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Interview with Dr. Camille Parmesan on Climate Changes, Biosystems, and U.S. Policy

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posted on Jan, 8 2006 @ 01:15 PM
Written September, 2004.

Camille Parmesan, Assistant Professor of Integrative Biology at University of Texas at Austin, has worked extensively in researching the effects of global warming and weather changes on biological systems. Her works extend from studying the population distribution ranges of butterflies as associated to changing weather patterns, to acting as a scientific advisor to the White House on climate change effects on biological systems, to being a contributor on the Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Dr. Parmesan's most recent paper "A globally coherent fingerprint of climate change impacts across natural systems" became a "most highly cited" paper by ISI Web of Science in May of this year. In order to achieve this distinction the paper must be cited among the top one-tenth of one percent (0.1%) in a current bimonthly period. Papers selected for this distinction tend to signal important new trends in research and "serve as leading indicators of scientific advance." Dr. Parmesan?s observations and conclusions are informative, revealing, intriguing and alarming. It is with great pride that ATSNN brings her findings and message to our readers.

ATSNN: Dr. Parmesan, do you believe that we will reach a critical point in wildlife changes that will drastically alter the balance of life on Earth, or will the degradation of our ecology be more gradual?

DR. PARMESAN: I actually think, and it's not just my thoughts but a lot of people consider that probably the way natural eco-systems work is more on a threshold basis. So species extinctions for example, you can get very gradual declines in population numbers, or population sizes, but you eventually reach a threshold where they suddenly go extinct. And often that is because of possibly their breeding systems, that they need a certain critical mass in order to properly have their breeding rituals. If they're licking birds, they need a proper population size to have adequate pre-mating behaviours. As well as in some insects, if we go away from mammals and want to get into insects, they simply have such high mortality at the young stages, often 98% of them are killed before they ever reach the mid-life stage, so if your numbers get down low enough then suddenly almost everything is going to go extinct. So in terms of species extinctions, yes, we do predict more threshold effects. The changes will appear gradual for quite some time and then suddenly everything becomes unsustainable.

And as far as eco-systems services, which is something like ability for eco-systems to purify water, to act as watersheds, or like coral reef systems, their ability to act as breeding grounds for fish and what not, we don't know quite as much about that level, but again, people expect that what we're going to see is more threshold effects. And certainly that's one of the things we've seen with the decline of coral reefs, that there's a threshold water temperature, which is slightly different depending on the coral species and depending on the region, but in every case it's the minute that the water temperature gets above 28 C, or whatever that threshold temperature is, the coral bleaches. And what we've seen in the past 10 years or so is a huge decline literally in the amount of reefs we've got. And that's because we've had this increasing frequency of high sea-surface-temperature events. And we're not seeing a whole lot of recovery.

ATSNN: Is there a threshold in the predictive models for the Earth as a whole bio-system? And, if so, how far away are we from that?

DR. PARMESAN: Well, we're already at a point of no return in terms of the global temperatures increasing. So, even if we stopped all greenhouse gas emissions right now, which isn't going to happen, but even if we could, the amount of greenhouse gases we've already put into the atmosphere will cause increased warming for at least another hundred years. So as far as the climate system goes, we're already beyond a point of no return. We will have more warming. There is no question about that. The only question is how much.

As far as species' responses, or the effect of all of this on natural systems, in physical systems like glaciers and sea-ice, there is going to be more of a point of no return in terms of like in Glacier National Park the glaciers have lost 70% of their volume. And I'm not a "cryosphere person" so this is a bit out of my field, but once you get to the point - the way glaciers work is they tend to grow once they get a certain mass. And so I suspect once you get to a point that you don't have glaciers in an area that formerly did, that it's going to be very difficult for glaciers to get started there.

ATSNN: That makes sense, they won't have that critical mass to grow...

DR. PARMESAN: That's correct, they'll just tend to melt away every year. As far as wildlife, I don't think we're at a point of no return yet. Now, we've had about 1 degree warming, and what we're seeing are a lot of changes. But at this point we don't have a lot of species extinctions that are directly linked to climate change. And one of the big questions is exactly that, how much more temperature change can the natural wildlife tolerate before we get to a point of no return. And that's a very big question mark. You know, my gut feeling is that it's about another 2 to 3 degrees Centigrade, which is the minimum estimate from the models for the next 100 years.

