TCN Interview
Andrew Dessler of Texas A&M: Climate scientist, science communicator

Andrew Dessler

Andrew Dessler

Andrew Dessler is a climate scientist on the faculty of Texas A&M University. His research involves the roles that water, in different forms, plays in the earth’s complex climate system. For a number of years, Dessler has also been involved in various activities to communicate the findings of climate science to the public and policy makers.

Recognizing his achievements, Google selected him last month as one of its initial group of 21 Google Science Communication Fellows. The company said the new fellowship program, aimed at finding better ways to communicate science to the public, would initially focus on the science of climate change.

Dessler received his B.A. from Rice University in 1986 and his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1994. He explains on his A&M website that when he was working as a senior policy analyst at the White House in 2000, he “became aware of a profound lack of understanding among policy makers and the general public about how science works and how to interpret the conflicting claims one often hears in policy debates.”

Prompted by that realization, he co-authored a textbook, “The Science and Politics of Global Climate Change: A Guide to the Debate.” It was published by Cambridge University Press, which issued a second edition last year. He also wrote a blog for several years, but eventually decided to concentrate on other means of conveying scientific findings about climate change to a general audience.

Dessler spoke recently with Texas Climate News editor Bill Dawson about his work as a climate-science communicator. In the interview, he expressed his views on a variety of related subjects, including:

  • The benefits of renewable energy.
  • New science-communication initiatives.
  • The pitfalls of activism for scientists.
  • The values-laden nature of the climate debate.
  • A “denial machine” that “promote[s] misinformation” about climate change.
  • What the changing climate of the 21st century probably holds in store.

[Related: Explaining research findings about "cloud feedback" in a warming global climate]

Q: Could you, please – for our readers who aren’t familiar with your work and your viewpoints – summarize your own view with regard to the current status of climate science, what it says, and what the appropriate public policy discussion or debate should be, flowing from that science. I understand – and tell me if I’m wrong – that you think the appropriate discussion right now should be not so much a debate about the science as what do we do about what the science is telling us.

A: As a climate scientist who works on this every day, the parameters of the mainstream view – what most climate scientists think – are actually quite well delineated. It’s that there’s no question the earth is warming and every decade, just about, is going to be warmer than the previous decade. That doesn’t mean every year is going to be warmer but every decade should be, and that for the last few decades, most of the warming is due to humans. Further, over the next century we can expect warmings of a few degrees Celsius.

While that may not sound like a lot, it really is. So to give you a yardstick of how to evaluate what a few degrees Celsius is, a few hundred years ago we had a period that people refer to as the Little Ice Age and that was only one degree Celsius cooler than it is now. It’s kind of surprising – if you cool the earth even 1 degree, you get a Little Ice Age, and if you go back 20,000 years to the last glacial maximum, when it was a real Ice Age, that was 5 to 8 degrees cooler than it is now. So temperature changes of a few degrees Celsius should compel our attention. Essentially, if you go to [a scientific] meeting, nobody really disputes those facts. There are a very small number of credible atmospheric science skeptics who will dispute them, but those people are a vast, vast, vast minority.

quote 1

As far as the debate – now I’m stepping away from being a scientist, and this is my personal opinion as a citizen. That is that while I don’t like to say the science is settled, I do think we know enough that we should be talking about what we want to do to address the risk. And I think it’s important for your readers to realize that there are policies we can embark on which [don’t] just address climate change but also solve other problems. For example, right now oil is $110 a barrel. That’s not good for us. And we know that relying on imported oil really exposes us to a lot of economic risk. And so, for example, transitioning to renewable energy, which would not only help the climate problem, [it] would also provide us with energy security and other things like that.

Also, we know the price of oil and coal – even without issues of geopolitical instability – the prices of fossil fuels are just going up, whereas sunlight is free today and it’s going to be free forever. The wind is free today and it’s going to be free forever. So there are lots of reasons we should switch to renewables. Climate is one of the most important but by no means the only one. Even if you don’t believe in climate change, there are strong reasons to support policies that would switch us away from fossil fuels into renewables.

Q: When and why and how did you get into the realm of public communication? When did you take on the role of public communicator about science? I have read that the decision was related in some fashion to your work in 2000 as a senior policy analyst in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy [OSTP].

