On Reality Asserts Itself, climatologist and IPCC lead author Alan Robock tells Paul Jay that he’s a skeptic who tries to be critical and make conclusions based on the evidence.
This is an episode of Reality Asserts Itself, produced April 29, 2014.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
One of the stories we promised to be on top of–and it’s one of the stories we have been least on top of, at least compared to its relative importance–is the whole issue of climate change. We’ve been wanting for a long time to have a full-time climate change environmental journalist. And we don’t yet, but this year we’re really going to try to. But we’re going to up our game in terms of doing climate change stories and try to unfold the debate about just how urgent is it and a debate about what to do about it.
And when you look at the issue of climate change debate and discussion in the society as a whole, it’s gone from, in the 2008 period of being on the front page of every newspaper and on the front page or as the main story on most television news shows for weeks, to practically not being in the public discourse at all. And it’s one of the things we’re going to explore why and see what we can do about it.
One of the issues has been a concerted campaign to discredit climate change science. And one has to believe, if one thinks that the preponderance of scientists who believe that human industrious activity causes carbon emissions, which causes climate change crisis and global warming, if you believe that’s all not true, you have to believe in one of the grandest conspiracies of our time. But a lot of people do believe that, and we want to try to unpack that as well.
So in this episode or series of interviews we’re going to do on Reality Asserts Itself, we’re going to meet a real live climate scientist, because you have to believe that he’s in on this conspiracy if you believe that climate science is hokum. So we’re going to explore, through the life of our guest, how he came to a conclusion that in fact this is science as best he knows it, it is urgent; and we’ll unpack all of this.
So now joining us in the studio is Alan Robock. Alan is a distinguished professor of meteorology in the Department of Environmental Sciences at Rutgers University. He’s an editor of Review of Geophysics, the most widely read journal in the field. He was also in the faculty at the University of Maryland, where he served as a professor and state climatologist of Maryland from ’91 to ’97. He was a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was awarded a Nobel prize in 2007. His current research focuses on geoengineering, climatic effects of nuclear weapons, soil moisture variations, the effects of volcanic eruptions on climate, and the impacts of climate change on human activities.
Thanks very much for joining us.
ALAN ROBOCK, DISTINGUISHED PROFESSOR, DEPT. ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES, RUTGERS: Thanks for having me.
JAY: So, as people that watch Reality Asserts Itself knows, we start with a personal biographical background of our guest, usually, and then we [incompr.] get into the issues. And we’re going to do that now through exploring Alan’s life. We’re going to also get into some of the issues he’s trying to deal with in his scientific work.
So let’s start from the beginning. Are you in on a grand conspiracy to delude the world to make money for corporate–green corporations? This is the kind of stuff we read on the internet every time we do a climate change story. And we get it–you can see it from a right-wing position and a left-wing position.
So we are going to get into the more–biography of your life and get to know how you came to this conclusions through your own investigation. But just to set a kind of framing, what do you make of the extent of which this seems to have credibility in this society?
ROBOCK: I guess I don’t understand it. I guess people like to believe in conspiracies. But if–my research supports the global warming science, that humans are putting greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere, it causes warming, it’s real, it’s caused by us. All the scientists agree it’s bad.
But I think there’s hope.
Now, so that’s based on evidence. You asked me if I believe in global warming. It’s not a question of belief. It’s a question of looking at the evidence and weighing the evidence. And I’m really a skeptic. I try to be critical of anything that’s told to me, and want to ask questions, and then I make conclusions based on the evidence. My motivation in my career would be to find a flaw in global warming, not another paper that supports it.
ROBOCK: If you found a flaw, you’d be famous. You’d prove that it was wrong. That’s what would give you fame, not another paper that supports the science. So there’s a lot of motivation to be critical and find what’s wrong with what people say, not another paper that supports it.
JAY: That’s interesting. There’s certainly a lot of money from the fossil fuel industry that would encourage you if you could make such a discovery, as well.
ROBOCK: Well, no, I don’t get paid [crosstalk] my results.
JAY: No, no. I’m not saying you do. I’m saying if one could find the flaw in climate science–.
ROBOCK: So you’re saying they’re funding people to try and find the flaw.
JAY: Well, yeah.
ROBOCK: Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
JAY: There’s a lot of research going on to find the flaw.
JAY: Okay. We’re going to come back to how you came to these conclusions, but I just wanted to kind of set the framing. And now let’s go back.
So you’re born 1949. Tell us where and give us a sense of the household you grew up in.
ROBOCK: I was born in Boston in 1949. A few months later, we moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, and my father was the chief economist for the Tennessee Valley Authority. And my brother and sister were born there.
And when I was four years old, we moved to Brazil. I went to kindergarten in Rio de Janeiro and first grade in Fortaleza. My father worked for the United Nations there, helping to–the bank Banco do Nordeste in Fortaleza.