ATSNN: So based on just averages we could be looking at within 50 years reaching this point of no return.

DR. PARMESAN: I do want to emphasize that this is a big area of research; that we don't really know, but we have, if you want to call it, "expert opinions", is one way that people phrase this. The general feeling amongst biologists that at another 2 degrees we're definitely going to lose some species, but as far as the whole collapse of whole eco-systems we're already seeing that in coral reefs. So I thinkcoral reefs effectively are at a point of no return, or very near it. As far as a lot of other terrestrial systems, it's very system-dependent, and it changes a lot depending on the region of the world, because we're seeing much stronger warming in the polar regions, so Antarctica and Alaska, versus the tropical zone; we're not seeing nearly as much change. So it's something like the next 50 to 100 years we're going to start seeing some other systems collapsing. But again, this is something we're really trying to nail down much more quantitatively over the next few years.

ATSNN: Do the violent storm systems forming at increasing frequencies and intensities in the Atlantic correspond with short term models on climate change?

DR. PARMESAN: So basically they're asking about hurricanes.


DR. PARMESAN: And that is, again, another big question mark. The reason is that actually hurricane frequency went down considerably in the 1970's and 1980's, so in our memories - you know we have very short-term memories - and so, human memory is that this is a sudden increase in frequency and intensity of hurricanes, but actually we're just going back to the way it was in say the 1940s and 1950s. But the thing is, what causes a hurricane is hot ocean temperature. So that's why you don't get hurricanes up in the North Atlantic. You get them forming off Africa, and moving across; basically forming in the warm tropical waters. And as they go north they lose their energy. Their energy is coming from hot sea-surface temperatures. And the oceans have warmed, significantly. So we do have warmer oceans, and tropical oceans are going to be feeling that as well as the more northerly oceans. So there are climate modelers who are working on how that will impact the formation of monsoons, and hurricanes. But the modeling at this point is not very conclusive. So, from basic physics, yes, we expect to have more intense hurricanes and more frequent hurricanes, but because the models are so complex and they're trying to include the changing ocean current patterns, changing wind patterns as well, it's not something that people feel comfortable about saying yes, we've got a good projection for the next 50 years.

ATSNN: What biological systems do you see in the most danger if the hurricanes do continue to increase in frequency and in intensity? Are there specific biological systems that would be in danger?

DR. PARMESAN: Well, to be honest with you it's humans. You know, humans have a much harder time with these sort of extreme tropical storms than do the natural systems, because a lot of tropical systems are dependent on large-scale disturbances in order to be maintained. So hurricanes, though in the short-term appear to be very destructive, to some of the islands' flora and fauna, or you go to Costa Rica or Nicaragua after a hurricane, it looks like it's been very destructive but it turns out that those disturbances actually maintain the high bio-diversity in a lot of these regions. Now, obviously, if they're happening all the time, then yes, at some point, you can't get regeneration.

But the real impact is on human systems because a lot of our most expensive development or top resort areas are along low coastal lying zones. So, big fancy hotels, and the insurance industry is actually pouring a lot of support, and a lot of money, into research on basic climate change science because the insurance industry is starting to have to pay out huge amounts of money every time a hurrican goes through Florida, for instance. And so, as far as a lot of industries lending support, the oil industries and the insurance industries are actually giving some of the biggest support to climate change science, and climate change research.

ATSNN: Does a second developing El Nino concern you? We've seen two of these oceanic temperature fluctuations in the past 5 years when they are commonly spaced 7 years apart. Is this a sign of an increase in frequency of the El Nino cycle?

DR. PARMESAN: So El Nino events, we know a little more about that than we do about hurricanes. They actually have been increasing in intensity and frequency over the past hundred years. And that has been linked, in general, to increased sea-surface temperature. And there are some models that are coming out of NCAR, which is the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, that based on greenhouse gas driven climate, there are some models that predict that the future state is going to be a quasi-El Nino state all the time.

You know, El Nino isn't an exact definition, all it means is that you've got suddenly very hot sea surface temperatures in areas that are normally cooler. And the level, or your threshold, the point where you say it's an El Nino, is driven more by "this is something that doesn't happen very often", but as you gradually get sea surface temperatures rising if you keep that same temperature threshold, then suddenly every year is sort of like a mild El Nino. And again, the climate scientists are trying to lower the uncertainty around that. So as I said, there's one model that shows this [a gradually increasing quasi-El Nino state all of the time] and there are other models that don't and they're trying to figure out what's the probability of this happening. But we know certainly in the 20th century that we have had a significant increase in both intensity and frequency of El Nino.

