Climate Watch: Video Interviews with the Experts

“Climate Watch Conversations” is a series of television interviews with experts from California’s climate change community. Below are the interviews we’ve done to date. All originally aired on KQED’s weekly public affairs program This Week in Northern California.

May 4, 2012
Threats posed by rising sea levels and extreme weather patterns are changing the way California’s coastal communities plan for the future. Senior Climate Watch editor Craig Miller talks with National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s Margaret Davidson about the impact of climate change on Bay Area shoreline, most visibly along San Francisco’s Ocean Beach.

February 17, 2012
Climate Watch Senior Editor Craig Miller hears Jared Blumenfeld’s take on the top climate change challenges for the Environmental Protection Agency in Northern California. Blumenfeld also discusses his recent visit to San Francisco’s Mission Motors, an electric motorcycle company seen as a poster child for the Obama administration’s focus on renewable energy and “green” jobs it creates.

December 16, 2011
Heavy precipitation, brutal storms, and devastating drought will continue to afflict the planet in the coming decades. That’s according to the latest report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But where’s all this climate science leading us if governments aren’t acting upon it? Climate Watch Senior Editor Craig Miller discusses the impact of the report with Chris Field, a leading scientist with the IPCC.

June 24, 2011
Climate Watch Senior Editor Craig Miller discovers why Jon Jarvis, Director of the National Park Service calls climate change “the greatest threat” to our national park system. With rising temperatures, extended fire seasons and foreign plant species threatening some of California’s most treasured parks, Jarvis discusses actions underway to respond to the crisis.

May 13, 2011
Climate Watch Senior Editor Craig Miller talks with Mindy Lubber, president of the Boston based nonprofit Ceres. The organization works to address sustainability challenges such as global climate change and water scarcity. This week, it held a conference in Oakland at which environmentalists, executives and investors from around the world gathered to consider ways for business to adopt environmentally sustainable practices.

April 8, 2011
European Union Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard speaks with Senior Editor Craig Miller about working with California leaders on climate policy. The Commissioner met with Gov. Brown and business executives at a conference on climate related issues and policy.

March 18, 2011
Climate Watch Senior Editor Craig Miller talks with Mary Nichols, Chair of the California Air Resources Board about implementing AB 32, the state’s renewable energy goals and promoting alternative transit.

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A Different Kind of Tsunami: Climate Refugees

Remains of a flooded village in Pakistan in December 2010 (Photo: RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s not so much the planet we need to worry about, it’s each other.  And ourselves.

That’s the message of the documentary Climate Refugees, which aims to portray “the human face of climate change.” The film takes viewers to flooded disaster zones in Bangladesh and China, to tiny island nations like Tuvalu under threat from sea level rise, and to the desert wastelands of Sudan, where, according to the UN,  the devastating war in Darfur has been driven partly by climate change.

Extreme weather events are expected to become more common as the climate continues to change, raising the odds for disastrous floods like the ones Pakistan last year, which displaced more than 20 million people, and major droughts which will likely increase desertification in vulnerable areas of Africa and Asia, threatening food and water supplies for millions of people.

And all of those people will need someplace to go.
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Climate’s 10 Seconds of Fame

Reporting on climate change sinks to its lowest level since 2005

Empty stalls outside the UN climate talks the night before the opening. (Photo:Gretchen Weber)

When Al Gore lamented recently in the Huffington Post that “the media has failed to appropriately cover the climate crisis,” he was talking about the relatively small amount of science that made it into reporting about the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen.

But it looks like in 2010, the issue wasn’t so much a lack of science in the reporting, as the lack of reporting in general.  An analysis by the Daily Climate that’s been making the rounds, finds that in 2010 coverage among major media outlets of climate change dropped to its lowest level since 2005.  Between 2009 and 2010, it dropped 30%, according to the Daily Climate tally. Continue reading

“Merchants of Doubt” Traces Roots of Denial

smokeA new book asserts that the very same group of Cold War ideologues who banded together to spread doubt about the link between tobacco and cancer also spearheaded the first efforts to discredit climate scientists as they began warning about the effects of anthropogenic global warming.

In “Merchants of Doubt,”  science historians Naomi Oreskes of UC San Diego and Erik Conway of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at CalTech, argue that the seeds of the current groundswell of climate change “denial,” and an assault on science in general, were planted decades ago.

