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John Harte on Climate Change

In “Warmer and Warmer," NOW visits John Harte, a Professor of Environmental Science at the University of California at Berkeley, and examines his unique global warming experiment in Colorado. For over a decade, Harte has been heating a Rocky Mountain meadow to figure out what global warming is going to mean for life on earth. Harte's work about the Meadow experiment have been published in numerous scientific journals, including SCIENCE, "Shifting Dominance Within a Montane Vegetation Community: Results of a Climate-Warming Experiment," Feb 10, 1995 and a 2002 EPA report on climate change.

Read more from John Harte’s interview with NOW producer William Brangham:

BRANGHAM: Can you explain why scientists feel a certain level of confidence in predicting the future of the earth’s climate?

JOHN HARTE: The science of global warming has advanced dramatically over the last 50 years, with the availability of fast computers that can process data, and the availability of satellites that provide huge quantities of data. We've developed and perfected climate models that are capable of making reliable projections of what the future climate is going to look like.

It's important distinguish between climate models and weather prediction. We all know that when the weatherman says that “It's gonna rain tomorrow," that it may be perfectly beautiful tomorrow, and not rain. Predicting tomorrow's weather is actually more difficult than projecting the typical climate, the average climate 40 or 50 years from now. And the reason is, climate predictions aren't concerned with the details of just how much rain will fall at this location, on this particular date. They're concerned with the average annual conditions. Typically, for example, how much snow will fall in an average winter, 50 years from now. That's actually a lot easier to do, than to predict the weather.

BRANGHAM: During previous campaign seasons, there was more talk about the environment and climate change. Polls showed it was high on peoples' list of concerns. But this season, the whole thing seems to be a non-issue.

JOHN HARTE: I think a lot of the resistance is based on misinformation and failure of the media, and perhaps of scientists themselves, to explain clearly, forthright-- rightly to the public what the evidence is. It's also, I think, based on a lack of understanding of what the consequences of global warming are likely to be.

The consequences for every day life, for every day people, are going to be enormous and severe. Out west, we have a tremendous problem. And it's been exacerbated in the last decade or so. It's the problem of wildfire. And wildfires are currently something that practically everybody that lives in the west, even in Alaska this summer, have to worry about. Well, one of the clear projections from global warming science is that we're going to see increasing frequency of drought, and parching of the forests in the west. And this is gonna mean an increasing incidence of wildfires.. of wildfires with increasing intensity, increasing frequency.

BRANGHAM: I sometimes hear people on talk radio dismissing global warming, saying, "You know, I'm sick of shoveling the snow. I'm sick of the cold. Let's let it get a little warmer."

JOHN HARTE: Well, if those people like to eat food, they should understand that their food is grown on farms. And if they live in the western United States, the chances are those farms are irrigated. They're irrigated with water from snow melt. And without snow, the west would lose its water supply to irrigate its crops, and provide food for all of us.

If you live out here in the west, you probably like to ski. Well, guess what's likely to happen to the ski resorts over the next 50 years? They're gonna go outta business, because there won't be enough winter snow to provide good ski slopes. They may think they're going to create artificial snow from water in the rivers. What water? It's not gonna be there for them.

So we're gonna see drought conditions, losses of water supplies. We're likely to see effects on coastal zones from sea level rise. If these people who don't like to shovel snow think about-- the folks that live along the coast lines, they might feel a little bit concerned for their livelihood, as sea level-- inundates coastal communities. In fact, will lead to the loss of entire island nations in the South Pacific.

The effects of global warming just on heat waves in our southern cities is going to be important. We're gonna get the problem of what I will call killer heat waves. Right now, in cities like Phoenix, we get periods each summer where the temperature is up at 110, 115 degrees, for a few days. We're gonna see longer periods with even hotter temperatures in these cities. And it's going to make life extremely uncomfortable, and unhealthy for people living there.

There's another explanation for the lack of concern on the part of some people about global warming. And it has to do with the fact that projected warming for the next century is on the order of six degrees Fahrenheit, eight degrees Fahrenheit. And people would say, "Well, what's so big a deal about six degrees warmer temperature?" "After all," they might say, "if I walk out of my house this morning, and it's six degrees warmer than yesterday, I probably wouldn't even notice it unless I heard the weather man say it. So, why should we be concerned?" Well, it's important to understand that on a global basis, a six degree warming is a huge event. If you go back 20,000 years ago, when much of North America was under ice, we were in the depths of the last Ice Age, and all around the planet, we were under much colder, Ice Age conditions, it was a hugely different climate than today. Well, if you look at what the global average temperature was then, and compare it to the global average temperature today, it's only about 12 or 15 degrees hotter today than it was then. So, six degrees is about half as big a warming as the warming from the last Ice Age to the present. So, that's a big affect.

It's interesting. That in all of human history, and in fact, if you go back over the last many millions of years, the world has never experienced a global average temperature that's six degrees hotter than today. So, we will be in unknown climate territory in 50 years.

BRANGHAM: Another argument you often hear against taking action is that anything we might do now will cripple us economically, so we should just wait to see what happens and then adapt.

JOHN HARTE: What these folks say is that it will just be too expensive. It will wreck the economy if we try to slow down the rate of fossil fuel consumption. And there's many simple, straight forward responses to that, that are based on sound economics, and sound engineering.

Let me give an example:. One of the things we could be doing immediately is to pass legislation that would increase the fuel efficiency of our automobiles. And not just ordinary cars, but also SUVs. In the 1970's, we passed legislation. It was called the CAFE standards, that increased the fuel efficiency of automobiles from about 16 or 17 miles per gallon up to about 26 miles per gallon. And that legislation led to American consumers saving many hundreds of billions of dollars over the ensuing years. Because they were spending less money on gasoline. Their cars were more efficient. Now we need to do the same thing again. We have in hand, the engineering skills, the design of automobiles, that could easily be getting 35 miles per gallon, instead of just an average of 26. And we could be making four wheel drive vehicles that do this as well.