ATSNN: And as a follow up to that, what effect could this have on sea life?

DR. PARMESAN: Well, if you think about what El Nino does. Well, it does several things. It certainly has caused some of the coral bleaching in the tropical latitudes that are susceptible to El Nino; Hawaii is one of the areas that gets hit by El Nino pretty strongly. But it also causes effects in terrestrial systems because you can get a big change of weather patterns. California gets quite a bit more water - more rainfall, more snowfall - in El Nino years. And some areas get quite a bit drier, so Costa Rica tends to get much drier; goes into a drought during an El Nino period. And this increase in frequency and intensity of El Nino has actually driven the extinction of one of the frog species, the Golden Toad, in Costa Rica; and has been related to a lot of the declines in other amphibians there. So, yes, it is expected to cause changes in terrestrial as well as marine systems; just because species are impacted by these sorts of extreme weather events.

ATSNN: It states on your website that you?ve given briefings to White House agencies. Can you share with us the nature of the topics and if your information was positively received?

DR. PARMESAN: Well, I?ve been brought in as being an expert on responses in biological systems to climate change. So I was brought in during the Clinton administration to give a seminar at the White House on this. I?ve also been brought in during the Bush administration and have talked with both people in the office of Science and Technology Policies. I was one of the faculty for a two day Congressional course, which was about climate change. I?ve been part of workshops to review the U.S. Climate Change Strategic Science. And in all of those cases I would say that my?You know, the people I interact with are all scientists; all of these people have PhDs, whether they?re in the EPA, or they?re working for a Congressman, or they?re working for the White House Science Team. So I?m dealing with people who already know quite a bit about the subject and when I?m being brought in I?m tending to just give them an update; point them to some of the recent literature; and talk about how sure are we ? this issue of trying to nail down how sure we are about some of these different effects.

I have given a couple of more public talks ? by public I mean by bringing in, say, Congressmen who aren?t necessarily scientifically trained. So, often, their staff is, but they, themselves, are not. And I?ve found the response to be, on the whole, very positive in the sense that they are appreciative of being told about what?s happening. They often didn?t ? for some reason, even thought the scientists know a lot about this, it isn?t getting transferred to the politicians very well. So what I have found was a lot of politicians are surprised that we actually know so much. And I say, well, gee, there?s all this stuff out there that?s published! But, in general, they don?t have a lot of time. You know, they?re working with so many different issues that going to see a seminar, and having it all summarized verbally, and with good graphics, seems to be a much better way to get something across to them than, say, publishing it in journals, or what not, because they just don?t have the time to read that primary literature.

ATSNN: Being involved in the creation of the recommendations of the 2001 IPCC, do you feel that the U.S. government has shown due diligence toward those advisements?

DR. PARMESAN: No, absolutely not. And that has been so clear from the minute Bush took office that he chose to completely ignore what our findings were in the 2001 report. He continued to say that we didn?t know whether greenhouse gases were causing climate change, which was not true. So he made several blatantly incorrect statements that might have been true twenty years ago, but certainly aren?t true now. And he went so far as to commission the American Academy of Sciences to go through ?

I don?t know if you know how physically the report is made up. Each of those working groups puts out a huge book that?s a few thousand pages, which is all the nitty gritty technical details, all the literature, all the analyses, and that?s really put there, and a lot of people don?t read that. But it?s put there as the foundation. If you have any questions, everything is answered in full in these several thousand page books. But what we then do, is we do a twenty-page summary, called a Technical Summary, which is really for scientists. It?s like if a scientist wants to come in and just get up to date on climate change impacts, they read the twenty-page Technical Summary and it still has a lot of the ? it?s assuming you?re educated ? so it still has a lot of the jargon in, but it?s in a condensed format. But then, in order to get the politicians to read it, we put out a ten-page Summary for Policymakers. And that has no jargon in it; it?s written in very plain, everyday language, and that should be something that anyone can understand. And I give it out to my undergraduate class, actually, to read.

