‘Will we get it fast enough?’
One of the nation’s pre-eminent climatologists talks about the weather
When I first arranged an interview with Dr. Kelly Redmond, they said I’d have about 20 minutes. We spoke for nearly two hours. I could have cut him off, but when the deputy director of the Western Regional Climate Center—one of six such centers in the nation—starts talking about climate change, it’s probably a good idea to listen.
How do we know if we can attribute weather and climate events we see in our backyard, or on the news, to climate change?
It’s a question I’ve always been thinking about over the past 20 years or so: Would you notice this just looking out the window? What would it take before it would finally dawn on you, without any instruments or news articles? …
My general answer is most people wouldn’t. You’d have to be an astute observer, writing things down about when plants bloom or about cold snaps and warm spells. Most people don’t notice averages. …
Climate is the whole movie, and weather is each day in the movie. At the end we have a movie, but we might not realize we’re in a movie when we’re in it. It’s one of these things that’s hard to see while we’re inside it. …
But we’re seeing lots of big weather events and natural disasters in the East, Midwest and South.
Now people are looking. When we became aware of El Niño, everything that happens is El Niño. Then we discover something new, and everything is ascribed to that. So climate change is a big subject on a lot of minds.
Is it too late to reverse the effects of global warming?
The deep ocean is really cold. It will take a long time to warm it all up, so we only get part of the response right away. But once we put absorbers in the atmosphere, we can’t take them back out again. We can’t take the genie out of the bottle. The [carbon dioxide], once it’s there, it’s not going to go back out as fast as it went in. So we’ve made a commitment to some amount of warming in the future, and it’s a commitment we can’t really take back.
When we’re dealing with problems, like where the habits of your lifetime, the effects of them don’t become apparent until you’re older—if you don’t see the effects right away, you just keep doing what you’re doing.
It also seems that climate change is more often seen in the little things, like pine beetles reproducing more frequently and devastating forests. Can you give some concrete examples of signs of global warming you recognize?
I look at thermometers, but you need to be skeptical of stuff. Everybody should be skeptical, frankly. We should be looking for corroborative evidence. If I believe something, how much will I go to the mat for that? …We’re seeing snow melts happening earlier in stream gauges. We’re seeing lilacs and honeysuckles blooming earlier—there’s a network of people observing this for 50 years. That’s totally independent from thermometers. So when you convert the bloom dates into temperature units, it comes out to what the thermometers are saying, which gives me more confidence in the thermometers. …
All these bits and pieces of evidence, all these compasses, are basically pointing in the same direction. This is very much like solving a crime. There’s a standard of proof in criminology, and we should have some kind of standard of proof in our head for when we decide to believe something or not, and then are you willing to change your mind based on the evidence you see. I think most people’s minds can be changed by what we see. If we listen to what the world’s telling us, we’ll get it. The question is, will we get it fast enough?