TCN Interview
John Nielsen-Gammon: State climatologist and Texas A&M professor

Odds are, many Texans had no idea Texas has an official state climatologist until last year’s record-breaking heat and drought.

On top of everything else it did, 2011′s brutal weather catapulted the person who holds the climatologist position – John Nielsen-Gammon, a professor in the Atmospheric Sciences Department at Texas A&M University – into a much more prominent place in the public eye.

In a recent conversation with Texas Climate News editor Bill Dawson, Nielsen-Gammon discussed various subjects including:

  • His dealings with the media;
  • His views on manmade global warming – its role in last year’s heat and drought, what he thinks should be done about it, and what it will mean for Texas in the future;
  • His worry that climate-change skepticism may hamper Texans’ ability to deal with the phenomenon;
  • The state’s water-supply challenges;
  • The weather outlook for this summer.

Q: You were appointed state climatologist by former Gov. George W. Bush. When did that happen? What are the basic duties, for those who don’t know what the state climatologist does? What other things do you do as a member of the Atmospheric Sciences faculty there?

A: I was appointed in the spring of 2000. The only present statutory duty is serving as a member of the state [Drought] Preparedness Council. As a recognized climate office by the Association of American State Climatologists, we do provide access to climate data, issue reports and climate updates, do case study analyses of climate events and separate climate outlooks, and basically make climate information as useful as possible for the people of the state of Texas.

Q: And otherwise on the faculty – do you teach? Do you do research?

A: Oh, you mean my real job? I’m a full-time faculty member, which means I teach, mostly undergraduate courses. I also supervise graduate student research, serve on committees, review papers and the whole bit.

Q: From my vantage point as a journalist who covers these matters, it’s been my strong impression that your job as the state climatologist has probably gotten a lot more demanding and time-consuming since last year’s drought and heat began getting so brutal – particularly, although not exclusively, I’m sure, in the area of communication with the public and state leaders. Am I right about that? And if so, could you offer a little insight into what it’s been like?

A: When I started the job, I wasn’t a climatologist by background. My specialty is what’s called synoptic and mesoscale meteorology, which is basically weather analysis and forecasting. And I’ve also done some work in air pollution meteorology.

At first, I was mainly just responding to requests for climate information and overseeing the regular monthly updates, responding to press inquiries, and giving occasional talks to groups that invited me, and gradually I got more and more involved in climate-related research. Then with the drought, that’s really all taken off fairly rapidly.

Toward the end of the spring semester, I was giving 10 talks a month around the state. And each talk normally involves about four hours of travel time and at least two hours onsite and usually a couple of hours of preparation, so that’s essentially an additional 10 work days beyond my normal duties. Well, I guess these are my normal duties. Certainly, I had to postpone most of what I do in my spare time because I was pretty much running out of spare time.

Q: Were there some surprises as your public communication activities increased?

A: No. Fortunately mostly what people wanted to hear about was the same basic topic, which was how is the drought going to affect a particular group, whether it was farmers, ranchers, landowners, water managers, etc. And what’s the outlook. So throughout the basic outline of a talk, we’d just update the most recent information on La Niña and the latest outlooks and adjust the technical level of the talk for the audience. But it eventually settled down into a fairly regular routine.

Q: You know, I haven’t done a Google or LexisNexis search, but based on what I’ve seen, I would bet you gave a bunch more media interviews than you ever had before. One, is that true? And two, however many you did, what is your general reaction, looking back on last year and the first months of this year, to the media’s performance in covering the weather situation?

A: Yeah, it’s definitely true. I actually received the 2011 Newsmaker Image Award from Texas A&M University for essentially being most involved with the press during the past year of any of the faculty at the university. I think the press coverage has been generally outstanding and it tends to be, I think, even better at the local level than it is at the national level. The few times I’ve been bitten by eager editing, it’s been mainly with national news organizations other than any of the local coverage.

