An Exclusive Interview with Dr. Lonnie Thompson
By Bryan Hayes
The words “climate change” and “global warming” invoke a myriad of strong opinions, emotions and feelings.
Last week, while gathering with a group of colleagues the conversation of climate change became a talking point. What makes our group so incredible is that we are all quite unique individually but collectively we mesh together very well. We have differing viewpoints, can intellectually converse, and still cordially agree to disagree.
I am not a scientist, but since I do write about sustainability I found this to be a great opportunity to take the questions that were discussed and pose those to an expert on the subject. Fortunately, I had the privilege of speaking to not only an expert but one of the most renowned scientists, Dr. Lonnie Thompson, who is a paleoclimatologist and professor at Ohio State University. Through his research, he is internationally known for his study of ice cores and ice caps worldwide.
Is Climate Change a Hoax?
Dr. Thompson provided the most obvious answer to the question – is climate change is a hoax? “Just look out your door.” He replied. And, while most of us look outside our window we do not actually study scientifically what is going on with the climate, and if there is real change that can be measured.
Dr. Thompson and his group drill ice cores all over the world looking at the history of precipitation and the perspective of change. He noted that when looking back over the last 2000 years, and reviewing the isotopes, there is a consistency that has taken place, but there have been significant changes over the last 50 years. These changes are driven by the increase in temperature. Even though we only had actual temperature data going back 150 years, the research of Dr. Thompson and those in other fields, is able to scientifically identity the Earth’s rising temperatures. How different the 21st century changes are in comparison to thousands of years previous, is the most convincing factor that climate change is real.
From a scientist’s perspective, what do you say to someone who says that if climate change is real, it is a natural occurrence, and man is not to blame?
Unfortunately, with the vast availability of information available on the internet there is no differentiating between a credible source and claims made with little or no scientific fact. Anyone can publish their own opinions, post a blog, or shoot a video that are very believable and because of the power of social media can be easily distributed to mass audiences.
It is true that climate has always undergone change through time. The natural forcings such as changes in the orbital energy coming into the Earth which changes the distribution of radiation on the surface of the Earth. Changing radiation output of the sun due to solar cycles, major volcanic eruptions that put aerosols into the stratosphere that can cool the surface of the earth for one or two years after an eruption as well as natural climate variations driven by El Ninos, monsoons, and North Atlantic oscillations, for example.
The theory that climate change is not directly affected by man does not account for, as Dr. Thompson’s points out, that it is man who is contributing to more greenhouse gasses being put into the atmosphere. On of top of that, aerosols are being put into the air at an alarming rate through industry, agriculture, and the changes needed in the last 50 years to support the vast number of humans now currently living on the planet. Along with that, plastic is manmade and is contributing to much of the waste that is seen not only on land but in the oceans as well.
The more people we have living on Earth means more than we need to sustain life. In order to get the food that we need, forests are being cleared, and that in of itself changes the albedo (the measure of the diffuse reflection of solar radiation out of the total solar radiation received by an astronomical body) on the planet. The examples are endless, but simply put, climate change is directly impacted by humans because “there is so many of us” living on the planet, and more than ever before.
If man does at least share in the accountability, how do you respond to the argument that the Earth will heal itself and naturally adapt to said changes?
A widely distributed ideology is that the planet is self-healing and will naturally adjust to whatever change in climate there is, no matter if it is man made or not. And, according to Dr. Thompson “there certainly are balancing factors on our planet.” For example, when taking a simplistic look at the glaciers in Greenland and in other areas of the world, they have the same effect as an old “icebox’ refrigerator. The sheer presence of the glaciers keep the Earth’s temperature cooler, but when that ice melts the Earth’s temperature rises. After a while the natural systems, like the glaciers, that help regulate the Earth’s temperature are no longer there to help cool the Earth.
If there is climate change, and man is primarily the culprit of such, what about the claim that the fears expressed by scientists are at best exaggerated for political gain and at worse for a specified agenda.
There is skepticism from many people, including a lot of my friends, that while they may believe that glaciers are melting, there is skepticism that scientists in general have an agenda that is politically motivated, to which Dr. Thompson addressed, by saying that “anyone who has ever talked to a scientist knows there is no agenda. If I could find another avenue other than rising greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, I would shift tomorrow.” If any scientist could find a credible alternative solution to the Earth’s rising temperatures, they would likely win a Nobel prize – “there are many scientists who have tried to find other explanations but none have been found.”
