“The Carbon Control Knob”

Richard Alley, lead author, IPCC in Washington,Feb. 8, 2007, testifying before the House Science and Technology Committee hearing on climate change. Source: Chuck Kennedy/MCT

For anyone looking for a crash course on how CO2 controls the climate, there is no better teacher than Dr. Richard Alley, Professor of Geosciences and Associate of the EMS Environment Institute at Penn State University. Alley, who has contributed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has been called “a mashup of Johnny Cash and Woody Allen” by Andy Revkin of the New York Times. Yesterday, the Bard CEP National Climate Seminar Fall 2011 series had the privilege of hosting a conversation with Dr. Alley about “The Carbon Control Knob.” Participants were treated to a succinct explanation of the role of CO2 in controlling global climate and the extensive scientific data that exists to illustrate these processes. A complete version of Dr. Alley’s presentation on this topic, “The Biggest Carbon Control Knob: Carbon Dioxide in Earth’s Climate History,” can be seen on the American Geophysical Union’s website, complete with slides and Dr. Alley’s infamous charisma.

Dr.Alley is known for his ability to convey complex scientific concepts to the general public and for his unique and captivating teaching style. Case in point, using a dance to illustrate the Milankovitch cycles that show how changes in the earth’s eccentricity, precession and axial tilt create ice ages. Also not to be missed are Dr. Alley’s rendition of “Ring of Fire” on YouTube, part of a music video series on rocks, and “Rollin’ to the Future,” a music video about scarce resources.

Source: Pennsylvania State University

Throughout the conversation, Dr. Alley was cautiously optimistic about the future. When asked about the threat of tipping points leading to irreversible changes to the global climate, he referenced current models that show it is unlikely that we will see the shutting down of the North Atlantic Ocean conveyor belt that brings warm waters from the Gulf of Mexico northward towards Europe. According to current data, Dr. Alley said that we aren’t melting Greenland fast enough to significantly freshen the North Atlantic to the point that would stop this ocean current, he’s “90% sure we’re going to dodge this bullet.” According to Dr. Alley, our biggest concern right now is the melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet that is predicted to cause significant sea level rise.

Source: Pennsylvania State University

When questioned about policy implications, Dr. Alley was adamant that science remain separate from policy. The first step towards making good policy decisions is to inform people that the science of climate change is “good science” and that “physics is physics is physics is physics.” It is important to include scientists at the table with policy makers when determining how to plan for the impacts of climate change. In terms of moving forward, he illustrated the high risk involved with not doing anything to mitigate the effects of climate change. Dr. Alley addressed the need to show that “we’re better off doing something about” climate change now, than to wait and see what happens. The framing of climate change as an issue around job loss is political, however it could just as easily be framed as creating jobs through plans to increase resiliency.

The next National Climate Seminar is scheduled for November 16th with Seb Henbest, Manager of Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s operations in Australia, for a conversation called “Politics Down Under: Does Catastrophe Drive Change?” For more information on the National Climate Seminar please see the NCS website. Podcasts of the conversation with Richard Alley and of previous NCS conversations are available here.  Know any undergraduates or recent graduates who aspire to be sustainability leaders in politics and business? Encourage them to apply to the C2C Fellows program. Northeast Launch Workshop kicks off the weekend of December 2nd-4th with keynote speaker Majora Carter at the campus of Bard College, 90 minutes north of New York City. Join the first cohort of C2C Fellows!

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