The authors say it started with a handful of respected scientists, who, motivated by free-market political ideology and funded by the tobacco industry, worked to cast doubt on well-established scientific knowledge.

Conway discussed the book last Friday with Greg Dalton of Climate One at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco.

“One of the strategies the tobacco companies decided to pursue in the early 1990’s is the undermining of science, broadly,” said Conway. “They began to use their PR apparatus not just to undermine the science of tobacco and cancer and health effects, but…to attack all regulatory sciences in general.”

That strategy was one of the motivations for the book, said Conway.  “We wondered, ‘What effect will this have on science when it’s being under continuous corporate assault, especially in a society that is very dependent on science and engineering?”

According to Conway, one of the scientists central to the tobacco industry’s efforts was Fred Seitz, a physicist and former president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.   Others were the prominent physicists Fred Singer, Robert Jastrow, and William Nierenberg, who was once the director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.  All were associated with a conservative think tank, the George C. Marshall Institute.  In the 1990’s, said Conway, “the Marshall Institute decided to make its main issue the effort to cast doubt on global warming.”

Conway said that the scientists were motivated by their experiences during the Cold War and the political beliefs they developed during that time.

“Really, this is about opposition to government regulation,” he said. “We don’t think the scientists were in this for the money. They were working for the tobacco industry, to defend Star Wars (the Reagan administration’s space defense plan), to prevent acid rain and global warming regulation.” Conway says these “merchants of doubt” were pursuing “a political ideology to defend market fundamentalism and their political beliefs, not because they were in the pay for big money.”

The authors argue that the legacy of this Cold War ideology lives on in today’s climate change “denial” discourse.  The seeds planted then continue to sprout, they contend, despite the fact that today’s “merchants” are far less influential within the scientific community.

“There is a second generation, but one that is not nearly as respected,” said Conway. “The think tank network  now exists and has been institutionalized and is self-perpetuating. They simply hire their own people who have some credentials, rarely actually climate scientists, who continue to do that kind of thing.  But they don’t have nearly the kind of stature that Nierenberg did or that Fred Seitz had.”

A 2008 study also makes a link between conservative think tanks an climate skepticism.  The report, published in the journal Environmental Politics, found that of 141 English-language, “environmentally sceptical” books published between 1972 and 2005, 92% have links to conservative think tanks, 90% of which, the report found, “espouse environmental scepticism.”

Dumbfounded by “SmartMeters”

UPDATE: In late January, 2011, The New York Times published a good overview of how the controversy over smart meters has evolved since this post.

When utilities and the California Public Utilities Commission hatched plans to bolt a “smart meter” onto every household, the premise–and the promise–was that by digitally tracking just how much they were using and spending, customers would be able to make smarter choices about their energy use, ultimately saving money and cutting carbon emissions.

Smart meters are also a critical component of the nascent but much vaunted “smart grid,” in which household appliances and electric cars communicate with the vast power transmission network, and optimize things like when to recharge.

But as I report in my radio story for The California Report, many PG&E customers consider them more bane than boon (PG&E uses the trademark “SmartMeter,” whereas I may refer to them generically as “smart meters”).

Part of what’s riled up customers in Bakersfield and elsewhere in California is that PG&E hasn’t provided the devices to help watch the watts. Customers can go online to track their energy use over the last 24 hours, but that’s about it. And in the meantime, consumers are paying the cost of the new meters, and in some cases, higher bills that they blame on those meters.

Liz Keogh shows me the "SmartMeter" outside her Bakersfield home. Photo: Sasha Khokha

Liz Keogh shows me the "SmartMeter" outside her Bakersfield home. Her summer 2009 bills went up by half after it was installed. (Photo: Kristin Torres)

Julie Fitch, who heads the energy division of the California Public Utilities Commission, told me she thinks those real-time tracking gadgets won’t actually change consumer habits that much. “There’s a certain percentage of us who are interested in seeing what our energy use is at all times, and are fascinated by it, but I think it’s probably a small percentage in the grand scheme of things,” Fitch said.

Fitch says consumers will see more of an advantage from smart meters when home appliances can communicate with the devices.

“The reality is the grid right now is that it’s actually fairly dumb,” Fitch said. There’s a lot of manual decisions that need to be made in order to get the electricity from a generator to your house. I think what we’re looking at is a much more automatically controlled situation where appliances are automatically linked in with smart devices.”