Of course, the number of press contacts expanded as media outlets recognized that there is a state climate office that has responsibility for overseeing and disseminating climate information throughout the state, so I think I’ve made the press’s job a bit easier also. At least I hope I have.

Q: Those problems that cropped up with the national media – was there a pattern to them? Was there any common thread that tied them together?

Well, there were two in particular. One was a blog, a national blog report, and the other one was from a network newscast. Both of them essentially edited things to make it seem like I was attributing more of the drought to climate change than I actually was.

Q: That’s interesting, because that’s actually the next set of questions I wanted to ask you about, so thanks for that transition.

A: [Laughs]

Q: I wanted to ask you a few questions about anthropogenic global warming, as it’s called, or manmade global warming, or manmade climate change, and just climate change in general, whether it’s anthropogenic or naturally occurring.

Based on my interviews with you in the past and the comments I’ve gotten from you and based on what I’ve read and heard you say in other interviews and public forums, I would describe you, in very basic terms, as an explainer and defender of the mainstream scientific view on these subjects – that it to say, a consensus of a broad majority of scientists to the effect that human activities are heating up the atmosphere and changing the earth’s climate.

Which isn’t to say necessarily that you concur with every single finding or projection within that broad body of science. I know you’ve taken issue with some of them – publicly. Are you comfortable with that basic description – as an explainer and defender of the mainstream scientific view?

A: I am comfortable with that description with one qualification, which is that I don’t think the general public has a really good sense of what the mainstream scientific view is, because news coverage tends to push issues outward so that the people they hear about tend to be taking extreme stances, one way or the other. And I think the public thinks that mainstream climate science generally takes an extreme view, which is not the case.

The mainstream scientific view is firmly that man is one of the factors that alter the climate and that man has been the primary influence over the past half-century or so and that at the present rate we’re going to continue producing a warmer climate on the order of several degrees over the next century. There is disagreement in the mainstream scientific community about how serious the consequences are going to be to that.

Certainly, there is a variety of consequences. What the skeptics characterize as catastrophic anthropogenic global warming is actually a minority scientific view, depending upon what set of polls you look at.

Q: You alluded to this next point just a moment ago, and I wish you could elaborate on it just a bit. What is your view about the role in last year’s drought and heat wave of anthropogenic global warming. I’ve reported it in Texas Climate News previously but I wonder if you could reiterate and let me know if it’s changed somewhat since then.

I think it’s fair to point out by way of context for my readers that last year you were considerably more limited in your attribution of Texas’s weather situation to manmade climate change than were some other scientists like NASA’s James Hansen. Am I correct about that?

A: That’s right. And I think I still disagree with Dr. Hansen, both on his interpretation and some of his analysis. But that’s a discussion to work out on a technical level.

text boxIn the meantime, I made some rough, preliminary estimates back in the fall and since then I’ve collaborated on a paper with a group of scientists from NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] that we submitted last month to the Journal of Climate and haven’t gotten the reviews back to see if the reviewers agree with our conclusion, but the conclusion at least agrees with my original assessment, so I was lucky in that regard that it stood up to further scrutiny.

And basically, the primary factor in the event itself was a sea-surface temperature pattern, and La Niña specifically, which led to lack of rainfall and that normally produces dry and warm weather across Texas, although this was at the extreme dry end of the historical distribution. So there was a lot of bad luck or atmospheric chaos or weather noise, however you want to characterize it, that also played a role.

There is no evidence that climate change contributed to the lack of rainfall, because rainfall has risen over the past century in the state. Scientists have not come to a conclusion regarding whether La Niña, the triggering event, is going to become more or less severe or frequent.

But climate change did play a role in the temperatures being as high as they were. They were warmer than you’d expect, even given the lack of rainfall, and the contribution [by climate change] to that is probably about in the neighborhood of a degree Celsius, or half a degree Celsius to a degree Celsius.

Which means that essentially we would have broken the record with this drought in terms of high temperatures even without climate change, but we ended up breaking it by quite a comfortable margin with climate change.

