Adam Sobel: A Climate Science Midlife Crisis

Imagine you go to graduate school for a bunch of years, conscientiously studying the nuanced interactions of the variables that underlie the globe’s climate. Then, as you publish findings that demonstrate what’s happening to our planet, you hear your work debated and unheeded by legislators across the country who couldn’t tell a stratospheric temperature profile from a hole in the wall. This week on Sea Change Radio we speak with climate scientist, Adam Sobel, a professor at Columbia University, to get a glimpse into the mind of a climate scientist. We learn about the difference between climate adaptation and climate mitigation, talk about extreme weather events in the context of climate change, and look at ways the science community can fight back against political hemming and hawing.

Narrator 0:01  This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Adam Sobel  0:17  The question we have to ask ourselves is, did we make this article or this TV news segment or whatever, better and more accurate by participating than it would have been otherwise? Rather than asking ourselves, did they get it completely right like in my peer reviewed paper, because if you ask the second question, you’re always going to be disappointed and, and you won’t ever do it and you’re doing everybody a disservice.

Narrator  0:39  Imagine you go to graduate school for a bunch of years, conscientiously studying the nuanced interactions of the variables that underlie the globe’s climate. Then, as you publish findings that demonstrate what’s happening to our planet, you hear your work debated and unheeded by legislators across the country who couldn’t tell a stratospheric temperature profile from a hole in the wall. This week on Sea Change Radio we speak with climate scientist, Adam Sobel, a professor at Columbia University, to get a glimpse into the mind of a climate scientist. We learn about the difference between climate adaptation and climate mitigation, talk about extreme weather events in the context of climate change, and look at ways the science community can fight back against political hemming and hawing.

Alex Wise 1:40  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Adam Sobel. Adam is a professor and climate scientist at Columbia University. Adam, welcome back to Sea Change Radio.

Adam Sobel  1:48  Thanks, Alex. Pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Alex Wise 1:51  So you have a paper in Climatic Change, which is entitled “Usable Climate Science is Adaptation Science.” It’s a great jumping off point to talk about the problems that we’re facing in the climate science arena and trying to apply those into real world solutions. This was one of your pet projects over that your sabbatical? Why don’t you explain the inspiration behind it?