A: That was probably the genesis of it. Initially, it was just a lark. I heard that OSTP was looking for an atmospheric scientist to be on their staff and I lived in Washington and thought that was interesting. I really didn’t have any idea of what it would be like, but it’s the kind of thing that kind of appeals to me. It sounded like it might be a grand experience, and I spent a year there. I didn’t particularly like it but I did learn a lot. I’m glad I’m not working in that kind of environment anymore. But I learned there about how science is consumed at that level of our government, and how those people think about science, and that really got me started.

I went back to Maryland where I was on the research faculty at the University of Maryland and I started teaching a class. In the class I’d go over the science of climate change, and the students looked really bored. Then I’d start talking about policy and I noticed the students really perked up. They were really interested in that. I thought I really have something here – this is material they really care about, it engages them much more than sigma T to the fourth, and blackbody radiation and climate physics.

That’s what really encouraged me to write the book. The publisher said you have to find a coauthor because the kind of book I had a vision for, they said you’re not qualified to write that by yourself. So I found a colleague of mine who was at the White House when I was there. As he and I wrote the book – he’s really an expert on policy – I really learned a lot about the non-science aspects of it. It was really the education I got while writing the book that was really the turning point.

At that point I think I realized it was not sufficient for me to sit at my desk and do research. I like to apply the hundred-year test to my actions. I ask myself, “In a hundred years what are people going to think about what I did?” People are going look back and say the scientists knew what was going on, and I felt that just sitting at your desk and doing research was not acceptable in that situation. I had to do more than that, so I initially started blogging. That was mid-2006. My book came out in 2005 and then in mid-2006 I had come to the conclusion that this was something I was interested in. I knew enough climate change that I could do it. It turns out you really have to know a lot to be an effective communicator because you get questions on everything and you really have to be able to answer essentially any question. So it requires a real breadth of knowledge to be a real effective general communicator. I was sort of well-positioned by that time to do it, so I started blogging and that was the beginning.

Q: Why did you decide to stop the blog?

quote 2A: I burned out on it. It’s exhausting. It’s more than that it’s exhausting. It’s not really physically exhausting. It sort of exhausts your soul. What it is, is you’ll write a blog post and you’ll get exactly the same comments. And then something will happen and you’ll think, “Oh, I should blog about this.” And then you’ll think, “I already blogged about this.” You know, these things don’t change. The arguments that the skeptics come up with are just the same arguments and they never go away. You feel like you’re never making any progress. It’s a Sisyphus. You roll the boulder up the mountain and then you roll it up again and again and again. And pretty soon, I just said, “I quit.” It wasn’t just that I quit but I decided there were other things I could do. I was going to use my energies in other ways, other than blogging.

Q: What are some of those ways?

A: A few things. First off, I started writing another book. In fact, I just finished it and just sent it to my publisher. It’s another textbook. I’ve decided that the problem is, you have to educate people. And while you cannot convince somebody in 30 minutes or an hour, you actually can convince people if you have them for the whole semester. I get students in that are skeptical and by the end of the semester they see the case and they say, “Wow, I really can’t argue with that.” They still may not like taxes and they still may not like cap-and-trade, but they at least recognize that the people advocating that climate change is something we need to deal with are not fascists.

I do more what I would call high-leverage media things. I do more radio interviews now. I should say, I also do Q-and-A’s with important environmental newsletters in Texas. Make sure that’s in the transcript.

Q: [Laughter] Thanks. With regard to your interaction with the news media, I know that you have become affiliated recently with a couple of initiatives which are somewhat similar, as I understand them – one under the umbrella of the American Geophysical Union [AGU] and the other one a group of independent scientists who have organized a so-called Rapid Response Team to communicate with the media and answer reporters’ questions. Can you explain what those enterprises are, what they do, how they may differ from one another, and what your activities have involved so far?

A: These two efforts that you mentioned are very similar. In fact, they’re incredibly similar. They came out at exactly the same time, without any coordination, which I thought was an incredible coincidence. The goal of both of them is to try to get expert opinion to the news media and policy makers as seamlessly as possible. If you’re a reporter and you have a question about some aspect of the carbon cycle, who do you call? That’s really hard. Who’s the expert? If you have a good Rolodex you can call people and you can ask them who to call, but if you don’t, how do you really find the answer to that?

