COMMENTARY: When I got into climate modeling about 25 years ago, I did not think too much about the consequences of burning fossil fuels. I got into climate modeling because I was fascinated then (and still am today!) with the fluid dynamics of the atmosphere and ocean.
Now, of course, I did not wake up one day with a passion for fluid dynamics. No. It started with a fascination of rockets in middle school, then the aerospace engineering and the aerodynamics of jet airplanes in college, then — finally — the fluid dynamics of the atmosphere and ocean in graduate school. But across my full 50 years one thing has never changed — as I learn and understand more about the natural world, I am ever more in awe and humbled by its beauty and complexity.
And this beauty has fed my seemingly bottomless curiosity for how and why the air and water move around the Earth as it does. For that I am grateful.
But through the years, I came to realize it was more than just about me fulfilling my own ambitions and fascinations. And more broadly I came to realize that science is more than individuals fulfilling their passion to learn about some part of the world that is special to them.
I came to see science as a service to society. We figure stuff out. We find solutions to hard problems. We make discoveries. And often we hit on something important, something with profound implications to the world we live in — like climate change.
As climate scientists our job is to provide — to the best of our ability — a clear description of how the Earth will change with increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases. Now I kind of thought that we had an understanding between climate scientists and policymakers. We study the problem, we build theories, we gather observations, we produce projections — you know, we do what scientists do. Then, policymakers — our politicians — would act on this information to craft legislation in the best interest of all of us. Scientists and politicians — hand in hand — each serving society in their own way.
As climate scientists, we are holding up our end of the bargain. We have been accumulating the evidence for global warming for 150 years now — yes, 150 years. The theory underpinning climate change has been verified, countless times, through laboratory measurements, observations in the atmosphere, ocean and ice systems, and through modeling simulations. It might be that climate change is the most interrogated theory in the history of science.
I have to look to the policymakers and ask — “What are you waiting for?”
The scientific evidence is unequivocal and compelling. We need to do something — we need to start today — in fact, we needed to get started decades ago — and we need to be committed to doing even more in the decades to come. The consequences of getting this wrong are irreversible. We only have one planet. We only have one chance to get this right.
All of our “public debate” and re-litigation of the settled science of climate change comes at real cost. It is keeping us from talking about issues that we actually need to discuss in the public square. What aspects of climate change don’t we fully understand? What are the risks — from environmental, to economic, to national security — that accompany the aspects of climate that we can’t yet predict?
Just because we understand the basic physics underpinning climate change science does not mean that we understand everything about climate change. Yes, we understand far more than enough to take action. But we don’t understand all of the consequences of a warming world. To be blunt, this should worry us all. We don’t — and likely never will — unravel all of its mysteries. And this is what is so addictive about science — as scientists we can be confident in our understanding of how a system will work — for example, that the Earth will warm with increasing levels of greenhouse gases — and still be humble in knowing (and, in fact, be excited in knowing) that we don’t comprehend all of the consequences.
The list of what we don’t know about climate change is long and important: Will warming waters in the Southern Ocean reach Antarctica and melt ice to produce rising sea levels well above our current estimates? How will the number and intensity of hurricanes in the tropical Atlantic change with a warming ocean? What will happen to all of the carbon trapped in the Arctic permafrost as it melts? And closer to home, will there be enough water in the Southwest to sustain us?
These are profound questions — whose answers will determine the course of history.
The decisions that we make today — the carbon that we emit today — will have consequences today and for many generations into the future. When we think about the choices we should make today, we need to know that is it not just about us — it is not just about today — but it is about our children, and their children and their children. Climate scientists will continue to serve you, to serve society and to serve our government through improved understanding of how our beautiful and complex Earth works and how it will change — but it is up to all of us to decide how to act on this knowledge.
So what can each of us do today? Actually, it is pretty simple. If you are still in school, consider science and engineering as a career — we need all of the help we can get! For the all of us — engage, get involved. Just like you are doing on Earth Day, continue to participate. Get to know your elected officials — across the city, state and federal government. Set up a meeting with them. When you sit down with them, look them in the eye, then politely but sternly ask them — “So what are you waiting for?”
Todd Ringler found his way into science through aerospace engineering. His did his graduate work in the role of mountain ranges like the Rockies in controlling the climate of the atmosphere. Over the the last decade he has been pioneering a new approach in climate modeling that bridges from global climate change to regional climate impacts. He, along with a few hundred scientists from across the nation, are focused on predicting the likelihood of rapid sea-level rise and its impacts on coastal communities.