Now, what Bush did is he got a commission for the American Academy of Science to go through the Summary for Policymakers ? the little short ten-page thing ? and verify that everything said in that was actually supported by what was in the several thousand pages of the full report. And his question to this panel was, is the full report, was it done in a biased fashion, or was it done properly. And in June - let?s see, what would it have been. 2001 was when the report came out. It must have been the year after ? it must have been June of 2002, within almost one week of each other, two things came out. The Journal of Science, which is one of the premiere journals that scientists put their work into, had a letter that was signed by 17 or 18 Academies of Sciences from around the world ? so the Australian Academy of Sciences, the Royal Academy of Sciences, etc. ? stating they considered the IPCC to be, basically, the global scientific consensus, and most up to date consensus on climate change and its impacts. And it went on and said more than that, but it was basically a letter in support of the IPCC, which was a response to Bush saying the IPCC was biased. And within a week, the American Academy panel came out with its report essentially saying the same thing; that the IPCC was done in a professional manner, that the science was all supported, well-supported, by peer-reviewed literature, and that the Summary for Policymakers correctly summarized all of the different findings in the full report. And it was only then that the White House came out and said, OK we admit it, climate change is happening. But it took a huge push.

And after that, what they did, they tried to - they took this strategy that, Ok, we?ve had to admit that humans are changing the climate but what we?re going to do is instead of actually putting anything into policy, we?re going to just say we need more research. And so all of the policy documents that came out after that ? the EPA does its once a year State of the Environment report, and the report that went to the White House had several pages about impact of climate change on the U.S. environment. The White House literally crossed out all of those paragraphs and replaced them with a sentence that said something like ? Yes, humans appear to be having some effect on the climate, but we need to know more about this; really, nothing conclusive can be said about its impacts and so we?re not going to do anything policy-wise because we don?t know enough. And shortly after that the Director of the EPA resigned.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has come out with a letter that?s signed by most, basically most of the major scientists in the U.S.A. stating that the White House has been deliberately ignoring science in its formation of policy, and incorrectly attributing statements to ? let?s see, how should I put this ? stating a scientific result incorrectly. Stating that something is a scientific result when actually the opposite is what is in the science. So incorrectly using science, and not using the best science in the formation of their policy.

ATSNN: Do you feel that the failure to sign the Kyoto Treaty is another sign that the United States is not willing to step up on the global warming issue?

DR. PARMESAN: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. And the argument that they use is that it is going to be too expensive, but if you look at the kind of models that have tried to calculate costs of trying to do something about climate change, they're very, very bad. Talk about bad science. I mean, I work with several economists, and the models that predict that this is going to cost vast amounts of money are bad economics. They?re not well thought of in the economic circles. And the counter is that if we don?t do anything, it?s going to be incredibly expensive. A lot of our major cities and industries are in low-lying coastal areas that are at risk of flooding from rising sea levels. So the idea that if we do nothing it?s going to be the cheapest route is actually not correct.

ATSNN: Though the evidence you present on the alignment with bio-system changes to temperature increases is tremendous, many still feel that the global temperature increases could be part of a natural cycle of the earth, rather than an effect of human activity. These individuals site historical data in which glaciation periods have been prefaced by a period of global warming. Would you care to comment on these contentions?

DR. PARMESAN: Those people, as I said, are not listening to the scientists. The consensus is stronger on this issue, amongst climate scientists, than I can think of any other issue in science ? including evolution. There?s more contention amongst biologists about the role of evolution in shaping our biodiversity than there is about the role of greenhouse gases in shaping the climate. So 99.9% of the climate scientists, atmospheric scientists, modelers, etc. have concluded that rising greenhouse gases have affected the Earth?s climate and are responsible for the bulk of increase in global temperature for the past 30 years.

And it?s just basic physics. This goes back to the late 1800s. People started doing experiments with different gases to look at their thermal properties. This guy would put a flame on one side and would blow gases in between the flame and a temperature sensor. And if he blew oxygen in between, the temperature sensor basically read the heat from the flame. If he blew pure carbon dioxide in between, it was such a good insulator that the temperature sensor, picked up almost no increase in heat from the flame. So it?s a well-known property of carbon dioxide, that it?s an insulator. And if you put it in the atmosphere, what that does is it acts like a huge blanket so that when infrared heat is radiated from the Earth it?s going to stay there instead of going out to space. And so the basic physics have been known for 140 years ? something like that. And more recent modeling, which has gotten very sophisticated, and looked at the relative contributions of solar influences, orbital influences, solar flares, volcanic activity, changes in land use ? many people have independently modeled those impacts relative to greenhouse gas impacts, on the temperatures of the 20th century. And what they?ve all concluded is that in the beginning part of the 20th century the climate was driven mainly by solar activity. But in the last 25, 30 years the climate has been driven primarily by greenhouse gases.