Now it sounds like that I’m saying that climate change had almost no effect, but the trouble with extreme events is that as they get more extreme the consequences sort of grow exponentially, and so the extra high temperatures affected the drought by leading to higher evaporation and greater demand for water by plants that lead to reduced streamflow, increased loss of water from reservoirs and so forth. So it did take a significant toll on water supplies and also on the extent of the the wildfires that affected the state.

Q: In the talks that you give and the interviews that you’ve been giving, let’s say over the last year or so, what have you been telling the public and state leaders about what you expect, or what scientists generally expect, climate change is likely to mean for Texas, both over the next few years and over the next decade or two, and then over the course of the rest of the current century.

A: Well, the question that seems to be in people’s minds is whether the drought that we had represents the new normal conditions. And I don’t think that’s quite the way it’s coming out. We were in a period of drought susceptibility, as I call it, because of the long-term temperature variations in the Pacific Ocean and probably a contribution of the Atlantic Ocean as well.

The set-up right now is basically the way it was in the 1950s [when a multi-year drought gripped Texas – the official “drought of record” for water-supply planning], and we’ve been experiencing frequent droughts as a result of that since about 1996, and that’s going to continue until either the tropical Pacific gets warmer or the North Atlantic gets cooler, which at this point science isn’t quite advanced enough to be able to predict with much certainty. We just know basically that they’re probably just here for another few years or even decade or so.

After we get out of that, we’ll be seeing more rainfall in general, at least while we’re in a more favorable phase of the natural variability pattern. Temperature, meanwhile, has been climbing fairly steadily since the 1970s across Texas, and the model projections have that rise continuing at about the same rate even though the models don’t know how much temperature has been rising in Texas. Those are two independent estimates of temperature rise. The rate of rise has been about half a degree Celsius every 15 years, which translates into one and a half Celsius* or about three Fahrenheit around the middle of this century above current temperatures, which are already warmer than they have been.

That doesn’t get us up to the temperatures that we experienced last summer but it gets us a lot closer, which means that those sorts of temperatures, while they’re not going to be normal for the foreseeable future, they’re going to be a lot more common.

Q: Let’s defer for just a moment the politically explosive question of mitigation of climate change – what human beings should or shouldn’t do to try to limit manmade global warming. What is your basic advice – or have you been voicing such advice – to the state’s leaders and to the public on what Texans should be doing to prepare and adapt for the situation you just described?

A: Well, I’ve been mainly focusing on water supply issues. There are a lot of different sectors that will have to adapt to climate change. Some can adapt fairly quickly. For example, farmers or ranchers, if the climate is now better suited to a different kind of crop than before, it’s easy to just plant a different crop and you’ve adapted. That’s fairly straightforward.

For ranchers, it’s not a matter of cropping so much as adjusting the size of the herd to keep up with the changes in the carrying capacity of the land. That’s also fairly easy to do. It doesn’t require long-term planning, it doesn’t require any infrastructure investment by the state government.

Sea level rise is sort of at the opposite end. It’s a long, slow, gradual process that’s been going on ever since records have been kept in Texas. It’s been accelerated by groundwater depletion along the coast, and the rise is going to continue. We’ve effectively been adapting to sea level rise from the past and presumably will continue to do so unless something bad happens with one of the ice sheets and the rate accelerates significantly.

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In between those two sorts of issues is water supply. While climate change isn’t going to be the primary driver of water shortages, it isn’t going to be the primary driver of changes in the supply versus demand – population has the biggest role in that – it’s still a factor that I think needs to be included in the calculations for long-term planning.

Because even if rainfall doesn’t decrease, the rising temperatures mean there’s going to be less surface water available and it seems to make sense to at least plan for that contingency.

Q: On the question that I delayed a moment ago – mitigation – what to do or not to do about reducing emissions of greenhouse gases – some scientists take positions on that issue. Some speak out even if they don’t stake out a particular policy position. Have you ever spoken publicly on that particular aspect of the subject?

