Question Answer: What's up with the region's climate?
Four experts on the climate in North America responded to questions from the Post-Bulletin about long-term temperature records, recent weather in Minnesota, the flow of information from scientists to the general public, and climate-change scenarios:
• Mark Seeley is a climatologist/meteorologist with the University of Minnesota Extension Service.
• Cecil Keen is a professor of atmospheric sciences at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
• Richard Muller is a physics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who is a lead member of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, which is analyzing temperature trends underlying climate science, and has been criticized for accepting funds from oil billionaire Charles Koch's charitable foundation .
• Lee Frelich is director of the Center for Forest Ecology at the University of Minnesota.
Some people, including climatologists, are describing Minnesota's record snowfall last winter, heat wave in July, and flooding alongside droughts in recent years as "wild weather."
Richard Muller: If you look back in history, there has never been a period when there wasn't wild weather. When I was growing up in the '50s, wild weather was blamed on nuclear testing. I do know that we're putting enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to worry about it. But you cannot attribute excess snowfall in Minnesota, or in other places, to global warming.
How would you respond to statements that some scientists are constructing a doomsday scenario about climate change?
Cecil Keen:With scorn! Scientists by their mission seek the truth of the science they are studying. Why would they "construct" a scenario if what they are seeing is trending in an alarming direction? Proper scientists would use the data available, and they would understand the variances within the data sets and instrumentations. ... There would be some who could argue for a doomsday scenario, and there would be others who do not and suggest that this is all a "normal" fluctuation of nature. It does not take necessarily an atmospheric scientist to realize that with nearly 7 billion people now on earth (with as big an increase in animals for food), all using and contributing energy more and more, there must be some critical point when humans are going to feel the heat. Are we not now doing so?
Mark Seeley:The overwhelming message is that climate change is real and measurable. ... The deniers, in my view, have less and less to stand on. Most of them have contrived databases, and no measurement standards.
Is the general population getting solid information about climate change?
Lee Frelich:The media have done a poor job in getting facts to people in a way they can understand. I think the media suffer from their need to have to tell both sides to a story, but there aren't two sides to this story. There are multiple views as to what is the best thing to do to reduce carbon emissions, but the only legitimate scientific view about the fact that adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere will warm the climate.
Keen:Yes and no. In the same way as society is becoming more partisan in most things, so are attitudes towards controversial topics in weather and climate. The truth probably is available, but depending on what and where you hear (or listen) to it, will give you, sometimes convincingly, the facts as scientists interpret them. Some wish to conceal or gloss over facts to make a point as that is what people expect — a sound-bite answer to a complicated topic.
There is good scientific information available with a high degree of confidence in truth with data interpretation. ... Most scientists agree that global warming is real and should be of more concern. The media loves controversy and argument as it is good theater, and that is what the public is getting — a theatrical exposure of a scientific issue.
Question asked of Muller:How far have you gotten with the Berkeley project, and what have been your findings?
Muller: We're almost finished with the first stage. The database has been collected, and we'll be releasing (the report) in a month or two. When we started, we didn't know if (the study) would confirm or deny what the other groups have found. We were open-minded. We're finding about the same thing that they have found ... that the surface-temperature warming over the last century has been about 1 degree Celsius. ... When you look at the temperature records in the U.S., about a third show cooling, and about two-thirds show warming. So there's more warming than cooling. That's global warming.
Are special interests affecting the flow of information?
Keen: Special interest groups are intimately involved as it invariably includes money and futures. ... Weather, climate, air pollution all have monetary interludes, and some see everything through money terms.
Frelich: You can trace all (studies authored by contrarians to global warming) to connections with oil or coal companies, and it's really down to just a few of them nationally, and even the ones who used to be considered good scientists are losing credibility because they are coming up with theories to maintain their position that are becoming more and more ridiculous.