Solving Cities

Q&A: Michael Lemonick, co-author of 'Global Weirdness'

Posting in Cities

New book offers the facts on climate change -- without the rhetoric.

Photo courtesy of Pantheon Books

Climate change is never far from the public imagination. Whether championed or lampooned, conversation on the topic is rarely measured.

A new book, however, does just that. Written in straightforward prose and fact-checked by the world's eminent climate scholars, Global Weirdness reads like The 9/11 Commission Report: all of the facts, none of the hyperbole. In four succinct sections, its authors detail the truth about climate change: what the science says, what's actually happening, what's likely to happen, and how we can avoid potential risks.

To get a better grasp on these issues, and the forces that shape this summer's strange weather -- from floods in the United Kingdom to draughts in the Midwest -- SmartPlanet sat down with Michael Lemonick co-author of Global Weirdness. Whether clearing up common misconceptions or detailing reasons for hope, his analysis does one thing most conversations on the topic don't: enlighten you.

SmartPlanet: The title of your book is Global Weirdness. Do you think that would characterize the weather we’ve been having this summer, whether it’s the floods in the UK or the drought in the Midwest?

Michael Lemonick: Absolutely. You know hot weather in the summer is not unusual. Drought comes and goes. Floods happen. That’s nothing new. What’s clearly new is the frequency and the intensity of these events and also the fact that they’ve been building up over years and even decades. For example, if you look at high temperature records back in the 1950s we were setting about as many highs as we were lows. In the 60s it started to go out of balance, and in the 70s even more, to the point where we are setting many more new high temperature records in this past decade than new lows. That shows you that there is really a long-term trend towards these heat waves and weather extremes.

SmartPlanet: Was that the impetus for the book? People have been talking about climate change for quite a while. What was it about this particular moment?

Lemonick: I actually wrote my first major story about climate change in 1987, so you are absolutely right about that. You’ll see that the more confident scientists have become about the science of climate change over the years, the more public debate there’s been about the reality of it, to the point where a couple of years ago Thomas Friedman, in the New York Times, made a plea. He said, people are getting all this conflicting information, all this argument, all this hype, someone ought to gather together the world’s most eminent climate scientists, and sit down and write a book – I think he said 50 pages – that just lays out very simply what we know about climate change and how we know it. And why we should or should not take it seriously. It should be in language so simple that a sixth-grader could read it.

SmartPlanet: How did that translate itself into a book?

Lemonick: A book publisher said, “That’s a great idea. Let’s do this. Who can we find to do this?” Through a number of connections, they came to Climate Central. We agreed to do it. So, narrowly, it’s just Thomas Friedman who made this challenge. More broadly, that’s sort of been what our mission has been since we were founded in 2008: to cut through the partisan bickering around climate change and the hype on both sides of the debate, and really tell the basics about climate science and what the facts are. In keeping with our mission, and laid in our laps. That’s why now.

SmartPlanet: The book is that is very straightforward, but it clears up quite a few misconceptions. What would you say are some of the misconceptions you hear again and again, whether they’re from politicians, the media, or in everyday conversations?

Lemonick: I should say is that these misconceptions are based on really reasonable common sense. It’s not like, “How crazy that people think these things?” They’re reasonable and natural mistakes.

One misconception is that because the sun is the most important thing that governs our climate, that it might just be the sun – that variation in brightness – is why we’re seeing climate change. That’s actually a very reasonable idea. When they started to see the temperature start to rise markedly in the late 80s, early 90s, this is a question scientists asked themselves, “Could we fooling ourselves? Maybe it’s just the sun?” They went and looked at years of solar radiation data and addressed that very common sense question. It turns out no, the sun has not changed in a consistent way in brightness. It’s really a great question. The problem arises when people who know better, and know that’s already been done, continue to repeat it. And people who don’t know better say, “Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.” That’s one very common misconception.

SmartPlanet: Besides the brightness of the sun, what else commonly trips people up?