A: Publicly, I suppose I have if asked to give an opinion, which happens occasionally, and also on an occasion when I had a debate with Pat Michaels [a climatologist and prominent skeptic about the seriousness of global warming] at a college in Northeast Texas, where we took up some policy issues.

It’s certainly not my main focus because that’s not something that the state of Texas has a primary role in, and so it certainly doesn’t fall within my job description, per se, and furthermore, of course, in terms of policy, that also doesn’t fall within my expertise, but I do have personal opinions on the matter.

Q: What are your personal opinions?

A: I think that we need to have cheap, affordable alternative energy supplies that don’t produce as much carbon dioxide. And unfortunately those aren’t here at present, so we need to be making a big investment in technological development as a society. Where the money comes from – I’d like it to be a very small carbon tax, which unfortunately is the sort of thing that’s not politically possible. Which is, well, why I’m a scientist and not a politician – I’m proposing something that’s not politically possible.

Q: Some of the state’s current top political leaders – including the governor himself, the attorney general, and the chairman of the state’s environmental commission, who is on leave, as I understand, from his position as a Texas A&M professor – they’ve all taken positions on anthropogenic global warming, manmade climate change, that are very different from what you and other members of the Atmospheric Sciences faculty at A&M have said. And indeed, very different from the stated professional conclusions of experts at other Texas universities.

In a nutshell, I think it’s fair to say that those political leaders are intensely skeptical about the validity of the scientific consensus on manmade climate change. And that skepticism, I should add, underpins the state’s legal challenges against federal greenhouse-gas controls.

In at least one instance, there have been some statements that were even skeptical of the personal and professional integrity of some unnamed researchers. And I’m speaking here about the governor’s remarks during his presidential bid last year to the effect that some researchers may have fudged or manipulated data to secure grant funding for their work.

With that by way of background and context, let me ask this: Have you ever experienced any pushback or any suggestions that you should pipe down on the subject of climate change, global warming, coming from state political leaders, from their surrogates, from the A&M administration, from board members at the university, from anyone in a position of authority?

A: You know, I’ve never gotten any pushback or request to be quiet or not express my scientific opinions or so forth. The only thing that even remotely touches on is when I was giving a workshop sponsored by a state agency and the organizer wanted, expressed his preference, that I not include the words “global warming” in the title because they were afraid they’d get pushback from their leaders.

Q: And what was that agency?

A: The Texas Water Development Board.

Q: Did you comply?

A: Yes.

Q: Why do you think the state’s top leadership and many of their political allies in Texas and elsewhere are so skeptical about scientific conclusions that are supported, for instance, by a unanimous declaration of your department’s faculty on its website?

A: I think the skepticism grows out of the use to which climate change science has been made – to push an agenda of, well, the environmentalists’ agenda of cleaner environment, limited pollution, reduction of waste and so forth, which are are all, obviously, good objectives.

But they run afoul, sometimes, of the other good, which is economic development, attracting industry growth and economic prosperity for the state. And so I think there’s always been, to some extent, a lack of trust between both sides, which I’ll characterize too broadly as environmentalists and capitalists.

And the skepticism of climate change science, I believe, comes from the fact that climate change is part of the story that plugs into the environmental side of the policy debate.

Q: Have you encountered or received a greater amount of skeptical feedback or comment from the public or state leaders as you gave more talks or responded to more media inquiries or provided more reports to the Legislature or wrote more blog posts during the drought in which you spoke about climate change?

A: I’ve testified at the statehouse and committee hearings on the drought and part of that testimony to some extent involved climate change. I haven’t gotten any feedback one way or the other from including that in my testimony. I don’t have political leaders beating down my door for advice or information, so that non-existent activity has remained non-existent, effectively, except for occasional questions about specific side-issues.

Q: Some recent polling, and I would stress some, suggests that the growing skepticism about climate change and global warming over the last several years may be leveling off or even reversing. Have you noted any anecdotal evidence in your interactions with leaders and the public that might suggest that such a leveling or reversal is occurring?