Adam Sobel  2:16  Right, I guess you could call it inspiration. Maybe frustration is a better term. Sure. This paper grows out of what I’ve been calling a midlife crisis. Although it’s a professional one, not a personal one. I’m not getting a divorce or a sports car, or anything like that. But what it is, is, you know, I’ve been working in climate science, or atmospheric science for my whole career. I’ve been a faculty member here at Columbia for over 20 years now. And although a lot of my work is on the basic science of how the atmosphere works, increasingly course it’s about climate change. And I’ve been doing a lot of communicating publicly about that in the last 10 years. If you’d asked me, at any point, including many years ago, and I was young, I would have expressed great concern about the state of the climate and the direction of it, and also about US politics, I would have all through my career, I’ve been concerned about those things. But yet, what I’ve come to realize now is that at some level, I still had some faith in the system. And what I mean by the system is the notion that, as scientists, we try to explain how the world works. In my field, we try to explain how the atmosphere and the climate work. And that as we tell the public and decision makers, government leaders and so on what we’ve learned, and what we understand about what’s happening to the planet, I had some kind of implicit faith that we had a rational system that would respond to that information in the public interest in some way. And in the case of global warming, that that means reducing carbon emissions sharply. And even though over the last decades, you know, this information, the information about what’s happened in climate has been around a long time and hasn’t fundamentally changed. Although it’s become more certain and more detailed and more specific. We just haven’t seen that happen in the United States. But what really changed, I think, besides just me getting older, was the increasing urgency of the climate problem, the sort of moral clarity brought to it by the Youth Climate movement. That’s a relatively new development in the last few years. And then in the US, the election of Donald Trump five years ago, and or a little more than five years, and and to a lesser extent, the rise of authoritarianism elsewhere in the world. And those things just made me come to doubt the beliefs that I had that I didn’t even realize I had. And in particular, it made me think a lot about what’s my responsibility here. I mean, it’s maybe that’s the midlife crisis part is you get to be I got to a point in my career where I reasonably successful in my job, I’m, you know, doing okay, I’ve tenure, I don’t have to worry about anything personally. And so it led me to think, what should I be doing here? What’s the value of my work. And, in particular, I think I and many of my colleagues had the same same notion, and many still do that we do the science, we explain what’s happening. And that’s our job. And sort of implicitly or automatically, that leads to better decisions, we put things in our in the introductions of our papers, and our grant proposals where we say, climate is a big problem. And we need better information to inform decision makers. And so that’s the part that we’re doing. But what we’ve seen is that, at this point, better information doesn’t really matter, because we know enough, even with the uncertainties that we have in climate information. And there’s plenty, we know that we need to reduce emissions sharply in order to avoid really scary, scary risks for the for the planet and the people on it. And and we’re not, we’re not doing that we haven’t been doing that. And it’s not because of scientific uncertainty, despite what some might say, that is not the reason it’s clear that that’s not the reason, it’s that there are powerful interests that don’t want it to happen. They don’t want us to stop burning fossil fuels. And so that’s a political problem, and more science is going to change it. So that’s what I’m trying to face up to, and asking myself the question, and maybe asking my colleagues the question, too. So what do we do about that? We can’t keep kidding ourselves. And so one answer I came up with is to do adaptation science. And what I mean by that tation sciences, science that has a more local orientation, that’s about how people adapt to climate change, because we now know we have to do that even under any plausible emissions reductions that might happen. emissions reductions, what we call mitigation in the climate business, reducing the amount of climate change that’s happening, but there’s already been a whole bunch of climate change, there’s almost certainly going to be a bunch more. And so we know that we have to adapt to that we have to change, where and how we live and in all kinds of ways. And that has to be informed by science. And there’s tend to be even greater uncertainties in that science, because it’s at smaller scales, adaptation tends to be local. Whereas mitigation is global, because everyone, all the carbon, everybody admits goes into the atmosphere, but the impacts happen at a local scale. So and local scales tend the uncertainties tend to be greater. And also, maybe more importantly, adaptation, because it is local, that the number of decision makers, it’s not just national governments or even state government, there’s many, many different groups and people and communities and involved in adaptation, including private actors, as well as state, local and national governments. If I’m asking how can I as a scientist, can I contribute something to the problem? One answer is, by doing sciences, relevant adaptation, I think there are many other answers possible. But the paper was just an attempt to think through that and really start more than giving answers just to try to start a conversation within my fields, and maybe some others might be interested in it too. But within climate scientists, I think we all I think many of what I’ve learned by talking about this to my colleagues, which I’ve also done, besides writing about it, and by the reaction to the paper, what I’ve learned is that a lot of these same things are bothering many of us, many, many people in my field, they’re questioning the value of their work and thinking about how to increase it, and just increasingly concerned by the disconnect between the science we’re doing and the outcomes in the world.

Alex Wise 8:26  Now, I mean, it’s refreshing to hear that scientists also are suffering from what almost anyone with a conscience on this planet is suffering from, whether it be dealing with the climate crisis, I mean, you could be the most staunch environmentalist, but I think it’s a important part of the process from the science community to be able to share that with the non science community.

Adam Sobel  8:49  Yeah, I mean, of course, we are people. And I’m not the first to say that there’s a, there’s a large growing body of writing now about the emotional side of climate and climate scientists. It’s maybe a stereotype that like most stereotypes has a little bit of truth in it, that we are not the people in the world necessarily most prone to public engagement. I mean, scientists, sciences, it can be a collaborative pursuit, but it’s also somewhat solitary pursuit. And I think for some of us, we get into scientists, we like the intellectual work. And for some of us, I maybe I’m speaking for myself here, it seems more rational than the real world. And and we’re drawn to that. But at the same time, those of us who got into this field in particular, and I’ve asked many people this question, you know, why did you choose this field in particular, what I’ve learned is that, at least for those in my generation, and even a few after that, I think the current youngest generation is a little different. But for many of us, we didn’t really get into it primarily at a political consciousness. We loved science, and that was the main reason but we did have some sense that this was a field that was relevant to human society and that and that the work would bring some benefit and help ameliorate some problems in human society, but we didn’t really For a lot of us, we thought that doing the science was our way to contribute, and that it would do so without us having to think too hard about how it does so. And what I’m just struggling with now is, you know, we can decide we want to do science to understand the world, and understand the universe. And that’s fine and not be the ones to worry about how it gets applied politically, I don’t think everybody has to do science, because of its direct outcomes and human society. But I think if we want to tell ourselves, that that’s what we’re doing. And we also want to tell the public and the taxpayers that fit pay our salaries, then it maybe behooves us to think a little harder about how that connection works and how our science is actually used in the world or isn’t as the case may be.