Now with the exception of the hybrid, which is a terrific advance, we're not doing very much about this problem. What we need to do is tighten the fuel efficiency standards so that all automobiles are getting the kind of fuel efficiency that the hybrids get today. And it would save us money. And not only saving us money because we'd pay less for gasoline, but we'd be less dependent on Middle Eastern sources of oil. Which means we wouldn't have to be involved in the military activities that we're now involved in, to defend our supplies of oil. We wouldn't have as much smog in our cities. We wouldn't have as much acid rain. We wouldn't have as much oil spills along our coastlines, and in the oceans that threaten our ecosystems.

In every way, we'd be better off with higher fuel efficiency in our automobiles. Now legislation to do this was proposed, and defeated in the Congress. But not by very much. And it could be passed if the government really backed it. And one of the, I think it's the single most important thing we could be doing, we could pass that legislation right away. It's benefits would kick in over the next half decade or so, and the effects on our economy would be positive. On our health would be positive. On our climate would be positive. And it's a win, win situation. It just confounds me that nothing has been done along those lines.

BRANGHAM: Where's the resistance coming from?

JOHN HARTE: There are many vested interests of course, that don't want to see a reduction in the use of gasoline. The companies, which make money selling gasoline to people with very inefficient automobiles. The executive branch of the government did not back this legislation. And with those pressures, it wasn't done. There was a lack of political will. A lack of judgment on the part of our leaders.

In the 1970's, and even late '60s, it was a Republican administration, the Nixon administration that passed a series of environmental laws that were outstanding in their scope. They passed the Endangered Species act, which Richard Nixon strongly backed. They passed the Clean Air legislation, Clean Water legislation, set up the Environmental Protection Agency. And under a series of administrations since then, that legislation has been supported, and in fact, strengthened. The 1990 Clean Air act amendments, under George Bush senior's administration, strengthened the Clean Air legislation. It's only in the last four years that we've seen a steady erosion of these environmental laws. A lack of concern about the quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink, the climate we live in, and the species that we get to enjoy in the woods, and the meadows around us.

I think based on studies, polling studies that have been done, that the people very much understand it. And they're thirsty for politicians who will speak to them honestly and clearly about these issues. And who will base what they say on science, rather than on some other criteria. I wish I knew what it was that causes our leaders in recent years to ignore the science, and pretend that these problems aren't real.

This recent lack of concern about the environment is enormously distressing. I do not understand it. It can't be politically popular. But it seems to be something that is a result of the enormous pressure from special interests on the government.

BRANGHAM: Going back to possible solutions, you mentioned that increasing the fuel efficiency of cars is one big step we could take.. what else should we be doing?

JOHN HARTE: In the longer run, we have to make a transition from fossil fuel derive energy to solar energy. We should be investing much more heavily today in research and development on solar energy. Wind energy, photo-voltaic energy to produce electricity from sunlight. The technology is there. It's in some cases, it's cost effective already to be doing this. I recently put solar collectors on the roof of my home in Berkeley, California. And it was an economically sensible thing to do, as well as a sound environmental thing to do.

Government does have a big role in promoting research and development, perhaps tax incentives for the development of solar energy. But I think industry actually is the sector of the economy with the biggest role. And I feel that they're the ones who are really missing the boat here. I've believed for a long time that the economic giants of the second half of the 21st century are gonna be those companies that get in first, and smartest with development of solar energy. If you go back 100 years ago, and you ask, "Well, who became the economic giants of the 20th century?" it was Rockefeller standard oil. It was the people who said, "Here's something new and exciting. And we can dev-- we can be first. And we can be best. And we will dominate the economy of the century." Well, I think we're not following up on this piece of-- this historical lesson. And those companies, I don't know who they'll be, they may not be our current economic giants. It certainly doesn't look like it'll be our current oil companies. Because by and large, they're not taking up the challenge of solar energy. I think maybe somewhere in a garage in some small town, the Rockefeller of the 21st century is puttering away on a small photo-voltaic system.

BRANGHAM: What do you want people to understand about your experiment?

JOHN HARTE: I think that one of the implications of the experiment is that we have to improve our understanding of ecosystems, and how they couple to climate. Because what the experiment is saying is that climate warming could be much worse than we think it is. That the ways in which ecosystems alter the climate are going to exacerbate the warming problem. And so, this increases the sense of urgency that I feel, and I think many of my scientific colleagues feel, has to be exerted, in order to confront the problem of global warming, and take the actions necessary to prevent it from getting worse.

BRANGHAM: Is there any reluctance on your part to speak out about these issues?

JOHN HARTE: People have said to me, and to my colleagues, that scientists should simply stay in their laboratories, do their research, and not talk about the implications of their science to the public. Now, one of the persons who once said this to me was an art historian. And I said, "Look, suppose you faced the impending extinction of the original art works that are the basis of your scholarship? Suppose every year, you learn that a half a dozen or more original works of art were obliterated from the surface of the earth? Suppose you were a literary scholar, and original manuscripts were disappearing?" This is the situation we face in ecology.

I didn't go into science simply to gather abstract information, and write down equations, and formulate hypotheses. I went into science because I feel that science is one of our best methods for improving the human condition. And it wouldn't make sense for me to learn all of these scientific facts, and gain an understanding of the consequences of climate change, and not tell the public about it. It just wouldn't make sense. And besides, the public is funding my research. I owe it back to the public to tell them what the science is telling us.

Now it's the politicians that are gonna ultimately make the legislative decisions. It's the public that's gonna elect the politicians. And it's partly the scientists who can inform the public, so they can make better political decisions.

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