On the heels of the warmest winter on record, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest climate-change assessment on April 6. The report, which draws heavily on data provided by the Asheville-based National Climatic Data Center, summarizes climate-change impacts that have already been observed and projects future increases in drought, hunger, thirst, floods and disease in the world’s poorest nations as global temperatures rise.
Established by the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization in 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change releases periodic assessments of the risk of human-induced global warming. Drawing on the entire international scientific community, the panel is widely regarded as the foremost authority on the subject.
Later this month, journalists from Germany, Norway, Finland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Japan will arrive here to interview Thomas Karl, the data center’s director, and other authors of the assessment. And on Thursday, April 19, Karl will give a free talk titled “The U.S. Climate Change Science Program: the Latest Viewpoint,” from 3 to 4 p.m. at the Folk Art Center (milepost 382 on the Blue Ridge Parkway).
Shortly before the report was released, Xpress met with Karl to talk about the probable impacts of climate change on Western North Carolina and what it’s like to be at the center of a media blitz about an issue that’s sparking alarm on every continent. Sharon LeDuc, the center’s deputy director, also joined in. Here are excerpts from our conversation:
Mountain Xpress: What was your role in the IPCC report?
Thomas Karl: In the past three reports [1990, 1995, 2001], I was the convening lead author. … This time, I was what they call a review editor, so my responsibility was to ensure that the comments and some suggestions and criticisms from the review process were properly incorporated into the text.
MX:What role does the National Climatic Data Center play in putting together the IPCC report?
TK: A pretty substantial one. We provide much of the data … the analysis that’s used in the report. We had two lead authors in this particular report, and a number of what they call contributors—these are people who write up contributions … to be included. The lead authors then integrate that.
MX: This report is going to be looking at human-health impacts, socioeconomic impacts, water reserves, etc. Can you provide some general overview of these key issues?
TK: Well, I haven’t been directly involved in this report like I was in the other one. But I do know some of the key human-health issues would be things like vector-borne diseases. … For example, in Milwaukee, Wis., there was a case of cryptosporidium because the sewage system got overwhelmed by heavy precipitation, and many people got sick drinking the water out of the public facilities. … We often think about it in terms of the U.S., but this report will focus globally. Remember, 99 percent of the globe doesn’t have the resources that we have in terms of ability to cope. So a lot of the discussion [will be] about the impact in areas where the gross national product is much less. The report will talk a little bit about, I’m sure, winners and losers. …
It’s very tempting to focus only on the negatives, but there are some positive attributes. I’ll give you an example: When we have very warm winters, there’s much less of a demand for heating, and generally from the standpoint of socioeconomic impact, that’s good. But on the opposite end, if you have much warmer summers, air-conditioning needs go up. And then there’s discussion about [the amount of fuel being used]. … Some of that will be discussed, but maybe one of the parts that will be missing is … [the socioeconomic impacts of hurricanes]. You won’t find that in this report, but maybe the next one.
Sharon LeDuc: And I think with the utilities … the rates will have to be re-examined. In fact, we have an effort here to try to help utilities look at how they can plan using the temperature data that we have, and maybe do a better job at incorporating that. We’re trying to work with them to better plan in the face of uncertainty.
MX: What’s the role of “sustainable development,” as it’s mentioned in the report outline?
TK: Right now, there are a number of scenarios … used in looking at the future, based on population growth, what technology is used, how quickly it’s spread. … Under the scenarios where population grows quickly, we stick with pretty much existing technologies. There’s low introduction of new technology, [and] it’s not spread throughout the world. … You get worst-case scenarios where carbon-dioxide concentrations increase dramatically. The difference between that and the low end of emissions, where things happen more slowly in population change … and there’s a much more dramatic emphasis on new technology and the introduction of that technology, … is rather substantial. And this is one of the issues that people argue about, saying, well, if they can buy some more time, the changes won’t be that abrupt and dramatic. People are concerned about climate surprises: melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet and parts of Antarctica, raising of sea levels. … Those are the issues that could potentially be affected by how quickly carbon dioxide increases.
MX: What about those “irreversible” aspects of climate change mentioned in the report outline?
TK: There’s concerns that there are tipping points, or triggers, that once triggered can’t be stopped. One example is release of methane from peat bogs and frozen permafrost. Right now, people are actually trying to make measurements quickly. … We know methane is being released from these bogs. The question is how quickly is it increasing—is it more than what was going on 20 years ago?—and that may take awhile to get good measurements for being able to project into the future. At the same time, you’re … playing Russian roulette, so to speak. No one knows what the real probability is, but chances are that if all that CO2 and methane were released, it would be equivalent to all the CO2 and methane we’re releasing in human production. … There’s some feedbacks that happen … and part of them are believed to be the release of large amounts of methane and carbon dioxide that’s trapped out into the atmosphere. And things like land-surface vegetation changes have an impact. Taking away boreal forests and tundra will have an impact on how much the sun’s energy is absorbed. So these are the kinds of trigger points, and people are concerned. …
MX: What impacts can we expect in Western North Carolina?
TK: There’s a couple of issues that are particularly relevant for Western North Carolina. One of them has to do with … the devastation that water can do. One of the trends that we’ve observed in the data is an increase in extreme heavy precipitation, and that is expected to continue into the future, especially as the climate warms. That’s something that takes awhile to plan and adapt for, in terms of changes in infrastructure and routing water. …
And there’s many other aspects of climate change that we don’t normally think about. Just simple things like the population dynamics of insects and birds. Those kind of things that we are unaccustomed to seeing are now moving and migrating into areas that they haven’t been before. … Especially in high elevations and other locations where you can see things change, moving up and down the mountain slope.