For example, a fully integrated system could “decide” to run your clothes dryer at off-peak times, to relieve strain on the grid and possibly save money. But the whole idea of charging more for power at different times of day, known as peak pricing, troubles consumer advocates like Mark Toney. He heads The Utility Reform Network (TURN), a consumer advocacy group based in Oakland.

“We want to make sure this doesn’t unduly harm seniors, for instance, who are home bound,” Toney told me, pointing out that folks don’t have a choice sometimes about whether to run their air conditioner in the sweltering Central Valley heat.  “We don’t want them to be faced with the choice of being safe in their home or being subject to heat stroke because they shut off their AC because they can’t afford it,” he said.

Toney is also concerned that struggling customers are more likely to see their power shut off,  if they can’t keep up with the bills.  Smart meters allow utilities to turn off power remotely, without having to send a crew out to someone’s home–and that, he says, gives the company less incentive to negotiate payment plans.

The CPUC’s response? Utilities will still have to follow standard procedures, including advance notice of shut-offs.

Meanwhile an independent lab appointed by the CPUC continues to test PG&E SmartMeters to try to determine why some of them are malfunctioning. Some customers now have “side-by-side” test installations, with both analog and digital meters tracking electricity use in tandem. Strangely enough, the deployment of smart meters by Southern California’s two major utilities has gone relatively smoothly, with just a fraction of the complaints that PG&E has logged.

In my radio story, I interviewed Bakersfield Resident Liz Keogh, who saw her electric bill spike after her SmartMeter was installed.  Keogh is very energy-conscious; her home is a veritable showcase of energy-saving gadgetry. There could be any number of technical reasons why the new meters led to larger bills. Keogh developed her own personal theory (since disproved by independent tests), which she demonstrates in the video below, using some unlikely props. It’s a good example of the broad spectrum of consumer objections to the technology.

Polls Underestimate Climate Change Concerns, Study Finds

A historic water marker left high and dry at Lake Powell in April 2010. (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

A historic water marker left high and dry at Lake Powell in April 2010. (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

If you’ve been paying attention at all over the last year, you’ve no doubt heard that Americans don’t care very much about climate change.  Pew polls, Yale polls, Gallup polls–all have found in the past year that climate change and the environment rank pretty much dead last when it comes to issues people care about in the United States.  But new research out of Stanford suggests that the truth might actually be a bit more complicated, and that Americans might be a lot more concerned about climate change than these polls indicate.

As it turns out, it’s all in the asking.

Jon Krosnick, a Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment, recently found that the standard “Most Important Problem” question, which has been a staple of polls and surveys for generations, might not capture the true nature of public sentiment toward environmental issues.

Krosnick has been studying the public’s perception of climate change since the 1990s. He said that during that time his findings have continually indicated that “huge majorities” agreed that the planet is heating up and that the government should take action, but that global warming was repeatedly left off the list when people were asked what was the country’s most important problem.

It was a Stanford undergraduate, Samuel Larson, who suggested that perhaps how the question was being asked was influencing the answers, said Krosnick.  Maybe, Larson postulated, if the question were opened up to consider the world, rather than just the United States, and if it asked about the future, rather than today, people’s answers might reflect something different.

In fact, their answers changed dramatically, researchers found.  In the May 2010 study, the team analyzed the results of two polls from the fall of 2009 that addressed the issue in two distinct ways.   When asked, “What do you think is the most important issue facing the world today?” about half (49%) of respondents in the first poll answered “the economy” or “unemployment,” while only one percent mentioned global warming or the environment.  In the second poll, the responses were 54% economy and two percent environment.

But when the question was re-framed as “What do you think is the most serious problem facing the world in the future if nothing is done to stop it?” the results swung dramatically.  In the first poll, 25% said the environment or global warming, and 10% said the economy.  In the second poll the results were 21% and 16%, respectively.

For specific data on Californians and their views on environmental issues and climate policy, see last summer’s PPIC report: Californians and the Environment.

Climate Change as a Moral Issue


Photo: Gretchen Weber

Global warming is not just a scientific or political issue, it’s a moral one, said Reverend Sally Bingham of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, at the Commonwealth Club last week.  Bingham, who founded the Interfaith Power and Light campaign, an organization dedicated to “mobilizing a religious response to global warming,” joined Rabbi Stephen Pearce of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco at the talk, which was organized by Climate One, to discuss the intersection of religion and climate change.