There is a lot of expertise out there, and I think a lot of people are happy – a lot of scientists are happy – to talk to the news media, but it’s a question of matchmaking. For example, the Climate Science Rapid Response Team, they even call themselves matchmakers. They have a website, and you send in a question. A reporter or policy maker will send in a question, and they will find the expert and they will put them in touch with the person who writes the question. That’s the organization that I actually am most involved in.

The AGU system is a little different. They have people, scientists, who are essentially on alert all the time and when a question comes in, one of the scientists who is on alert answers the question. I think it ‘s probably not quite as good a system as the Climate Science Rapid Response Team, because it’s not clear that any of the people who are actually on alert at any given time are experts in the question being asked. I think the AGU system could be improved a bit, but I give the AGU a lot of credit for organizing it. I think it’s exactly the right thing that needs to be done. Ultimately, as scientists, we need to get the message out to the public and I think that these kind of coordinated activities by scientists are models for how we can communicate.

Q: Have either or both of these initiatives been inspired by either public opinion polls showing declining percentages of the American population agreeing with the basic conclusions of climate science that you outlined earlier, or have either or both of them been inspired by the energetic attacks on climate science from folks on the other side of the debate, based on such things as the so-called Climategate emails and the errors which turned up in some of the 2007 IPCC [the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] reports.

quote 3

A: Yeah, I think they both certainly are. If we were winning the debate hands-down, then no one would be sitting around thinking, “What do we need to do differently?” I think the fact that there is this debate, and that the skeptics have gotten a lot of traction with some people, has led to a lot of consideration by the climate-science community and people who do policy about climate and things like that to really try to ask the question, “How can we improve the message and how can we get the facts out there?” Because, you know, a lot of the debate is about things that aren’t true. While I don’t subscribe to the idea that all we need to do to get policy enacted is educate people, I do think that misinformation doesn’t help the debate.

Q: Last month, you were honored by being selected as one of the 21 initial Google Science Communication Fellows. In an announcement by Google, that company said you and the other fellows were selected from “a pool of applicants of early to mid-career Ph.D. scientists nominated by leaders in climate change research and science-based institutions across the U.S.” They said that the program is “an effort to foster a more open, transparent and accessible scientific dialogue … aimed at inspiring pioneering use of technology, new media and computational thinking in the communication of science to diverse audiences.” And that the initial activities under the program were going to be about climate science. What do you expect your involvement with this effort will involve, or is it too early to say? How do you think this will differ from or complement other communication activities, such as the ones you’ve been discussing?

A: First, let me say I actually know as much about this as you do at this point. I think it’s unclear exactly how this is going to shake out. I’ll tell you what I hope. My hope is that Google is a technology company, and that through collaboration between climate scientists and Google, we can come out with new technologies to help communicate. An example of something I’ve been thinking about for a while is there are really only 1,000, maybe 2,000, climate scientists in the whole world. There are just not that many of them. Maybe 3,000 – it depends on how you count. The question is, “How can we get out there and give talks?” Let’s say I get a call from the Kiwanis Club in El Paso. I’m not going to drive out to El Paso to give a talk. It’s just too far. I don’t have the time to do it. But imagine if I could tell them, “Well, I’ll give you the talk and let’s do it over the Internet, so it will be just like I’m there though I won’t be there.”

Software to do that exists now but it’s not very good. It’s hard to use, and while I might be able to do it, people on both ends have to be technically savvy enough to use it. A lot of people could just never get that software to work on the other end. And so one of the things I talked about in my application for the Google fellowship was – and this is right up Google’s alley – is to come up with technology for people to communicate more effectively over the web with PowerPoint presentations and things like that, so I could give a talk in El Paso one day, Midland the next, Louisiana the next day, without actually having to go. So that’s my hope for this – we can use technology to better enable scientific communications, because that’s really what we need in a lot of respects.