ATSNN: I?ve been reading a lot about CO2 capturing and sequestration using depleted oil wells and reservoirs. Do you feel that is a viable way to possibly even reverse CO2 levels?

DR. PARMESAN: Well, it?s not going to reverse anything. What it will do is hopefully slow it down. That is a big area of research and actually at the University of Texas. The Bureau of Economic Geology is putting up a lot of time and energy and money into what they call carbon sequestration. And when the White House talks about emission free power plants, what they mean is a normal coal-fired power plant that basically has its smoke stack turned around and stuck into a hole in the ground, so the plant is still producing as much emissions as ever but what you?re trying to do is bury it in the ground. There are some big, big problems with doing that. One is that most of these underground caverns are not well described. In other words, we don?t really know where they go. So what most geologists feel is that at some point or another the CO2 is going to start leaking out again because these are not sealed chambers. They?re just holes in the ground that are eventually going to have connections to the surface somewhere. But the idea is that it may still be worth doing that if you can slow down the increase of carbon dioxide.

ATSNN: If we have good practices that are already working to decrease the emissions in the first place, then it is something that could possibly delay the effects, right?

DR. PARMESAN: Right. Now there is another idea which is much more controversial which is pumping CO2 down into the deep ocean. And when you do that, the CO2 under the high pressures and cold temperatures at the bottom of the deep ocean, it liquefies. And it literally ? what people think ? is that it will create a carbon dioxide lake at the bottom of the ocean. And this is one of the alternatives that people are considering. The trouble is that there is enough uncertainty about whether the CO2 could just all bubble up. They're not totally confident it would stay as a liquid mass and not move. You know, you have currents in the ocean, right? And if it starts getting shifted around and gets shifted to a less deep area where the pressure is not very great it could suddenly, again become gaseous and just start bubbling up out of the ocean. So that?s one problem. The second problem is there is life down there, and it would kill it. So, people say well, stick it in a deep thermal vent. Well, you know, biologists are just now getting really excited about all the cool things we?re finding that live in thermal vents! And it would kill it all off. So, I said, it is an alternative being considered, but I think it?s pretty risky.

ATSNN: Do you have recommendations for people who are interested in not only protecting their local eco-systems, but in affecting policy?

DR. PARMESAN: I?ll take those in two parts of the question. There is something really, really simple that the average American can do that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions enormously and that?s to buy very fuel-efficient cars. I think SUVs should be banned. They should not be allowed. It?s ridiculous. Of course, my own family, half of them own SUVs and they get very upset when I say that. But it?s something like 40% of the emissions in the U.S. are from vehicles. So industry does put out a lot, but vehicles put out a huge amount. And if every American was to shift to a vehicle that got 40 mpg or better, we would go a huge way toward meeting the Kyoto protocol. So that?s just one big simple thing that people can do.

As far as affecting policy, I know this sounds trite, but ? vote. Consider this when you vote! I don?t know how else to say it. When I go to D.C. and I talk to Congressmen, I?ll give them a talk and at the end they?re all convinced that climate change is happening, that it?s caused by humans, that it?s having big effects, right? So, no problem with that; the data are very clear. But, this one guy, when I was doing this Congressional course about a year ago, stuck his hand up and said, You know, Fine! I believe you, but who cares? Why should my constituents care about a species going extinct, or things moving north? And I said, Look, I?ve spent half of my talk talking about the health risks. Do you really want to be dealing with a tropical disease in the Southern U.S.A., which is one of the obvious consequences. And his response was, Hey, I?m from Ohio, what do I care?

So if politicians thought that their constituents were concerned, they would do something. Right now, they don?t think their constituents care.

ATSNN: Well, we?ll try to make a difference there.

DR. PARMESAN: That would be wonderful.

ATSNN: Thank you so much, Dr. Parmesan.

Original ATSNN Interview

[edit on 1-9-2006 by Valhall]


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