Lemonick: Another says, climate has varied drastically over earth’s history. If you look back 100,000 years, we were in the middle of an Ice Age -- with glaciers all over the place. If you go back 65 million years, to the age of dinosaurs, the whole planet was tropical. There were literally palm trees growing in Antarctica. There were crocodiles north of Greenland. Obviously, humans weren’t affecting climate then, so isn’t it reasonable to assume that these are natural climate variations that we’re seeing? Again. Great question. Very sensible question. Climate scientists have looked at all of the forces that we know that affect climate. Have their been an unusually low number of volcanoes, so there’s less dust in the air, so more sunlight’s coming through? Have we changed our orbit around the sun? They looked at all of the plausible explanations, aside from greenhouse gasses, and found that they do not explain the current warming.

SmartPlanet: And a third?

Lemonick: Another popular misconception or popular myth that is repeated is that clearly we did go through great climate swings, modern humans emerged maybe 200,000 years ago, and we had a couple of ages go by, and we survived just fine. So we can survive this, right? That sounds good until you thing about that 10,000 years ago, our population was very small and mostly nomadic. You know, if a glacier is coming at you, you can move ten miles a year and stay ahead of it. If the sea level is rising or falling, you can move your camp. The difference now is that we’ve got seven billion people. We’ve built cities along the seashore. We’ve created farmland infrastructure to get food to market in fertile areas. We’ve got all of this fixed infrastructure, and we can’t just move it ten miles per year. That would be ridiculously expensive. Beyond which, back when the last Ice Age began, we don’t know how many humans died during that transition. Maybe it was half the population. Who knows? If a significant portion of the human race died during this transition that would be a big deal. Just because we have no record of the human tragedy that might have happened 10,000 years ago, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. If you think it through, these common-sense objections don’t hold up. We wanted to acknowledge them in the book, and say, “Yes, that’s reasonable.” Here’s why that’s probably not true.

SmartPlanet: Part four of the book is talking about solutions or the way out. What do you think might be a reasonable approach?

Lemonick: As I think we made clear in the book, geoenginnering of various kinds is a very risky proposition. It could have all sorts of consequences that nobody would anticipate, and could be very bad. It’s something we should only resort to in the event of an emergency. We also came to the conclusion that a lot of the feel-good things that people do – changing their light bulbs, buying a more efficient car, or insulating their house – are helpful, but they won’t make enough of a dent in the problem to avoid real potential disasters.

SmartPlanet: What will make enough of a dent?

Lemonick: Fundamentally, what it will take to cut back our carbon emissions is a revolution in the way we produce and use energy. This is something that will not happen without government incentives. Not enough people will do this just because it is a noble thing to do. Not enough people will do it because it saves you money. People just have a really hard time coming up with that money up front. Yes, I could buy a Prius, but I really can’t afford a car right now.

Unless the price of energy is slanted away from fossil fuels, maybe by a carbon tax or some type of penalty for emissions, enough people are not going to change your behavior. I think it is going to take that level of action. Politically, that seems pretty hard to imagine right now. We had eight years of Al Gore in the vice-president’s chair and we didn’t do anything about climate change. He couldn’t do it. The climate for political action is worse now.

SmartPlanet: Is there a model we could learn from?

Lemonick: I liken it to the anti-smoking campaigns that started in 1964. Yes, they got certain people to stop smoking, but not all people. Anti-smoking legislation – banning smoking in restaurants, in airplanes, in trains, and hotels – would have been unimaginable in the 60s and 70s. You know, “It’s my right to smoke. How dare you.” The real impact of those campaigns was to make enough people aware of how harmful this really was so that governments felt they had the faith to create these laws. We’ve made smoking socially unacceptable, which I think is more powerful that just saying, “This is bad for you. You’re going to die.” I think that if enough people read our book, absorb the lessons, and absorb the lessons taught by other people, and believe on a fundamental level that it’s unacceptable to emit carbon, then governments will be able to take action without worrying that they’ll be kicked out of office.

SmartPlanet: Any idea if Thomas Friedman is going to pick up a copy and read it?

Lemonick: I certainly hope so.

Photo: Andrea Della Adriano/Flickr

Share this

Claire Lambrecht

Contributing Writer

Claire Lambrecht has written for the New York Times, Slate, Salon, The Nation, and CBS MoneyWatch. Previously, she taught English as a Teach for America Corps Member and Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. She holds degrees from Cornell University, the University of Hawaii, and the Arthur M. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure