weather Channel with research, data, and improved visuals that extend the way people look at weather and climate. She would like to help people think over longer time scales and get a sense of what climate change will do to temperature and rainfall over centuries.
“I think climate change is one of the biggest news stories out there,” says Cullen. “The Weather Channel agrees and is trying to get the story more airtime overall.”
Climate Central hopes to distribute information widely, not just to the Weather Channel but also to networks and interested individuals throughout the country. One of the organization’s primary modes of communication will be its website, which it hopes to have up by the end of the summer.
The site will include blogs and vlogs from Climate Central experts, interactive maps and databases that let users explore future climate and energy scenarios material, videos, graphics, articles, exclusive web productions, and links to other reliable online sources.
“Hopefully it will be the ‘go to’ place where people will go to get information they can trust,” says Moore, speaking as a scientist. “We will be scrupulous. We are not going to stretch the truth. Every piece will have backup.” Video pieces, for example, will be backed up by white papers that will footnote every statement in the script, linking the reader, where possible, directly to the web address for the supporting scientific literature.
Moore summarizes Climate Central’s editorial approach. “We are just going to talk to people. We are going to be straight and not overinflate anything. We are not trying to sell anything. Here is the information — take it or leave it.” He likens the approach to that of Consumer Reports, which provides information about automobiles, leaving the decision with the consumer.
The crew at Climate Central is particularly intent on connecting climate change to people’s lives, bringing this global issue down to people in the places where they live. The central question that Climate Central hopes to answer is not whether there is climate change, which is indisputable, but rather: “What does it mean to me and my children — in Montana, in New York City, in California.”
“We want to take global warming, which feels like a huge, diffuse issue, and give people a sense of what will happen in their hometowns,” says Cullen.
One idea for this fall is to connect weather, that is, what happens today, to climate. “Weather is the extreme, climate is the average,” explains Moore. In a severe Fourth of July heat wave in Princeton the temperature could possibly rise to 107 degrees — that’s just an extreme of weather. But Moore wants to take it a step further. He envisions using a climate model from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to determine the year that the average July temperature in Princeton would be 107 on the assumption of a a business-as-usual energy scenario where present practices continue unchanged.
Climate Central would then develop a short piece where the weather reporter in Princeton would say, “Well, we had real blockbuster today, reaching 107 degrees. It broke all records.” Then the piece would deliver the bad news that in, say, 2037, 107 would be the average temperature. “Then you have connected today’s weather with climate change,” says Moore.
Moore also envisions organizing the climate data so that anyone can type in a location and a temperature to find out when that temperature will be the average temperature. “We are trying to take what scientists have developed in documents that are completely unreadable by a lay person and find a little mechanism for translating the important part of that scientific information into your everyday life as way of trying to connect the dots for people,” says Moore.
The problem with most scientific information, from the perspective of the general public, is that scientists tend to break down topics into researchable chunks and probe deeply into a relatively narrow subject matter. By contrast, Climate Central will focus on synthesizing and connecting pieces of information.
Take the area of biofuels, where a tremendous literature exists on different chemical processes and ways of analyzing them with different schemes and metrics. On corn ethanol, for example, the use of water as a resource has not been dealt with sufficiently. Water that comes from irrigation requires energy and may even need to be shipped from elsewhere. Ethanol also uses fossil fuel in shipping corn from the fields to the ethanol factories and then on to the consumer. And then there is the fuel needed to create the fertilizer and move it out to the fields.
“The whole end-to-end story has not been looked at,” says Moore. “Where is that arithmetic done that adds up all the energy costs to produce ethanol? People just see ethanol at the pump, and ads make it seem like it comes for free.”
Finding additional money to support his ambitious venture is one of Moore’s jobs, but he’s not worried. “There is recognition in the scientific world that all this information we are piling up is just not getting out and that we need to cross that bridge somehow,” he says. He believes Climate Central’s nonadvocacy approach is unique, with other similar organizations deeply engaged in the political process — taking a position and advocating it. That’s the nature of American enterprise, says Moore. The Natural Resources Defense Council pushes through legislation and goes to court where necessary. The Sierra Club has paid lobbyists.