“I think believe of faith have come to realize that this is a moral issue, how we behave on the planet, ” said Bingham. “God put us here to be the stewards, and over the last few years as more clergy have come to realize that this is a matter of faith. You cannot profess a love of God and destroy creation.”

Pearce talked about how he first entered the arena of environmental activism in the 1990s, when he went to a rally to save redwoods in northern California.  After being moved by the experience he founded the Interfaith Coalition to Save the Headwater Forest, an activist organization dedicated to protect the forest. After a long battle, during which Pearce earned the nickname “The Redwood Rabbi,” the forest was eventually protected.

“I was moved by the plight of all of these people who got into their pick up trucks and came all the way down to make their plight known,” said Pearce.

In this video from the talk, both religious leaders talk about the passages from scriptures have contributed to their beliefs on environmentalism.

The hour-long program airs on KQED at 2:00pm this Saturday, April 3rd, and after that is available online.

Concerns Abound as Geoengineering Conference Opens

Craig Miller

Photo: Craig Miller

This week in Monterey, an international group of scientists and policymakers are  are gathering to hash out some ground rules for experimenting with climate intervention, or “geoengineering”–what many are calling “Plan B” for dealing with climate change.

There are two main categories of geoengineering strategies: one focuses on blocking solar radiation that reaches the Earth’s surface, the other aims to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.  The goal of both is to pull an emergency brake on global warming, using technology that is, in many cases, experimental.

Ideas for blocking the sun include science-fiction-sounding ideas like spraying sulfur aerosol into the stratosphere (which we explore in a radio feature on The California Report), launching reflectors into orbit, and spraying seawater at clouds to make them brighter and more reflective.

Because much of the technology remains untested, and because, given the complexities of the climate system there’s no real way to test them out in a lab, (not to mention the philosophical issue of interfering in such a direct way with the Earth), the very idea of geoengineering is controversial (watch this space for more about that in the week ahead) But as it turns out, this week’s conference in Monterey is shaping up to be controversial on its own.

The stated goal of the Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies is “to develop norms and guidelines for controlled experimentation on climate engineering or intervention techniques.” Some big names in climate circles are expected to be in attendance, including the Climate Institute‘s Michael McCracken, who is chairing the conference, and former IPCC lead author Richard Somerville, now retired from Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla.

Other leading scientists, however, have chosen to skip the conference, including Stanford’s Ken Caldeira, Martin Bunzl, who directs the Rutgers Initiative on Climate Change and Social Policy, and Braden Allenby, a professor of Engineering and Ethics at Arizona State University, both of whom participated in a lively panel on geoengineering at the AAAS annual meeting in February. Bunzl told Climate Watch Senior Editor Craig Miller that the five-day event was too much time to devote to the topic, and Allenby called the conference premature.

Many scientists say that more research needs to be done to determine whether these strategies would even work, before we start hashing out how to to deploy them, even if only on a limited, experimental basis.  Others fear a focus on intervention might lead to complacency and distract from the immediate task of reducing CO2 emissions.

The latest controversy surrounding the conference, however, revolves around accusations of a conflict of interest.  The Climate Response Fund (CRF), which is organizing the conference, has ties to a geoengineering firm, San Francisco-based Climos.  Climate blogger Joe Romm (who is admittedly “not a fan of geoengineering”) writes about these connections in-depth at Climate Progress, and details email exchanges he had on the subject with Margaret Leinen of the CRF, David Keith of the University of Calgary and Caldeira of the Carnegie Institute for Science, all of whom reportedly expressed concerns about the potential conflict of interest (one reason Caldeira cites for skipping the conference).

Meanwhile organizers will try to enforce media restrictions almost unheard of in the Internet age, including a ban on daily reporting from the conference, and on quoting presenters without their express consent.  The rationale was laid out in an email from the conference organizers:

“The conference is designed to allow the conferees to consider multiple points of view during the course of the meetings.  Reporting before participants have had the opportunity to consider the full mix of views will necessarily be incomplete and therefore risk being misleading.  This also is  matter of courtesy to your fellow conferees, will help in maintaining the focus of the discussions and efforts to achieve the Conference objectives, and will help reduce the likelihood that Internet exchanges about the Conference will break out before we all have an opportunity to be participating in them, as appropriate, based on our actual experiences here at Asilomar.”