MX: Al Gore has proposed slashing emissions by 90 percent by 2050 and banning incandescent light bulbs in favor of CFLs. Is this an appropriate response?
TK: One of the things that we try to emphasize is … being what we call “honest brokers”: We try to stick to science and the changes that we see, and a little bit on the impacts, but not to get involved in identifying solutions. … This way, scientists at our center don’t get wrapped up in terms of a solution. There’s people on all sides of this issue.
MX: On a related topic, how does the recent media blitz affect the work of climate scientists?
TK: It certainly is a drain on our ability to continually focus on the science. But there are some very positive things. One of the difficulties that scientists generally have is being able to communicate the uncertainties that they have in plain language so that average, nonscientist citizens can understand. I think it’s really heightened, within the community, the need for training … scientists to be able to communicate. There’s uncertainty in science, and there’s understanding among scientists. … Sometimes, the discussion among scientists is lost when it goes directly out to the public without trying to put it in proper context. I think this is an area in which there’s a lot of learning going on on both sides. I think it’s good.
MX: Time magazine’s famous cover story about climate change read: “Be worried. Be very worried.” So how worried should we be?
TK: My reaction to that is, worry doesn’t do much good. I think this is a very serious issue, and I think the best thing that we can do is have more people informed about what we know and what we don’t know. In the end … it’s our votes—who we elect and what they do—that’s going to really decide how this issue is dealt with. And I would say, you know, be informed, because actually there are some things that are very likely to happen within the next 20 years that will affect real decisions. …
If I was thinking about building a ski resort, or … a golf course … I might be thinking about what the climate’s likely to be in 20 years. And these are things that people are facing right now. Insurance companies are dropping people’s insurance along the coast, and it can get very expensive. And so there are some real, everyday issues that the common individual might not have thought about 10 or 20 years ago. And you know, simple things, like … as you get these heavier precipitation events, you’ll want to make sure the water isn’t coming into your house. … Here in the mountains, houses have fallen off their slope, and people have been affected by flash floods.
SLD: There are going to be things that will have to be answered, like water rights, and what do you use for your planning period when you’re trying to develop a policy that’s going to work into the future? So there’s going to be some issues that people will need to put in their planning.
TK: I know I would be personally careful about building a house. Now, compared to 20 years ago, I’d be more concerned about making sure it’s got adequate cooling.
MX: It seems like the IPCC has two kinds of critics: those who insist global warming isn’t real, and then those who say the IPCC is too conservative due to government intervention. How do you respond to each of these?
TK: Well, that’s probably about right: We’ve got people on both sides. I actually think the IPCC process is the most remarkable process nations have really conceived. Considering there’s been few problems that [have had to be] solved globally, and to think that all the nations could get together their experts. … And remember, it’s written in English … so imagine, you have all these translators translating this material. … And so what happens at those meetings is they’re trying to clarify the language. But [governments] don’t change any words without going back to the group of scientists and checking to see if yes, we can live with that, based on facts that we have. … By and large, it’s the best process I’ve ever seen. … And the alternative is, imagine if … you [had] no cohesion between countries that are putting out the reports. … It’s a global problem, so you really need global participation. …
You frequently hear the question, Do you believe in global warming? As if it’s like a belief system. And everyone has an opinion. … But what I always like to follow up with is, well, how much work … are you doing to suggest that you’ve really weighed the evidence? It’s sort of like, if you’ve got a brain tumor … you probably don’t go to a podiatrist, you go to a brain specialist. … [The people who say global warming isn’t real] are not looking at the same data we are. …
You know the Arctic is projected, in maybe 40 years, to be completely free of ice in the summertime but not in the wintertime. … There’s been a lot of discussion of whether ships now need to be revamped to make it through the Arctic—they’re still hitting the ice there, but if they’re going to start traversing the Arctic in transport ships, you have to start thinking about, well … do you design icebreakers that’ll work for 20, 30, 40 years? And those things take a long time to get built and put into operation.
MX: What are some examples of things that have already changed?
TK: Some of them are subtle. There’s been a paper written about the increase in tumbleweeds in the West. They’ve been inundated by tumbleweeds out in Montana, but a few years ago there was an article in Science that was about the increased carbon dioxide and the growth of tumbleweeds. …
The other things people have noted are the Alpine meadows are shrinking, bird species are changing their patterns, some butterflies are actually becoming extinct. And a lot of people will perhaps say, well, so what? One less butterfly. But I think the concern around the population-dynamics biologists is that you’re not sure what this really does to the ecosystem. And you may get some species that we don’t particularly like that becomes dominant for an inadvertent reason: fire ants moving north, for example. …
[Another] good example is the pine beetle. The lodgepole pine in the West—pictures of lots of destruction, a lot of dying, dead trees. It has been shown that the only way those things can become a major nuisance is when the minimum temperature stays above minus 40. We’ve had many winters like that, so [pine beetle] populations are increasing. They do well when drought is prominent: Trees get weakened by drought, and then there’s forest-management practices that also have an impact. … If you go out West and look at the lodgepole pines, there’s just dead trees everywhere.
MX: Any suggestions for steps that people should be taking in their everyday lives in light of coming changes?
TK: I would be thinking, if you’re going to do long-term investments, that what you see today isn’t going to be what it’ll be like 10 years from now. … Odds are it’s going to be warmer, and you’re going to have more of a chance of heavier precipitation, and there will actually be periods of drier droughts. … So if you’re going to make a long-term investment … [think about it being] warmer, with more significant precipitation events. …
I built a house four years ago, and I needed to plant trees. … I didn’t plant any sugar maples, because they’re not able to withstand the heat compared to red maples. … So even though that’s something I’d like to see for 30 years, I’d hate to see them die in five or 10 years because of a very hot summer.