A: I really don’t know. I’ve tried to make the point that since mitigation is not really an issue that we can deal with at the state level, that climate change should really be a non-political issue. To the extent that we have some insight as to how the climate might change in the future is useful knowledge that people can take advantage of, and people ought to take advantage of that knowledge.

And with the drought, people are, I think, much more aware of the potential value of climate information, at least for the planning horizons of a few months to a few years that people on the ground are actually dealing with. And so they’re much more open to any insight I can give them.

Q: Are you worried that skepticism about climate science may mean that Texans are at risk of missing some important opportunities to avert some of the hardships that may lie ahead, or handle them more skillfully?

A: Yeah, I am, actually. I think it’s an economic issue, really. If you can plan ahead of time for things that are going to happen in the future, it’s a lot easier to deal with and you can generally put in much more cost-effective solutions, unlike cities having to scramble to develop alternative sources for text boxwater with this drought. If they had been constructed at a normal rate rather than in a mad scramble to avoid disaster, it’s a lot better for all concerned.

Climate change itself is not going to cause, I don’t think, any particular individual disaster for the state, but it’s sort of this incremental contributor to all sorts of things that can go wrong if you assume that the worst that can happen is the worst that’s already happened, and you don’t have to plan for something that could be worse than that.

Q: There’s been some discussion about whether last year’s drought – whether it continues or is repeated in the next few years – there’s been some discussion about whether or not it has awakened the state adequately to the prospect that Texas is increasingly vulnerable to drought and heat, which is the warning of the Water Development Board, regardless of what climate change may mean here.

You talked about this a few moments ago, talking about population and water supply and so forth. Do you think the state has waked up – on water in particular?

A: I think it’s definitely stirring. And we can’t talk about the drought in the past tense, because it’s still going strong in West Texas. We’ve still got half of the state with no single reservoir above 50 percent of capacity. Unfortunately for policy-making, it’s the less populous half of the state that’s presently in drought. The rain has fallen mainly in Houston and Dallas and San Antonio. Austin and San Antonio are close to the the edge. They can see the drought off in the distance, and sometimes it creeps into their backyards.

But I think Houston and Dallas are more, in a sense, back to normal. I think anybody in a leadership position realizes that drought can be an enormous economic drain, in the sense of you can’t really attract industry, you can’t really attract development, unless people have confidence that there’s going to be be a stable water supply for the next 30 or 40 years.

I think it had been an abstract planning issue up to this point, and I think the drought has made the concept of the drought of record, even something worse than the drought of record, tangible. And it’s a lot easier to plan for an event you can either imagine or have experienced, than to plan for something you haven’t experienced or can’t imagine.

Q: Well, here’s a final question, this one about the very near term. What’s your own outlook, and what’s the outlook of others who speak from an expert position, for the rest of this year and then the next few years? As you said, the winter was wetter for some parts of the state than many experts said looked likely, not too many months ago. What are the chances for continuing drought and maybe another heat wave?

A: The forecasts for the summer from the Climate Prediction Center [of the National Weather Service] have been running on the warm side of normal, but equal chances of above- or below-normal precipitation. I’ve been on board with that, except for the past three weeks or so have been fairly dry across the state.

This is the time of year when we normally get our greatest amount of rainfall statewide. So I’m a little bit worried that we’re going to have another warm summer unless we get some decent rains the second half of June, before things normally dry out. It won’t be anything like the summer of last year because there is a lot more water in the ground and so there will be a lot more of the sun’s energy going into evaporation.

But places that are still in major drought, especially West Texas, up around Childress and that area, they might see a summer this year that’s as bad as the one last year. The rest of the state, I think, will just be hotter than normal, but not record-setting.

[*Editor's note, June 21, 2012: This number appeared incorrectly as "three and a half Celsius" in the original version of this article.]

Image credit: Texas A&M University