Q: You answered my first question by making clear that the part of your response with regard to public policy was a response you were giving as a citizen, not as a scientist. This raises a question about an interesting, ongoing discussion among scientists and about scientists that I’d like to ask you – how scientists can, one, do science, and, two, fulfill what they see as their obligations as citizens in a democratic society.

First, do you regard yourself as an activist on policies to address climate change – either to mitigate climate change or to adapt to the changes that you foresee – and second, whether or not you think of yourself as an activist, do you think that political or policy activism on climate change, or on any subject of public concern, can damage a scientist’s credibility with regard to his or her discussion of the science itself?

A: The first answer is, I really don’t consider myself an activist. I do have strong opinions on what we should be doing, but I have strong opinions on lots of things. I have strong opinions on the deficit, I have strong opinions on foreign policy, I have strong opinions on just about everything. But I don’t really advocate for any particular policy. I advocate for the science and I do believe, speaking as a citizen, that we know enough to take action now. That’s essentially my public statement on it, so I don’t consider myself an activist.

quote 4

As far as, can you hurt your credibility, I think if people perceive you in the public debate – if you’re perceived as an activist, then it probably does diminish the credibility of your scientific statements. When [NASA climate scientist] Jim Hansen is talking to a big group of non-scientists and he says, “My research says we have 10 years to reduce carbon dioxide emissions or we’ll pass a tipping point,” people may say, “He’s been chaining himself to bulldozers, so I don’t know whether I believe that.” I actually don’t think it hurts your credibility among scientists. I think Jim Hansen is tremendously respected among scientists and I don’t think his political statements diminish the impact that his [scientific] papers have. I’m not worried about it from a career standpoint.

Q: To what extent, if any, do you think the public discussion about climate change is essentially a discussion that reflects people’s different values – for instance, how quickly or how aggressively one should take action on the basis of uncertain science? And I understand that all science is always uncertain, to one degree or another. Related to that, I wonder if you could speak to what you see as the moral dimensions of climate change. Some people – a number of people, scientists and others – have talked about this as an intergenerational issue, where the things that we’re doing now will impact future generations.

A: It’s absolutely a debate over values and not over science. In fact, the arguments over science are a strategy by those who don’t want to take action for reasons not related to science, but they bring up science because that’s an effective strategy to promote gridlock in the policy debate. It’s what the tobacco companies did in the ’50s – tried to argue that the science was uncertain. It’s a good way to stop regulations. That’s essentially what it is. It’s not anything as sophisticated as these people are arguing honestly about science, that it’s really views of uncertainty. I think you’re giving people too much credit if that’s what you think. Instead, I think it’s a real strategy that’s focus-group-tested and poll-tested, that if you argue the science is uncertain, you will get your preferred policy goal, which is no regulations. I’m very convinced that is the case.

As far as the second part of your question – which is, to what extent this a moral question – when I’m thinking as a citizen and I’m considering the various options, all the science in the world doesn’t tell you what to do. All it can tell you is what are the tradeoffs – if we reduce carbon dioxide, this will happen, if we don’t reduce carbon dioxide emissions, this will happen. So the science, by itself, never tells you what to do. The decisions about what actions to take are always, at their core, value decisions. The science tells me this will happen and I don’t want it to happen, so I will take action. The fact that you don’t want it to happen is not a scientific statement. It’s a value statement. All these questions about what you should do are at their core value statements.

There are lots of issues and lots of competing values you have to consider. We have to consider the plight of today’s poor. Two billion people in the world live on a few dollars a day, and in order to bring them out of poverty, they really need to increase their consumption of energy. You have to balance that off against the rights of future generations that haven’t even been born yet. They’re not here to defend themselves. And then you have to weigh that against the risk of extinction. Think about polar bears. Most people have never seen a polar bear. Most people will never see a polar bear. Polar bears are not anything that really contributes to world’s economic health, yet most people would view a world without polar bears as a world that’s a little poorer than the world we have today. So you have to balance all these competing things in your mind, and everybody weights them a little differently, and that’s why people come up with different opinions about it.