Alex Wise 10:41  Yes, I noticed you had Naomi Oreskes is one of the people you spoke to for this paper. And I’ve spoken to her on Sea Change Radio after she came out with her book, “Merchants of Doubt.” And it draws a parallel between how the Big Tobacco Industry sowed the seeds of doubt in consumers for decades in terms of the harmful effects of smoking, and there was plentiful parallels with the climate denial industry as well. So now a paper like yours is kind of bringing to light some of the doubt that you have within the community not about the data, but about seeing it through seeing is humanity going to be able to react to this disheartening information? These realities?

Adam Sobel  11:27  Yeah, right. I mean, the denial movement is something I take for granted. I’m not trying to say anything new about that, I think is you’re right, a rescue some Conway covered that. Well, and Merchants of Doubt and others have as well, it’s more about I think, as scientists working in a field with that justifies itself, at least in part, by, by its relevance to human life, I think it behooves us to have a little more concrete understanding of how what happens to our sciences, after it leaves our labs or after we write it down in our papers, and just how it um, how it lives in the wider world and engages with the political which is, climate is inherently political, because it has to do with human interests and values, you know, and we have to understand that and we don’t and a typical scientists education. You know, there are people who, who study this, right, there’s historians and philosophers, and sociologists of science, who think hard about how science is influenced by factors in the outside world, and vice versa. And, and, you know, so I think a lot of what I’m saying here is not original, in the sense that those scholars would, would probably have thought our set all this before. But I think what’s, what if there’s anything that makes it different is that it’s someone in the sciences, in the physical sciences, saying it? You know, I think, as the education of a scientist, is all about how to do it. It’s not at all about why to do it, that’s just totally taken for granted. And I think that we’re doing ourselves a disservice there, we could learn to be a little more worldly, and understand the context of what we’re doing a bit more.

Alex Wise 13:15  So Adam, you write that climate mitigation is a political issue, not a scientific one. And then you also say that your primary claim is that at the present historical moment, climate science is only usable to the extent that it is oriented towards climate adaptation, rather than towards climate mitigation. Why don’t you give us some examples, when you think of climate adaptation?

Adam Sobel  13:39  Right. So adaptation can be things like, in the case of rising sea level, building sea walls, or, or financial measures, like insurance against extreme weather events, or in the case of agriculture, you know, developing new strains of crops that are drought or heat resistant. It can be moving people out of harm’s way, from from, you know, areas that are that are at risk of, of flooding, or other kinds of fire or other kinds of extreme events. And I think, for any of those kinds of things, if you want to do them, rationally and justly, they have to be part of the process has to be some information about the risks. And those tend to be not well quantified from the kinds of climate model simulations that are done for the IPCC reports. So to give examples, so my group is doing you know, this line of thinking has influenced my own research over the last 10 years and our group is doing modeling of tropical cyclone risk where we have a model that does what’s called downscaling. So it takes because climate models don’t simulate hurricanes very well. We have a so called statistical dynamical model. I won’t explain how it works. But it takes the climate that the climate models predict and then makes a prediction of how tropical cyclones will behave in that climate, not in hurricanes, not individual storms, but over statistically how they’ll behave. And so we can say something about how they’re changing. And this can be used to quantify the risk of a hurricane hitting a given place, and causing a given amount of damage. And so, for example, we’re working with colleagues and a couple different organizations, Red Cross and World Bank to inform the finance of various climate adaptation projects we’re storing mangroves is one where we’re getting involved in now. But insurance is another that’s one of the ways that people a financial way that people mitigate against risk. But the point is just that it’s what distinguishes adaptation science, I think is it tends to be local and scale. So it’s focused on a very specific place, and trying to capture not necessarily to accurately predict everything that’s going to happen happen, but at least capture the risks in that place at a at a fine scale, and also communication with some group of users. So it can’t just be scientists, you know, some group of people is trying to do something to adapt to climate change, and they need information to do it. And you have to get to know those people to understand what they’re trying to do and how science can inform it. And it has to be kind of a collaborative process. And I think that’s different than what most of our training teaches us how to do most of our training – training teaches us how to do science for an audience of our peers and adaptation science is not.

(Music Break)

Alex Wise 17:19  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Adam Sobel. Adam is a professor and climate scientist at Columbia University. So you talk about the peer reviewed process. And I imagine that it must be frustrating to see the wild west of private science being conducted, which might be able to have more effective, quicker turnarounds, and more like cause and effect type of science. What can your corner of the science world learn from the wild west of the private science industry?

