Former lead NASA scientist spoke to The Varsity on getting the money out of politics

Climate science deals with facts. As in any field of natural science, there are no ethical judgments cast, no economic projections, no statements on campaign tactics or corporate strategy. Yet climate science has become a remarkably politicized field. From the bitumen of climate data, it is not difficult to derive descriptive statements about the health of the environment that point very strongly to courses of action that humanity should take. Although the data itself is neutral, these proposed courses of action are vehemently rejected by the oil industry, and political rhetoric that denounces the reality of climate change is reflective of this.

Dr. Steve Easterbrook, a former lead NASA scientist and current professor in the Department of Computer Science, spoke about climate modeling at the recent TEDxUofT conference. Easterbrook described climate modeling as a method of gathering information about the past and wisdom for the future.

Easterbrook is one of the many scientists whose mission is to increase awareness of environmental science among the public. Science communication is especially significant in such a politically charged field as climate science. It translates knowledge that is useful in the scientific community into knowledge that is useful for society as a whole. Climate science cannot provide normative statements about whether consumers should reduce their carbon emissions, but it does provide information that makes the right course of action clear.


The Varsity: You spoke about some of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s reports, but other than those high-level scientific documents, how are the outcomes of climate models generally communicated to the public?

Steve Easterbrook: Actually, that’s probably the main way. What happens is the scientists publish their paper in the scientific literature, but almost nobody outside of the science community ever sees those. The only real way, then, that those results get out is over these larger assessment reports. So the panel produces them every six years. But national governments also do them more frequently. In the US there are more frequent assessment reports. And then generally what happens is the media pick up on those reports and attempt to summarize them, so whenever a report comes out, there’s usually a flurry of stories in the press that attempt to interpret what the reports say for different audiences.

There’s a gap between the scientists — even just how scientists talk about this, the jargon they use — and other communities that want to know about this. Who fills that gap? Well, there are a very small number of science communicators. There are a few journalists who specialize in science, though the newspapers seem to be busy laying people off these days. They can’t afford this. There are a number of people who have trained as scientists and then moved into more communication roles, but very few of them. And then of course there are pressure groups of various kinds, so environmental organizations, and think tanks, political think tanks of various kinds. And so all of them are stepping into that role, and they may or may not get the science right. They all have a particular message they want to push — whichever direction they want to push it. So then, what happens then? The public is just confused. They’re hearing all these different interpretations from people that have a particular message, and that makes it really hard for them to get. What does the science really say? And I don’t think there are many people at all that do a good job of — without worrying about an activist stance — what does the science actually say? That’s missing.


TV: On a related note, the data is pretty clear: climate change is happening. Yet it’s still a viable opinion in some political circles to deny climate change. How can we combat that?

SE: There are a couple of things that I’ve seen happening in the last couple of years that I think have a lot of potential. One is, people in the scientific community are getting more organized and saying, “Look, we need to get better at explaining what we do.” Not even so much what the results are, but what we do. That’s what I was trying to do in the talk today. Forget telling you what to do about climate change, just how do scientists actually work?

There’s a team that was put together by some of my colleagues called the Climate Science Rapid Response Team, and they have a website that journalists around the world, if they have a question about science, can post it there. And they will then field it out to a number of experts, a number of working scientists, who will then be willing to talk to the journalists and talk through the science question. They have something like 100 scientists as a part of this network, and they’re fielding questions every day from journalists. So that kind of thing helps: more scientists who are willing to go and talk about their work. And you know, it’s not what scientists are trained for, but it has to happen.


TV: We focused a lot on trying to get the public to understand what’s going on, but there also seems to be a huge gap with getting the politicians to understand what’s going on. It’s a hard barrier to break, but how can we start?

SE: It really is, and to my mind there’s another problem that we have to solve along the way, and maybe it’s even a more important problem, which is getting the money out of politics. If you ask me what’s the most important thing we can do about climate change, it’s electoral reform, it’s cutting down the amount that lobby organizations can pay politicians to buy their votes.

If we can do that, then at least we’ve cleared the space to have honest conversations with politicians about the science and its implications. But while their election campaigns are funded by large corporations — particularly corporations with a stake in the use of fossil fuels — they’re not able to understand because they’re being paid not to understand. That’s my recommendation. We have to have electoral reform, and that’s an urgent priority.


TV: In regards to computer modeling, we’re constantly making new discoveries in terms of greenhouse gases. Recently U of T made a discovery about a more potent and longer-lasting greenhouse gas. How do these discoveries affect climate models, and how do you incorporate them into future models?

SE: It takes time for new things to get into the models, and it can be years. In some sense the models lag a little bit behind these very latest discoveries. The basics have been known for over a century: the basic operations of greenhouse gases and the way they interfere with the radiative balance of the Earth. And there’s been nothing substantial in 100 years that’s dramatically changed the basic science.

So the new discoveries are typically small changes, maybe in that envelope of what our highest upper bound and lowest bound are on our estimates of climate change. So they might change the uncertainty bounds a little bit. Scientists really don’t expect anything to come along to substantially change those projections. If you’re a scientist, this is how you get glory, right? You discover something that overturns what everybody else knew.

Climate modeling has been going on for [over] 40 years. In that time, thousands of scientists all motivated to say, “I’m going to overturn everything you knew and come up with this amazing discovery and win a Nobel Prize” — well, nobody has. Nobody’s come up with anything that substantially undermines the basic operations of those models and the basic models. It can happen, sure. Is it likely? Probably not.


With files from Augusta Jones

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