Climate Central is now building the connections it needs to disseminate the information it is developing. The organization is in discussion with some of the television networks about a relationship whereby Climate Central would produce climate relevant information in a short format that could be used across the network by local television channels.
One such regional video has already been produced by Lyons and Cullen, and it will be part of a 12-minute sample reel to be given to potential funders. It explains how climate change is affecting trout fishing in Montana. Lyons knows a lot about trout fishing from his father Nick Lyons, who is a trout fisherman of some note and has written several dozen books on the subject. He also spoke with people at Trout Unlimited, an organization concerned about trout habitat. Cullen developed the interview questions, graphics that show temperature trends in Montana, and background on how climate has affected the snow packs that feed Montana rivers, and she helped write the script.
Cullen joined Lyons on a four-day trip to Montana. Lyons had a loose connection to Tom Brokaw, who agreed to do a segment of the video. “The trout story fits well into our model to find regionally specific stories about climate change,” says Lyons.
To create a video from the raw materials, Climate Central engaged a Central Jersey video editor. The goal, however, is to bring a full-scale production facility for sound, editing, and film in house. This will be located in the adjoining office suite.
The possibilities for regional stories are nearly endless, says Moore. The American Garden Society, for example, has updated its hardiness zones three times in the last 50 years because the climate is changing. The consequences will hit people in their gardens, where they might not be able to grow the same plants. It will affect bird watchers, who may miss familiar species and spot new ones as changes in migration patterns push some birds farther north than ever before. Beyond recreation, climate changes may have profound effects on health as new types of pest outbreaks occur because winters are no longer severe enough to kill some insects.
Climate Central aims to get the word out as changes evolve, but its researchers realize that this will not always be easy to do. “The intellectual challenge is how you can communicate without being labeled as somebody with an agenda,” says Lyons. He adds that the first question encountered when approaching any media outlet is “What are you selling?” And his answer: “We’re selling sound science, if that is something one sells.”
“We are not trying to frame things in an adversarial, combative model,” adds Lyons. “People want two sides; they want an argument; and we’re trying to get out of that, trying to lower the tone.”
This contrasts to what happens on many television shows — the yelling and screaming with which a declining medium sensationalizes its programs in order to survive, suggests Lyons, and he is finding Climate Central a welcome contrast. “Here we have the opportunity to do something that not only makes a difference but is also personally very rewarding,” he says.
Lyons’ father was a professor of English at the University of Michigan as well as at Hunter College, and his mother is a painter. In addition to his writing, Lyons’ father had a publishing company called Lyons Press, which Lyons’ younger brother Tony helped to run.
Lyons majored in English literature at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. He spent seven years in Hollywood involved in the movie business. As a freelance journalist, Lyons wrote about film for the New York Times, and he spent three-and-a-half years as a reporter for Variety.
In 1986 he moved into television, working at a production company that focused on running and triathlons. Then he worked briefly for PBS, where he worked as an associate producer with Chris Pelzer on the documentary “More than Broken Glass: Memories of Kristallnacht” and others.
In 1994 he finished his doctorate in theater and film at Columbia University. He turned his thesis on censorship and protest against movies into the book “The New Censors: Movies and the Cultural Wars,” which he jokes was read by about 3,000 people. He has taught film studies at Yale, Columbia, and UCLA.
Moore graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1959 with a degree in math and received his PhD, also in math, from the University of Virginia. Although he started his career as a mathematician, after about seven years on the math faculty of the University of New Hampshire, he decided to change fields.
“I liked math,” he says. “It was beautiful and came naturally to me. I don’t know why I decided to change, but I had become increasingly interested in applications of math as opposed to the theoretical.”
At this juncture he had his first child, which, he notes, “causes a certain moment of reflection,” and he decided to focus his mathematical skills on problems in earth science.