Some form of announcement is scheduled for Friday, when the meeting comes to a close.

Update 3/22/10
The Board of Directors of the Climate Response Fund has issued a statement addressing the concerns raised about a potential conflict of interest.  It states that CRF “will not fund field experiments for any climate intervention technique now or in the future.”  This reportedly has assuaged some scientists’ (and journalists’) concerns about the intentions of the organization and the purpose of the Asilomar conference.

Gallup: A Drop in Concern over Warming

Emily Coven

Photo: Emily Coven

Another day, another poll showing that fewer Americans believe climate change is real.

Results from the latest Gallup Social Series Environment poll show that concern about global warming continues to wane, in some areas dipping to levels as low as when Gallup first started surveying about climate change in 1997.  The poll was conducted last week (between March 4 and March 7) and included responses from telephone interviews (land lines and cell phones) with 1,014 individuals 18 and older.

Key results include:

  • 19 percent say that effects of climate change “will never happen.” That compares with 16 percent last year and a low of 7 percent in 2001.
  • Almost half of Americans say most scientists are either unsure if global warming is happening (36 percent) or that most scientists believe that it is not happening (10 percent). Just 52 percent think most scientists “believe it is occurring,” down from 65 percent last year.
  • The poll showed a near-even split between those who think global temperature increases are due to human activity (50 percent) as opposed to natural causes (46 percent). That’s the lowest percentage to blame warming on human activity since Gallup first asked the question in 2003 and a drop of 8 percent from last year.
  • 48 percent said that news reports about climate change are “generally exaggerated” compared with 40 percent last year and 30 percent in 2006 and 2001.

The Gallup results mirror a recent study by Yale and George Mason universities called “Global Warming’s Six Americas.” The report found that the number of Americans who believe global warming is not happening has risen from 8 percent to 16 percent since 2008.

According to Gallup, the study results over the last two years mark a reversal in American attitudes about climate change.  Their data shows that concerns had increased from 1997 for over a decade, but in 2009 public concern retreated, and this year’s survey results mark an even more pronounced downtown.

As we have reported, this shift in attitudes may reflect recent publicity about mistakes in the 2007 IPCC report and the emails hacked and disseminated from the accounts of East Anglia climate scientists.  The record-breaking cold and snow in some parts of the country this year also could have played a role as well as the increasingly politicized nature of the debate.

Belief in Global Warming Waning


One of six possible profile "badges" from KQED's Matter of Degree Facebook survey

The percentage of Americans who believe that global warming is not happening has doubled since 2008, climbing from eight to 16 percent of the adult population, according to a new report from Yale and George Mason Universities.  (The full report is available as a PDF on the Yale Project on Climate Change website.)

More than 1,000 adults were surveyed in late December and early January, and their responses compared with results from a similar survey in the fall of 2008.  Called “Global Warming’s Six Americas,” the study identifies six “types” of attitudes about climate change ranging from “Alarmed” to “Dismissive” (see diagram, below).

The updated research  finds that while the percentage of “Dismissives” is growing, the proportion of  people at the opposite end of the spectrum, the Alarmed, is shrinking.  The percentage of Americans who believe that climate change is real, is caused by humans, and is an immediate threat, has dropped to 10 percent of the population, down from 18 percent in 2008. The survey group described as “Concerned” has, however grown slightly, and the “Disengaged” portion has halved, which would seem to indicate more people staking out positions on one side or the other.

Study author and director of the Yale Project on Climate Change, Anthony Leiserowitz, cited “gloomy unemployment numbers, public frustration with Washington, attacks on climate science, and mobilized opposition to national climate legislation” as contributing to diminished public concerns about global warming.

As we reported earlier this month, despite a drop in concern about climate change, majorities in all six groups say that developing sources of clean energy should be a priority for the US government.

To see which of the “Six Americas” resonates most with your viewpoint, take our climate survey, A Matter of Degree, which was developed in collaboration with the Yale Project on Climate Change and the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason Univeristy.  It’s available on the Climate Watch website and on Facebook.


Graph from Global Warming's Six Americas, January 2010