Argonne research meteorologist Doug Sisterson addresses climate change

Lisa La Vallee
Director of CommunicationsOffice of the Vice President for Research and for National Laboratories

Climate change is real. The only uncertainty about it is the timing and magnitude of the coming changes.

These changes will be profound, affecting health, economics, politics, biodiversity and settlement patterns around the world.

So said Doug Sisterson, research meteorologist at Argonne National Laboratory, during “Climate Change: Fact, Fiction and What You Can Do,” an Argonne OutLoud lecture held March 10 at the University of Chicago’s International House. Argonne OutLoud shares scientific insights from current research with students, scholars and the public.

In the short term, climate change will not primarily manifest as an increase in ambient temperature, but rather as an increase in the number and severity of extreme weather events. In fact, so-called “one-hundred-year” droughts and floods are already occurring more frequently, as are devastating heat waves, cold spells, rainfall, hurricanes and tornadoes.

Sisterson prefers to use the term “climate disruption” because of the harsh effects this problem will have. For example, by the end of the century, Illinois’ climate could well resemble that of present-day central Texas. But climate disruption will impact people in the Southern Hemisphere more—even though countries in the Northern Hemisphere cause most of it.

Fortunately, the oceans absorb much of the sun’s excess heat, which greenhouse gases have been increasingly trapping, but this cushion has its limits. “Even a small change in the oceans’ temperatures will have a huge effect on climate disruption,” Sisterson said. As they warm, oceans will become more acidic; plant and animal life will be harmed; and sea levels will rise, threatening most of the world’s major cities, which tend to be on or near coastlines.

These are a few of the insights that Sisterson discussed as he shared knowledge collected from the research of more than 5,000 scientists who passed through the doors at Argonne and collected vast amounts of data from all over the world.

Consensus but uncertainty

“There’s a consensus among 97 percent of scientists that the earth is warming and that a significant portion of that warming is due to human activity,” Sisterson said.

Alas, there is no consensus concerning what to do about it. Scientists favor more research, but that costs money and depends on political support. “Still, it comes down to pay now or pay later,” he said. All 13 federal agencies conducting climate change research spend approximately $2.5 billion a year, while just one extreme weather event can cost far more than that, he noted.

Sisterson does not endorse, however, the many bioengineering or geoengineering proposals for dealing with climate disruption. These schemes involve such ideas as releasing aerosols into the atmosphere to block incoming sunlight; fertilizing the oceans to trigger algae blooms that would change the color of the water; capturing and burning carbon; and triggering volcanic eruptions, which have been known to cool the earth. “Do we really know enough about the way Mother Nature works to be able to design an experiment where the entire earth is a lab?” he asked.

Besides more research, the most important thing scientists should do is to better disseminate their knowledge about climate disruption, Sisterson said. “Scientists tend to be very skeptical. Since their job is to understand things, they propose ideas and theories and vet them among their fellow researchers through the scientific method. Today, however, it’s not enough for scientists to know they are right and to show other scientists they are right. They need to place a new emphasis on educating the public.”

This is especially true because those who rebuff climate-disruption will capitalize on the unknowns to undermine evidence-based knowledge about climate disruption—even though 2014 was the warmest year on record in terms of average global temperature.

To help counter the voices of the deniers, the public should speak out more about its concerns on climate disruption. “One letter to a congressman could represent a thousand votes in their eyes,” Sisterson said.

Education is vital as well, he added, saying with relief that the next generation of science standards for kindergarten through 12th grade includes material on climate change.

As if right on queue, a young boy at the lecture asked, “How many people would have to reduce their carbon usage to help climate change?”

His question drew applause from the large audience of students, academics and local residents. Sisterson, sitting down on the stage to be eye level with the boy, responded that it’s everyone’s responsibility not be wasteful, and added, “when your mother says, ‘don’t forget to turn off the lights,’ that would be a good place to start.”

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