Adam Sobel  18:22  This is interesting. So what’s happened now, so there have been people doing, doing what’s called catastrophe modeling in the reinsurance industry for a long time for several decades, at least. And that that is, you could call it a kind of climate science. Although, up to now up to a couple of years ago, it really wasn’t focused on climate change at all, and didn’t really take into account but it’s a kind of science that aims to quantify the risks of extreme weather events and the financial losses. And you can see why the insurance industry would have an interest in that. And so they’ve supported that science for a long time. And now they’re starting to deal with climate change, just just really now dealing with it in a serious way. Not that they were in denial before, but it wasn’t really built into their business model for reasons I could talk about. But the other new thing that’s happened now, though, is that the entire private sector now thinks it has to quantify its climate risk. There’s regulators that are starting to ask about it. In some countries, the regulators are actually requiring some parts of the private sector to disclose climate risk. But there’s been a movement to require this. Michael Bloomberg was one of the the people has had a group pushing this for a while. It’s called climate related financial disclosure. So now the whole private sector, and especially the financial industry thinks it has to disclose a climate risk, but nobody really how do you do that? I mean, if I asked you, what’s your climate risk? How do you put a number on that nobody really knows how to do it. And so now that people suddenly think they have to do it for the fear of regulation, or because their shareholders are asking for it or whatever the bottom line is, people do think they have to do it. And so a new cottage industry has sprouted up to do this. And there’s startup companies coming out of the woodwork all over the place. A lot of them are being bought by a big Your financial companies or the bigger financial companies are building their own groups in house, or they’re hiring these startups to try to quantify climate risk. And it’s, it is a wild west. I mean, I don’t want to criticize these companies, I think a lot of them are doing good work. A lot of them are hiring my students, and postdocs, and, you know, I think many of them are very capable, but it’s not really regulated. It’s not really the work isn’t really peer reviewed. And I don’t know how any user, unless they’re very sophisticated, and a lot of them are not, you know, somebody just their boss tells them, you know, give me a number on climate risk. And the higher ones company, I don’t, I don’t know how they know, the quality of the science. And it’s very early days rapid growth in this industry, which you could think of as climate adaptation. I mean, it climate, it’s basically the climate adaptation of Wall Street. And we can, you know, I’ve talked to colleagues, and we’re thinking about going into this industry, and some of them have mixed feelings about working for Wall Street. But I think in some, it’s better that Wall Street worries about climate change than that it doesn’t, although there’s complex ethical, political issues, we could think about there. But at any rate, I do think it would be better if this science were open, you know, not proprietary, as most of it is now. And peer reviewed, because people’s lives are gonna be affected by this stuff. This is global capitalism we’re talking about and whatever global capitalism does has impacts for huge numbers of people all across the planet. So I think it would be better if more of us in the academic sector, academia and government say that places where open peer reviewed sciences is mostly done, had a bigger role to play and could develop some tools that, first of all, would be publicly accessible. So you didn’t have to hire an expensive company to get some idea of what your climate risk is. Maybe you would do that if you want a more finely tuned answer, or better, you know, more details or better customer service or something, but there should be some public tools, but also, the work we do could inform the stuff that goes on in the private sector and complemented and of course, prepare, our students are going to go to work in this industry. So I think I do think that this is a question that’s maybe a little inside baseball, about, you know, the climate science as a business, but it’s very relevant to the question of climate adaptation.

Alex Wise 22:03  If you had a student asking you the same question you pose in your paper, I’m curious what the answer would be you ask, how should a climate scientist respond who wishes to maximize the societal value of their work?

