Understanding the world through science

Portola Valley ecologist says the public needs to get science now

Humans like to think about the past as a simpler time, and when viewed through the lens of scientific progress, that kind of thinking has an element of truth to it.

How reassuring it must have been for a 19th century carpenter to think he understood gravity after learning that the experiments thought to have been carried out by Italian scientist Galileo three centuries earlier from atop the Leaning Tower of Pisa were still being taught: If you drop two objects of different masses from a height, they will hit the ground at the same time.

How dismaying, then, for that carpenter's 21st century counterpart, eager to understand science and opting to start off with basic gravity only to learn that scientists don't understand its nature and speculate that it might be related to the four-dimensional curvature of space and time. There's a tough nut.

But scientific literacy is very important, particularly in an era of climate change, says Portola Valley resident Chris Field. Explaining science to people is his metier, and in December in San Francisco, the Commonwealth Club of California will be honoring him with the 2015 Stephen H. Schneider Award for Outstanding Climate Science Communication. The honor includes a $15,000 prize.

Mr. Field is a professor of environmental earth system science at Stanford University, the director of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology at Stanford, and the Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies. He is a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and co-chairs the working group concerned with the impacts of climate change, aspects of life on Earth vulnerable to climate change, and adapting to climate change.

"It is a real thrill to be associated with Steve Schneider's approach to climate-change science and climate-change communication," Mr. Field said in a statement about his award.

The Almanac sat down with Mr. Field for an interview in his office at Stanford.

Real risks ahead

There was a time when scientific theories and progress were accessible to public understanding, Mr. Field says. In the days of Issac Newton and, later, Thomas Jefferson, educated people could keep up with the pace of scientific discovery, he says.

Science's complexities have accumulated, however, and by the second half of the 20th century, educated people could no longer keep up. The public, Mr. Field says, came to see scientists as experts not expected to explain what they were doing.

Not true today, he says, when science is much more complex and society's values and aspirations are factors. If the problem is disease and the solution is new medicine, for example, who is treated and how much treatment do they get? If the problem is endangered species and the solution is protecting them, which species should have priority and what does protection mean? How is a particular new development going to affect farmers, or children, or grandchildren? Scientific, technological and humanitarian issues now interlock, he says.

While science has become less accessible to lay people, everybody should try to understand the big issues and figure out why they're important to their lives, he says. Climate change is the big unsolved problem of the times. While educating children represents a tremendous opportunity, he says, adults should learn about it, too, because there are real risks over the next couple of decades as the odds go up for extreme events, what he calls "the sharp end of the climate-change stick."

A heat wave in Europe in 2003 caused 30,000 to 70,000 deaths. Crop yields are not increasing as they have, and fish are harder to find. "Things can become unmanageable (and) we really need to bend the curve in a super meaningful way by the end of the century," he says. "The most powerful asset is a good clear understanding of what the risks are."

If sea level continues to rise by a tenth of an inch a year, that's an inch a decade. That may not seem like much, but when combined with storm surges and extra high tides, he says, it can mean the difference between a flooded subway system or water treatment center and waves safely pummeling the far side of a sea wall.

The inundation of New York City subways in 2012 by Hurricane Sandy because the water level was higher than normal helps demonstrate this, he says.

Cynthia Rosenzweig, a climate expert at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, describes sea level rise as being like a set of stairs. "The 12-inch increase in New York Harbor over the last century means we've already gone up one step," she says on, and an incoming storm system now sits on that step.

"For Sandy, that meant greater coastal flooding in New York and the surrounding region than we would have experienced a century ago," Ms. Rosenzweig says. "Continuing to climb the staircase of sea level rise means we'll see greater extent and greater frequency of coastal flooding from storms, even if storms don't get any stronger."

"It doesn't take very much to put you past the tipping point for big change," Mr. Field says. "Every extra inch is a big extra problem."

Sophisticated players

If excessive use of fossil fuels causes climate change, and if the fossil fuel industry has been fighting effective action to curb their use, do they deserve a place at the table?

They are sophisticated players with a good understanding of science, Mr. Field says. They may disagree with climate scientists and emphasize the benefits of fossil fuel, but "science is a wonderful tool for figuring out what we agree on and what we don't agree on," he says.

The industry has climate change-related concerns, including exposure of their assets to hurricanes, the prospects for drilling in the Arctic, and carbon taxes. "We can all do better if we have a discussion that is based on facts," he says.

Some companies are acting now. Mr. Field noted that the chief executives of six European oil and gas companies, including BP in Britain, Royal Dutch Shell in The Netherlands, Total in France and Statoil in Norway, wrote to the United Nations recently.

They noted what they're already doing, including increasing natural gas production (gas emissions are half those of coal), improving the efficiency of their operations, investing in carbon capture and storage, and exploring low-carbon technologies and business models. To speed the pace of all that, they also proposed a step that oil and gas interests tend to oppose.

"We believe that a price on carbon should be a key element of these frameworks," the executives say. "If governments act to price carbon, this discourages high carbon options and encourages the most efficient ways of reducing emissions widely." The executives say they want a "direct dialogue" on carbon taxes with the UN and "willing governments" at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December.

"It's really a time for deep rethinking in that industry," Mr. Field says. There are better options than using the atmosphere as a waste dump, and for industry, there are lots of ways for them to become part of the solution, he says.

Many of the right pieces are in place to have an agreement in Paris that's meaningful, he says. "I'm very optimistic that we can have a discussion that's much better than we had before, and take serious steps to unlock future steps that are much more serious."


2 people like this
Posted by Nina
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Aug 24, 2015 at 12:52 pm

Please expand on what kind of sea level rise we should expect by 2040 in Menlo Park. I am confused by the different statistics, and as an example, what will happen at the facebook campus with flooding? With the El Camino area?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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