After a year at the Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Institute and another split between the NASA Ames Research Center in Honolulu and the East-West Center in Mountain View, California, doing large mathematical models of environmental questions, he returned to the University of New Hampshire in 1978 and set up a small research center, the Complex Systems Research Center, that used math simulation to look at environmental issues.
In 1986 the university decided to combine the center with three other research groups — one on climate, one on space science, on one on oceans — to establish a large research organization, and made Moore the director. Over the next 20 years, the institute grew by a factor of six or seven to become a $50-million-a-year, 300-person operation. In 2007 Moore won the Nobel prize for his role as coordinating lead author of the final chapter of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Third Assessment Report. Half of this Nobel peace prize went to Al Gore and half to the IPCC, whose contributors included researchers at both Princeton University and the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory.
When Moore was invited to take the helm of Climate Central, his family was happily ensconced in New Hampshire. Moore’s first thought was: “I’m not going to do that.” But a family meeting with his daughter and wife yielded a different answer. They both asked: “Why not? You’ve been doing the other job so long you’re on autopilot.”
When Moore stepped down at the beginning of this year to once again head an organization that did not yet exist, he says, “It was a little like I had come back full circle.”
But coming to Climate Central was a coming of full circle in another way — back to the television that was a memorable part of his childhood. Moore’s mother grew up in Flemington and after majoring in drama and theater at Vassar College during the depression, she and Moore’s father moved to Atlanta, where Moore grew up.
Moore’s mother got involved with the new invention called television. She had a program called “Shopping Atlanta,” which Moore describes as an infomercial for Atlanta’s Rich’s department store. She eventually became the first female in the south to have her own program. Her studio, Moore remembers, was next door to that of a children’s program that featured Dick Van Dyke.
Cullen was born on Staten Island, and her father was a policeman in New York City. “For me it always felt like Irish Catholic people were cops, firemen, or nurses,” she says. “It felt like service to society was important, and I’m hoping that this is service to society in some way.”
Her childhood in Staten Island also feeds her strong connection to the real world of real people. “For me one aspect of climate change is how it affects people in their own backyards and trying to get a sense of how I can help people move into the future and understand what the future will look like,” she says.
As a child Cullen was obsessed with maps and loved to look at where it rained and where it didn’t. “I was one of those kids who gravitated toward maps of the world and what coastlines looked like, and I was a huge fan of Jacques Cousteau,” she recalls.
She is a graduate of Columbia University (Class of 1993), where she earned a degree in engineering and operations research. Her first job was as a quantitative analyst at Franklin Templeton Investments, where she was a stock analyst.
But her childhood love of science proved to be stronger than the lure of finance, and after a year she decided to become a research scientist. She returned to Columbia, where she earned a doctorate in climatology and ocean-atmosphere dynamics. “I wanted to go back and do something more fundamental and research driven,” she says. Cullen received a NOAA climate and global change fellowship and spent two years working at the International Research Institute for Climate Prediction. Before joining the Weather Channel, she was a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. Comparing her experiences in finance and science, she sees many similarities. In both cases analysts are analyzing trends.
“In many respects studying climate gave me a whole new appreciation for business roles,” she says. “It’s all about pulling a signal out of a noisy data set, day to day, while climate is a long-term trend. When you get the science and physics right, you can predict the future. The stock market is a highly chaotic process and highly unpredictable,” she says. “But you are trying to get a sense of what the future will look like in both realms.”
The future stretches out in front of Climate Central. Like those European explorers, its leaders can have little idea of what lies ahead. Their core job is communicating changes that no living people have ever experienced, and doing so at a time when the ways in which humans communicate change faster than the seasons. And like those explorers, Moore, Lyons, Cullen, and Lemonick are full of excitement. Where climate and weather are concerned, it is never business as usual. Autopilot is off as Climate Central begins to navigate the space between knowledge and understanding of a science that is sure to change everyone’s lives in the coming decades.
Climate Central, 1 Palmer Square, Suite 330, Princeton 08542; 609-613-0806. Berrien Moore III, director. www.climatecentral.org.