Q: After the 2008 election, it appeared there would be a comprehensive climate-energy bill that would pass the Congress and be signed into law by President Obama. That didn’t happen. Such a bill was narrowly passed by the House but then ran into so much opposition from members of both parties – mainly Republicans, but some Democrats as well – in the Senate, that no legislation was passed. Then in the mid-term elections last year, the Republicans, of course, won more seats in the Senate and won control of the House. Many of the new Republican members of the House and some of the committee chairs are decidedly skeptical about climate science, based on their public pronouncements. It appears essentially certain that there will be no comprehensive climate-energy bill in the near term out of the Congress.

In response to these developments and to some of the poll numbers that I mentioned earlier, people on your side of the issue – some of the advocacy groups and others – appear to have been searching for new strategic messages to try to accomplish some of the shift to cleaner energy that they hoped to accomplish with a comprehensive climate-energy bill, such as a cap-and-trade bill. Some of the messages which they appear to be trying out have to do with such things as national security and emphasizing clean air. In fact, they appear to be de-emphasizing climate and some of the scientific underpinnings of concerns about climate change. One, do you see it the same way? And two, what role do you think these other messages have, along with communication efforts you’re engaged in, regarding climate science and climate change itself?

quote 5A: I do see things basically the way you describe it. I think comprehensive legislation is not going to happen in the next two years and maybe several more congressional sessions. I do think though it’s possible we can still make progress through incremental changes – changes that may not be focused on climate change, but that have climate-beneficial aspects to them. Obama, in his State of the Union, talked about this Clean Energy Standard, things like that – again, attacking climate through an energy-security approach, for example.

As far as the changes in messaging goes, that’s really something that the political strategists know more about than I do. These people are polling and focus-group-testing messages to try to find the ones that work. Speaking as a citizen, I don’t really care what idea it is that achieves the goals I want, as long as the goals I want are achieved. If we’re able to reduce our greenhouse-gas emissions by telling people it’s good for national security, then I’m fine with that.

As far as the communication issues, I think that the efforts I’m involved in, like the Climate Science Rapid Response Team, are really unrelated to this. I think climate is going to be something of interest regardless of how it’s sold on Capitol Hill. One of the things I always tell congressional staffers when I talk to them is that as long as you’re in politics, this is going to be an issue. We’re not going to live long enough to see the day when climate change is not an issue. I think there’s a role for informing the general public and policy makers and the media about climate change, regardless of the debate on Capitol Hill.

Q: Last year you joined scientists from Texas A&M and other universities in writing an op-ed column that said “the science of climate change is strong.” You said the column was a response to the critique that was being put out by top state officials of climate science, as part of their still-continuing attack on federal regulation of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. You are an employee of a state university. Have you experienced any negative reaction or feedback in any way from university administrators or elected officials as a result of such communications as your column?

A: No.

Q: Some climate scientists who are active in the public arena, like you, have reported getting anonymous communications from people who disagreed with them – communications that the scientists who received them considered harassing, or even threatening, in some cases. Have you ever experienced this, or do you know scientists who have?

A: I think any scientist whose name is in the paper will get emails from people. Sometimes they’re anonymous. Sometimes they sign their names. I have no idea if their names are correct. I have never gotten one that was threatening, but they are insulting and accusatory, accusing scientists of malfeasance and things like that. I guess they’re harassing. I don’t really read them very carefully. You can tell from the first sentence what kind of email it’s going to be. I do save them, though, for historians to look at later.

Q: Apart from things like that, it’s pretty well recognized and agreed that the public dialogue about climate change and related policy issues is often very rough. Even not talking about anonymous communications, but just the regular give-and-take, online and in other forums. To take just one example, I know you have been called – and I’m quoting this word here – an “alarmist” by your adversaries in the climate debate.

I checked Google a little while ago, and typing in your last name and the word alarmist turned up more than 10,000 hits. Does that word, does that accusation, bother you? And what do you make of that Google result? Does it suggest that there’s some kind of organized effort to diminish your effectiveness as a public communicator, or is this just part of the price that a scientist pays, who speaks out in public?

quote 6A: I don’t think it’s fair, any more than it would be fair to call a tobacco scientist who claims that smoking cigarettes causes cancer is an alarmist. Or it’s fair that, say, a doctor who says having high cholesterol is bad for your health is an alarmist. Or someone who says breathing asbestos can cause lung cancer. Those people aren’t alarmists. I’m not an alarmist any more than those people are alarmists.

