Texas State Climatologist on Politics, Weather, and Setting the Facts Straight on Climate Change

Source: TAMU Times

Source: TAMU Times

John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas State Climatologist, is a tried and true Texan. As a professor in the Atmospheric Sciences Department at Texas A&M University, he observes Texas weather patterns, monitors the state’s multi-year drought and air pollution climatology, and makes improvements to the climate data record. I recently had the chance to pick his brain over weather, climate change, and the state of affairs in Texas.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Lone Star State, Texas is a state of extremes. We have a history of extreme weather patterns and extremes between our climate zones. We also have extreme views about Texas’ climate and whether it is changing. Unfortunately, polarized views can distort perceptions on important issues. Regardless of the scientific data that confirms our changing climate, the subject has become so politicized that it’s nearly impossible to discuss. However, there shouldn’t be a debate over whether to use all of the available data to ensure that Texas is appropriately planning for its viable economic, natural, and demographic future.

Here is what Dr. Nielsen-Gammon had to share:

1. What are your views about climate change?

Before we get to my views, let’s start with the facts. First, the climate is always changing. Second, our changing of the composition of the atmosphere is giving the climate system a bigger kick than it’s gotten in a long time. Third, science has been unable to pin down just how big an effect on global temperatures that kick is going to have, to within a factor of two or three. Fourth, apart from sea level rise, other climate change impacts are even less precisely known.

Now, my view is that climate change is an important issue that requires our attention. We need to confront the risks and make informed decisions about the extent to which we wish to slow down climate change or just deal with its impacts.

2. What are your key concerns about this issue in Texas with respect to its impacts?

For ecology, there are multiple threats to coastal ecosystems. Ocean acidification, sea level rise, reduced freshwater inflows, and rising temperatures will combine to lead to major changes. For society, there are lots of little problems. The most costly and pervasive would be reduced water availability, while the most dangerous would be increased chances of urban wildfires.

3. What does it mean to be the State Climatologist in Texas and have public officials consult with you when formulating policy that could affect climate and the economy?

I’m grateful for the opportunity to be able to present straightforward information on Texas weather and climate, both present and future. I’m not generally involved in policy discussions. I provide part of the raw materials from which policy can be developed.

4. How we can present relevant data to better inform our public officials and citizens on this issue?

Data is not enough. Much of Texas has experienced little or no long-term increase in temperature over the past century. Our current weather, even the severe weather, has been only slightly modified by global warming up to this point. Besides, there’s so much misinformation out there that everybody knows a lot of things that just aren’t so.

5. What can be done to depoliticize this issue?

Depoliticization is the key. I don’t mean depoliticizing the issue overall, I mean getting past the posturing that encourages people to think that global warming is not happening at all. There are plenty of aspects of climate change that require political debate and resolution. Pretending that global warming is not a problem worth considering prevents such a debate from happening. It suits those who prefer no action whatsoever, but it is a disservice to Texas and the United States.

One of the biggest threats to Texas regarding climate change is not the climate itself, but the regulations that might be put into place to put the brakes on climate change. Texas needs to be directly involved in those discussions, so that any such climate policy works for Texas.

6. How can EDF and other advocacy groups work with you and other experts to improve messaging on this complex issue?

Let me be clear: I’ll work with anybody to improve the accuracy of their understanding and messaging on climate change, no matter where they lie on the political spectrum. I think people expect that advocates will generally be presenting one-sided arguments. The more reliable and accurate the evidence presented, the more people will be inclined to believe the arguments. And if both sides are presenting the same evidence, people can actually focus on the arguments.

7. Many perceptions of climate change are actually based on weather patterns. Can you explain how you deal with the linkages and distinctions between weather and climate change?

People have short climate memories. The tendency is to think that something new or weird to them must have an extraordinary cause, when in reality the weather is capable of endless variation. In Texas in particular, we can go through 30 years of one type of weather, then switch to a different weather regime for 30 years. Not many of us remember the weather of 60 years ago well enough to tell the difference compared to today.

There are two ways to think about the effects of climate change on weather. One is as a contribution. For example, climate change contributed about 1 degree Fahrenheit to our excessive 2011 summertime temperatures, according to a study I participated in. The other way is as changing the odds. The same study found that the odds of such excessive heat occurring in any given year was doubled or tripled.

8. For Texas, what’s the most pressing concern of climate change? For example, is it drought or rising sea levels? And do you see these risks as a means of persuading skeptics?

I discussed the main risks earlier. However, people can’t be persuaded by those risks unless and until they recognize those risks as real. By the time such elevated risks are clearly apparent in the data, it will be too late to do much about it.

I’d like to thank Dr. Nielsen-Gammon for his candid views. If Texas is going to address the impacts of its changing weather and the larger impacts of climate change, state leaders should think objectively about “confront[ing] the risks and mak[ing] informed decisions.” Regardless of where leaders stand on the issue of climate change, it’s undebatable that Texas’ abundant wind power and the potential for more solar energy and energy efficiency are boons for the state economy in the number of new jobs created as well as the significant investment in the state’s infrastructure. Plus, these resources emit negligible carbon emissions and require little to no water to operate—a huge gain for Texas. Investing in clean energy means state leaders are investing in a cleaner environment for today and for future generations. As Texas legislators convene in Austin for the next legislative session, I encourage our leaders to have a thoughtful conversation on the risks of a changing climate and champion policies that benefit Texans regardless of their views by securing energy independence, creating local jobs, and empowering Texans. 

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  1. Daye S
    Posted June 20, 2014 at 7:05 PM | Permalink

    I like his comments. This seems to be the intelligent course and it does not surprise me that it comes from Texas. As a transplanted yankee I have found Texas to have the correct point of view for the last 34 years I have lived here. I am encouraged by this article.

  2. Bill Hurley
    Posted June 22, 2014 at 10:48 AM | Permalink

    Really appreciate the common sense approach that Dr Nielsen-Gammon presents here. EDF is to be congratulated for this needed overview.