Then we moved to Kansas City, Missouri, or /m?’z??/, where I went to third or fourth grade, and moved to Prairie Village, Kansas, for part of fourth grade.
And then my mother said, “We’re moving again.”
I said, “What? We just moved to this house.”
“Yeah, your father got a job in New York.”
So we moved to Rye, New York, where I went to fifth and sixth grade.
And then my father got a job as a professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, and I went to junior high school and high school there.
JAY: So talk a little bit about your father and mother’s politics and sort of your own political evolution. But everybody kind of starts with their parents, ’cause that’s where you first encounter these kinds of ideas.
ROBOCK: Well, my parents were traditional liberal Democrats. They supported Adlai Stevenson and Hubert Humphrey. My mother supported Gene McCarthy. She was a little bit more left-wing than my father.
But I didn’t really rebel against them at all. That’s what I learned and that’s what I became, although I always thought the Democrats were a little bit too conservative for my taste.
JAY: And when do you start to get a taste for science? As you’re going through high school or even earlier, when do you feel like, boy, I’m good at this kind of stuff?
ROBOCK: I was always good at math and science in school. And so I had a little weather station out behind my house in Bloomington. And I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. When I was in ninth grade, I signed up for earth science, and the school counselor called me and said, you know, earth science is for the students who don’t do well in science; you should be taking biology. Okay. So I took biology. I didn’t really find it that interesting. But then I took chemistry and physics in high school. I did well at that. When I got to Wisconsin, there was a freshman course in earth science, which I signed up for, and it was taught by the chairman of the meteorological department, and about a third of it was meteorology. And I’m not a weather weenie. Some people grow up loving weather from when they’re really little.
JAY: Well, you had a weather station.
ROBOCK: Yeah, but I did other stuff, too. I wasn’t a weather weenie like our students now. And some people find it later.
So I was a freshman, and I was taking a course, and a third of it was meteorology. We were plotting weather maps in Science Hall at Madison. It was a teletype, and we were plotting the data. And I did an analysis, and there was a warm front on the map. I looked out the window and there was this wedge of clouds on the horizon, and I said, that’s the warm front I’m studying–I can study something that’s real, that’s relevant to humans, not something I have to imagine in a test tube or in an accelerator. And I discovered I could major in meteorology–that was actually a subject, and they had a big department at Wisconsin. So that’s when I became a meteorology major.
JAY: This is when you’re in college.
JAY: So, while you’re in college–this is in the ’70s.
ROBOCK: No, in the late ’60s.
JAY: Late ’60s–even more. This is at the height of the Vietnam War.
JAY: So what does this do to your outlook of the world? Because to a large extent this was a war led by the Democratic Party.
ROBOCK: I guess you could say that, yeah.
JAY: Well, Kennedy and Johnson.
ROBOCK: Yeah, yeah. So I wasn’t really political at all. I didn’t understand politics. I wasn’t interested. But then I had to register for the draft when I turned 18, and I realized–.
JAY: What year is that?
ROBOCK: In 1968. I started college when I was–I guess in ’67, the end of ’67. I started college when I was 17, so I went for a year before I turned 18. And in Madison, if you turned 18, that meant you could go drink beer. That was a big deal. But I also had to register for the draft, and I realized the government wanted me to go to Vietnam and kill people. And I didn’t think that was a good idea at all. I didn’t support the war and I didn’t support killing and I didn’t want to participate.
JAY: Now, when I said Democratic Party led, you did a bit of a double take. I mean, in ’68, when the government is telling you, sign up to go to war to kill people, it’s the Democratic Party telling you to do that. Now, you grew up in a household that was very pro-Democratic Party.
ROBOCK: So in 1968 there was–you know, this was–Lyndon Johnson announced that he wasn’t going to run for reelection because of the opposition to the Vietnam War. And so there was a campaign, and Gene McCarthy was running, Robert Kennedy was running.
Richard Nixon came to Madison campaigning on the Republican Party, and I went out to the Dane County Memorial Coliseum to meet him. And I got–he was there with Tricia. And I shook his hand and I said to him, “Do you support the military draft?”
He says, “Oh, I support the vice president’s commission report, which says you should draft young people first.”
And I said, “Well, but what about graduate students? Are you going to support a deferment for graduate students?” And then this sort of big guy sort of picked me up and moved me along.
Gene McCarthy campaigned there also, and the place was packed with 20,000 people. When Nixon came, it was 2,000 people. So I was just–wanted to learn about their different positions. And I supported–I couldn’t vote then. You couldn’t vote till you were 21. So it wasn’t an issue of who I was going to vote for. But all the politics came at us at the time.
JAY: But the draft made it hit home.