Adam Sobel  22:15  Yeah. And students do ask me that. And more. So since I wrote this, it’s one of these strange things where by writing something and posing your question, I now that others, I think, may have asked in their minds, but maybe not written down, or at least not people in my position, it suddenly makes me look like an expert. And people ask me, the embarrassing things, I don’t have very good answer for them. All I can do is describe what I see as the realities in the field. I do think the fields changing and I think it’ll be more possible for climate scientists to do work that is more directly engaged, whether it be an adaptation or mitigation. But although we agree that the linear model of science interacting with policy and is wrong, and the linear model basically says that scientists do the science, they explain what’s going on, then policymakers understand that and they make better decisions. We all agree that it’s not that simple. And that hasn’t isn’t how it’s worked. But there’s other ways that we can influence it one way is by doing science that influences public opinion. So for example, extreme event attribution is where we can now give some kind of coherent answers to the question, How was this weather event that just happened? Like, you know, Hurricane night or whatever? What was the effect of climate change on that? We used to say we couldn’t answer that question. Now, we have ways of doing that, you know, sometimes the answers aren’t definitive. I mean, they’re never definitive, but they, you know, there’s uncertainties of varying degrees, but we can make scientifically informed statements about to what extent climate change influence a particular event and that science, I think it’s clear was really developed. For the media, I need to go into the media so that when reporters ask us the question, they were asking us, anyway, now we can give better answers. And I think that has helped move the needle on public opinion. I mean, I think that my I can’t prove this. But my guess is that’s one of the reasons why Youth Climate movement started is because the these young people were seeing climate in the in the media, much more than before. And I think the attribution studies were part of that. So that’s the kind of climate science that was done to influence public opinion. It’s not to say, I mean, it’s tricky. It’s not to say that the science, the answers, were somehow, you know, engineered to get the answer that would influence public opinion. I think the answer the science should be and has been mostly and attribution studies done, you know, objectively and dispassionately, but the question is framed in a way that allows it to address the question that’s being asked in the media and that the public wants to know another example is that we used to say that once we stop emitting carbon, even if we could stop completely today, emitting fossil fuels, the climate would keep warming for a few more decades, because it takes the ocean a while to heat up and the carbon that stays in the atmosphere does that we now understand that that’s wrong, and it’s based on better science that includes better under Setting up the carbon cycle such that if we really could stop emitting co2 Today completely, I mean, you know, really zero carbon emissions, we would basically stop warming right away. Because even those there’s inertia in the ocean warming, there’s also some feedbacks in the carbon cycle that would pull some carbon out of the atmosphere and the co2 drop would drop a little. So that it really means that the warming we’ve experienced is really directly related to the total carbon emissions to date. And we can stop global warming, if we stop emitting carbon, stopping emitting carbon is the problem. But if we could do that, it would stop global warming. And that has consequences very much for the politics, right? Because it makes a difference, if you think it’s hopeless, if we’re gonna see a whole bunch of global warming no matter what we do, whereas we have the power to stop global warming, if we can stop emission. So that’s another example of science that has influenced how we communicate about the problem to the public. And I hope it’s influenced public opinion, to make us feel a little more sense of agency. So those are not adaptation, science, those are very much mitigation science, and things that are done with the aim of influencing the political debate. So I think that’s another answer. Adaptation, science is one answer. Science that’s, you know, aimed at influencing the public conversation is another answer. I think there’s a case to be made. And I’m sympathetic to this argument that maybe now that climate change is widely and correctly understood to be a human problem. It shouldn’t just be scientist talking about in other words, you know, for a long time, I think it was a problem that climate change was seen as something for the Science page of the newspaper. So it looked like a special interest, when in fact, it’s affecting everybody. So it shouldn’t just, you know, if we accept that the science is telling us what it’s telling us, we need lots of voices. That’s why I think Greta, you know, in all the youth climate activists is a great thing, precisely because they’re not scientists, you know, it’s because they’re human beings, you know, with an interest in the future. So it’s two things, I think we need a lot of voices saying a lot of different things in a lot of different ways. I don’t think there’s any one right way to do it. But I also think that it’s still good for scientists to be engaged. But communicating to the public, to some extent goes against many scientists training because we spend a lot of time throughout our education, our PhD and we spent many years learning how to communicate to our peers how to take a narrow piece of knowledge that we’ve come up with and defend it to the best experts who already share basic knowledge with us. And that’s very different from talking to the public. When you’re talking about the big picture. You’re often talking about work you yourself didn’t do you have to explain things you don’t have to explain you’re talking to your peers, you know, the end it’s gonna get misinterpreted a little bit and you know, taken out of context you have to live with that we the question we have to ask ourselves is, did we make this article or this TV news segment or whatever, better and more accurate by participating it than it would have been otherwise? Rather than asking ourselves did they get it completely right, like in my peer reviewed paper, because if you ask the second question, you’re always going to be disappointed and, and you won’t ever do it and you’re doing everybody a disservice.

Alex Wise  27:54  He’s a professor and climate scientist at Columbia University. Adam Sobel. Adam, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

Adam Sobel  28:01  My pleasure. Thank you, Alex.

Narrator  28:17  You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Cadillac Jones and Elvis Costello. Check out our website at to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcasts. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken, and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week, as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.