I think that in any high-stakes policy debate, there’s going to be a lot of tough, tough rhetoric. Look at health care, for example. For climate change, the stakes literally couldn’t be any higher. Energy is an $8-trillion-a-year business. You have the future of the planet at stake. You also have people who perceive that individual liberties are on the line. I don’t actually believe that’s right, but there’s a perception that climate change will usher in world government and things like that. So the stakes are high, and I’m not surprised that people use rhetorical devices, like calling someone an alarmist, to try to diminish their credibility. I just think that goes with the territory.

Q: Speaking of rhetoric and the use of terminology or vocabulary in the climate debate that’s controversial, I know that you’ve referred to, and I’m quoting, “the denial machine” to describe an apparatus that puts out messages counter to those that you think are correct on this issue. There are some people involved in the public discussion about climate change, including some on your side of the issue, who don’t like the term denier and particularly the variant denial because those words are so closely associated with people who deny that the Nazis’ mass-murder of European Jews happened. Can you reflect for just a moment on that question in particular and why you do choose to use the term denial.

A: I think there are various people engaged in the climate debate and there are a lot of individuals who legitimately believe the science of climate change is much less developed than it actually is. Those people, I would not categorize as deniers. They’re just misinformed by what really is a denial machine. There are think tanks and advocacy organizations out there that are very well organized, they stay on message, and their entire job is to try to push this alternative universe, essentially, where two plus two does not equal four. They are a machine designed for denial. I understand the argument [against using the term], but if the glove fits, the advocacy organizations that do really promote misinformation need to wear it.

Q: You said earlier that if your side was winning the climate-science and climate-policy debate hands down, no one on your side would be talking about how to do better communications, how to get the message out better. Looking back over the past several years, were there things that your side, and scientists in particular, did wrong or could have done better? That helped lead to this particular place in our history with, as we’ve discussed, over the last year or so an increasing percentage of Americans who say they’re skeptical about the key conclusions of climate science.

A: I think it’s a mistake to blame scientists for this. Given the stakes involved – and I mentioned that $8-trillion worth of energy is sold, the future of the planet, government regulations that would be required to address it – it’s inconceivable that there would not have been a high-stakes, rough-and-tumble policy debate. And I think that scientists are essentially collateral damage – and the damage to the integrity of science is collateral damage – by people who make a lot of money and don’t want to stop making a lot of money and by people who are very concerned about the future of government and the role of government. It may be the one thing that you can say about scientists is that they were naive. I don’t think scientists realized how tough it was going to get, and now we do.

Q: Do you think the collateral damage, to use your term, to the integrity of science has troubling ramifications beyond the climate arena?

A: I don’t know the answer to that. I hope not.

quote 7

Q: Finally, what is your own personal best-case hope as a climate scientist, with regard to a future climate for our planet – say, around mid-century, give or take? Do you think that human beings will be able to avoid the worst outcomes that climate scientists have projected as possible? And in the best-case scenario that you hope for – maybe don’t expect, but hope for – will there still have to be a good deal of adaptation to a changed climate?

A: My hope is that the climate sensitivity is at the low end of our range – closer to 2 [degrees Celsius] than it is to 4. And that the high price of oil that we’re now experiencing will get through everybody’s head that we really need to be doing something about this now. I hope that people don’t think we can drill our way out of the problem, because we really can’t. The hope is that this will drive near-term reductions in emissions without destroying our standard of living.

If we do that, I think we probably can limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius – and that’s probably the best case. In that case, there’s going to have to be a really massive adaptation. Two degrees is three times the warming we’ve had over the last 100 years and there will be a lot of changes with 2 degrees of warming. The 2 degrees is by the end of the century, not by the middle, so by the middle of the century there would be [a rise of] 1, 1.5 degrees.

The worst case is a lot worse than that. That prediction is predicated on us being lucky and the climate sensitivity being at the low end. If we’re not lucky and the climate sensitivity is at the high end, then I don’t see any hope of avoiding really significant warming that’s going to be really, really bad.

Image credit: Photo courtesy of Andrew Dessler