At UCSD, Richard Somerville, a professor and theoretical meteorologist, and Veerabhadran Raman- athan, professor of atmospheric and climate sciences, will join the Dalai Lama in a panel discussion on “The Global Impact of Climate Change: Balance through Universal Responsibility, Compassion and Human Consciousness.” Tickets for the event go on sale Feb. 22 at www.dalailamasandiego.org.
Somerville, an expert on computer simulations of the atmosphere, was recently in the heat of debate over climate change after an op-ed column in the Wall Street Journal titled “No Need to Panic About Global Warming” debunked the severity of global warming. Somerville joined 37 other scientists from around the world to refute the editorial in a letter to the editor.
At 70, Somerville is currently working on the history of climate science. He has received awards from the American Meteorological Society for his research and his book, “The Forgiving Air: Understanding Environmental Change.” He is a coordinating lead author for the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.
La Jolla Village News: When you received your Ph. D. in meteorology from New York University in 1966 did you see yourself in the role of environmental communicator?
Richard Somerville: Absolutely not. I was a weather buff. I had been a nut about the weather since I was a little kid. I had a weather badge in Boy Scouts. I had a weather station in the back yard. I thought I was going to be a weather forecaster or have something to do with weather forecasting. When I came to Scripps in 1979 I got involved in climate and for a long time I did just research as a scientist. The whole idea of outreach and communication dawned in mid-career.
LJVN: The recent Wall Street Journal editorial challenged the data on climate change and the need to take action. Why would anyone discredit the data?
RS: People who discourage the research have a variety of motives, none of which are scientific. We know that parts of the fossil fuel industry and oil companies and coal industry have funded a lot of the disinformation because it hurts their bottom line — in the same way the tobacco industry tried to denigrate research that connected smoking with disease.
That’s not the only factor at work. Some people don’t like the policies that they think might get implemented if the scientific findings were widely believed. So in many cases objection to climate science is essentially ideological and political masquerading as concerns about the science. If people don’t believe in the science then the need for the policy goes away.
LJVN: Science and religion are two separate belief systems. But with the Dalai Lama’s visit it looks like the values of both practices are crossing.
RS: It’s wonderful when someone who is so widely admired and respected speaks out on issues like this. The Dalai Lama has said publicly that he thinks it’s important for the world to find a solution to climate change. There are many religious leaders who have said that it resonates with the concept of stewardship, God’s gift to humanity. In general, the message is about preserving the environment.
LJVN: Does having a different voice support what scientists are saying about climate change give the message more credibility?
RS: The message is much better received when it comes from sources that the listener trusts and respects. They’d rather not hear it from scientists … we’re not the trusted messengers.
Think for example about the campaign to get people to stop smoking. Political leaders, movie stars, the surgeon general and all kinds of widely respected people are coming together to deliver this same message: “You smoke cigarettes, it’s going to kill you.” Many people quit because of that message. There are many examples like that where it takes time for the scientific findings to get processed.
Scientists aren’t trying to tell the world what to do. The science community is trying to convey scientific research; it’s nonpartisan. There are no Republican or Democratic thermometers; there are no liberal or conservative satellites. We’re processing data and coming to an understanding of how the climate system works.
LJVN: Are you optimistic about the future of the world’s climate?
RS: Technologically, yes. Technologically a lot of things can be done. Energy efficiency and conservation, which are extremely doable, which decrease the dependence on fossil fuel, often have many other benefits and often save money. In this country you tend to see them on the individual, corporate, and state and local level. You don’t see much action from the federal government.
In the last presidential campaign if you think back, both Obama and McCain said during the campaign that they thought climate change was real and serious and they were going to give in a high priority. But once this administration came in to office, we stopped hearing about it. When all is said and done, more will have been said than have been done.