The motivations of scientists are much different than that of a businessman whose motive is to make money. A company is primarily concerned with increasing profits. Together, they have a singular objective.
A scientist, on the other hand, has strict guidelines and standards for their research. Certainly, it does take funding to do the research but the driving force is much different for a scientist. As Dr. Thompson points out, “Scientists are driven more out passion than out of money.”
Yes, Dr. Thompson did work with Al Gore on the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” and because Al Gore is a politician, and from a particular party there is some who see some political bias, but Dr. Thompson has also worked with the likes of the late, Senator McCain, who was “very much concerned about climate change.” Dr. Thompson had a meeting in Washington with Senator McCain that included not only the most highly respected scientists but also heads of insurance companies as well.
It is insurance companies, and especially property insurance companies, that are losing money, because of climate change. The increase in the Earth’s surface temperature has directly coincided with extreme weather in the form of what we have witnessed here in Florida with not only hurricanes, but much stronger than normal hurricanes. There are also fires, floods, and other natural disasters that are made substantially worse due to climate change.
In fact, in 2017, over $310 billion dollars was lost because of climate change, which has a direct impact on insurance companies.
Looking at the money lost, only a small amount is covered and the difference is picked up by taxpayers as well as individuals themselves. Working in the property/casualty insurance industry, there are major concerns about the increased risk, because they base their future projections upon past performance, but those projections are no longer accurate.
The economic costs of climate change extend further into so many different industries outside of casualty insurance, and includes municipalities right here in Florida. In Miami, because of the glaciers melting all that water is going into the ocean resulting in rising waters, and as a consequence, flooding.
And, while some may think that scientists are sounding the alarm too quickly and causing undue panic, Dr. Thompson states the opposite in that, “the scientists we know are conservative and we generally understate.” Scientists have understated the problem and have even been surprised that we didn’t see coming so quickly the greatest risks. The rapid changes, even from only 20 years ago, is happening at a much quicker rate than most could ever imagine even in the scientific community.
The question is not whether climate change is man made or not, because that does nothing to solve the problem, but rather how do we rectify the effects of climate change, which are all too real?
“Going back millions of years, there were no glaciers, and sea levels were higher, but people weren’t here.” Dr. Thompson stated. “We built on the coasts.” And, it is the coastlines that are the most vulnerable to climate change. Ocean levels are rising, and that puts the people living there (here) at risk. An animal, or a plant, can migrate inland but humans have built so much of our infrastructure in coastal areas that are now at risk.
Never before have we had so many people inhabiting the Earth, to the tune of some 7.5 billion people, and that is very taxing on the biosphere. Dr. Thompson’s expertise is studying glaciers, and during the course of such research he believes without intervention in time the glaciers will disappear.
That is not to say that Dr. Thompson is fatalistic about our future, because he is anything but, and he is optimistic that some of our greatest innovations have been as a result of not having any other choice. In the end, “when there is no other excuse, then we do the right thing.” There is a basic human nature that pulls us together in times of great need. We come together as a community, as Floridians we have done time and time again after hurricanes to rebuild and help our neighbors get back on their feet.
What it is going to take, according to Dr. Thompson, is for everyone to get on the same page and find solutions. These solutions can lead to incredible economic growth as well as provide a much better environment not only for us, but for our children, and their children’s children.
Dr. Thompson is optimistic we will come to this stage where we do come together, and we do find viable, sustainable solutions. The question becomes, how much pain do we endure before we do that? At the end of the day, we have to deal with what is. Nature can be very cruel. “We can deal with this.” Dr. Thompson professed. “We can make the world a better place than it is right now.”
Granted, if you are still skeptical about climate change maybe asking a renowned scientist is not the answer. Maybe it is an insurance executive whose job is insuring residential and commercial property owners?
Change typically does not come quickly. Viewpoints are as much based on emotion as they are on reason. What we think we know is determined by our experience, our background, and our point of view. In order to change the view, we have to look at something from a different point of reference.
When it comes to climate change, there will be fiery debate, but at the end of the day nature always bats last and that will directly affect all 7.5 billion of us.