JAY: And to what extent does that now start radicalizing the way you look at the world?
ROBOCK: There were demonstrations against the War in Vietnam with teargas. Dow Chemical Company was recruiting people. They made napalm, which was this jellied gasoline that the American military was dumping on Vietnamese people. And there was a protest. So the people were sitting in in the building, and the campus police came in and said, move or we’ll take you out; you have two minutes. And then, 30 seconds later, they came in and started beating people. And people outside started protesting, and they used tear gas. And I walked by there a little bit later and my eyes started to water. That was the first time I had ever gotten teargassed. And I said, whoa. And then there were marches on the street against the war. So I got–experienced teargas three out of the four years that I was in Madison.
JAY: But how involved did you get in the antiwar movement?
ROBOCK: I didn’t lead any protests, but I participated in them. And my main concern was: how do I avoid the draft? The draft was they would take you and require you to go in the army.
My senior year, they had the first draft lottery to calculate what order they would take people in. And my draft board was in Bergen County, New Jersey, which was a pretty upscale middle-class place, and they needed bodies. And so I knew that–my draft board was actually attacked by the Berrigan Brothers spilling blood on it at one point. So they determined what order they would–.
So I turn on the TV, and it wasn’t on TV, so I turn on the radio, and they were doing the draft lottery. And they got–they kept going on and on and on, and I didn’t hear my birthday. But they had started at number ten. And they said–they got to 150. I said, well, that’s great. “So for those of you who tuned in late, we’re going to start over again from the beginning. Number one: September–.” My birthday’s September 7. “Number one: September 22.” Phew. “Number six: September 6. Number eight: September 7.” So I was number eight in the lottery. So I knew that no matter how far–they got to about 160–that I was going to get drafted.
So then I had to figure out how to avoid that.
JAY: And how did you avoid it?
ROBOCK: I decided to join the Peace Corps, which was a two-year voluntary service. And there was a deferment for people that were doing things that were vital to the national interest, like being a graduate student, being a teacher, like being a Peace Corps volunteer. But then they did away with those deferments just before I graduated, so I couldn’t go to graduate school and get a deferment. I got admitted to graduate school. I said, “Will you write a letter to my draft board?”
“Well, we’ll write a letter, but they can still draft you.”
And so I said, well, if I go to Canada, then they can’t draft me. There was no extradition treaty, so a lot of Americans went to Canada. It really helped Canada out at the time. I went through Canada.
JAY: I met a lot of them.
ROBOCK: I went to the Toronto anti-draft program to find out [crosstalk]
JAY: So you did go to Canada?
ROBOCK: I drove through there when I graduated from College.
But I ended up flunking my physical. And so I got a I-Y. And I had joined the Peace Corps. And so I–.
JAY: Well, how much for you was I don’t want to go to war, and how much was it we shouldn’t be fighting this war and I’m not going to be a part of it?
ROBOCK: It was mainly I don’t want to kill. I could have joined the Navy, sat in Monterey, California, and forecast the weather, ’cause I was a meteorologist. And I thought that was the same as pulling the trigger. I didn’t want to participate in it at all.
JAY: So your involvement in science and meteorology and climate begins in college. So how does this start to become your passion?
ROBOCK: Well, meteorology is a pretty small group of people doing it. It’s, like, this fancy, this really nice club, and you get to know everybody in the club. And you’re pretty special if you’re a meteorologist: you can tell the future. Most people can’t tell the future. I’m the director of the undergraduate program in meteorology at Rutgers now. You can tell the future if you become a meteorologist. And if you become a climatologist, you can change the future, because you can tell the world, this is what’s going to happen if we behave this way, and this is what’s going to happen if we, for example, put a lot more greenhouse gases in the–. And that helps society–inform them to make decisions.
JAY: And the issue of human-caused climate change, it goes right back into the ’70s, if not before. When is the first research that makes this connection?
ROBOCK: Arrhenius did research in the late 19th century and calculated that if we double the CO2, that the climate will warm by a few degrees. So it’s really old research. In 1969, there was work by a Russian scientist, Budyko, and an American one, Bill Sellers, and they at the same time, without knowing it, published almost an identical paper showing what would happen if we–how sensitive the climate system was to a changing amount of energy.
So we weren’t sure then how much the climate would change. We knew that humans put in these gases which trap the energy, mainly carbon dioxide. But we also put in particles, we put in pollution which reflect sunlight and cause cooling. So there’s a fight between the warming and the cooling.
And at the time when I was a graduate student, we didn’t understand–have a good feeling for which was the stronger thing.
JAY: Okay. In the next segment of the interview, we’ll kind of trace the evolution of your thinking and what persuaded you that this was the evidence that humans do cause climate change.
So please join us for the next segment of our interview on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.