Lonnie Thompson on why the cold weather doesn't mean there's not global warming

Thompson said the important message is that "you gotta look at the big picture. It's absolutely true that this past summer in the U.S. it was cooler than average, and as this winter has been, as has all the snow in the Northeast. But," he stressed, "that's weather. Climate is a 30-year average of that weather."

It's understandable to hear such comments, acknowledged Thompson, because of the snow in the north and the cold weather here in Florida (where last month was recently ranked the 6th coldest January ever). "People respond to what's outside their door and that's short term. We're all that way."

But if you still believe that the earth is warming, and that man has contributed a great deal to that shift, how do you respond to the doubters? Well, if you're a geologist who has been named by both Time magazine and CNN as one of America's best scientists, you deal with each issue as it comes, focusing on the science and not the politics. We asked him whether the Senate will pass an energy bill this year that does something substantive about reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Thompson: As you say, I'm a scientist and I think our job is to present the best information out there, and where it's happening and how rapidly it's happening; we have politicians whose job it is to take this information and turn it into the right policy for this country. And I've heard the arguments on both sides on cap-and-trade [incentives for reducing carbon emissions] vs. carbon tax. Being a simple person when it comes to politics, carbon tax seems to me to be straightforward. But how we deal with it is a policy issue, and I think that the fact that we'll have to deal with it is a given. But I think as human beings we're hard-wired not to do anything until it's an absolute crisis. We generally do the right thing, but as long as there's some question, especially when you're talking about something complex like climate, people are reluctant to take action, especially if it will cost money.

CL: One of the biggest issues with the recent International Panel on Climate Change scandal was an error concerning Himalayan glaciers. The panel's 2007 climate assessment erroneously stated that by 2035 the glaciers would be gone entirely, when scientific consensus places the date much later; studies cited by the BBC project a date closer to 2350 - more than 300 years later. Is that a major problem to overcome following the earlier email controversy among scientists who edited and controlled the content of IPCC?

Thompson: That was a typo. The numbers got switched and the review process failed to catch it. But we've been working in Tibet and the Himalayas for 25 years and I can tell you that every glacier that we have drilled, that glacier has retreated in today's world. We work with the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research. They are monitoring the retreat of 612 glaciers, and if you look at those records from 1980 to 1995, 90 percent of those glaciers were retreating. And from 95-2005, 95 percent of those glaciers were retreating. Those numbers are very similar to the percentage of retreat that we see in Alaska, in the Andes in South America, in the Alps. So I think a lot of to-do is made over the IPCC quoting things that had not gone through peer review ...But to me, it does not distract from the overall quality and conclusions of the IPPCC report.

CL: The film that you worked as an adviser on, An Inconvenient Truth, made a powerful impact on tens of millions of the people in this country (if not the world) in making an overwhelming case that global warming is manmade.  But are you concerned that these recent setbacks have made your work harder?

Thompson: I got a lot of criticisms from my colleagues on why I would help a politician on such a thing. But as a scientist I believe that our job is to make sure that quality information gets out... We are humans, too, and we live on the planet and we will live with the consequences of the changes that will take place. I think [the film] had a huge impact, much greater than we ever thought, and like so many things we do, we don't how things will play out in the long run, but as far as the current negativity out there? It's a play on a cold winter. The fact that most people don't understand and probably don't want to understand all the details behind climate science. But I can tell you that all the folks involved in climategate, and these problems of not quoting peer-reviewed research, don't change the real world.

Glaciers don't care what we report, what's on the blogs; they're going to respond on their own basis, and they're all telling the same story. You melt a glacier, that's just water on land, it goes into the ocean, and sea level will rise. ...Sometimes I look at the current activity as a coordinated effort by vested interests that take things in a normal world you wouldn't even hear about, but you blow them up, and you play them over and you play them over, and pretty soon they take on a reality of their own. But it doesn't change the real world. At the end of the day, we live and deal with the real world, and I assure you that nature doesn't care what happens to us. So my feeling is there's a kind of last-gasp effort right now, but in the end the science will win, and we will deal with this issue, because we'll have no other choice.

For much of the Northeast and mid-Atlantic (and especially for wimpy Floridians), it's been a particularly brutal winter. But for global warming skeptics, the record-breaking snowfall was an excuse to gloat.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky quipped, "Where's Al Gore when we need him?" and reportedly burst out laughing when he was asked about the odds of cap-and-trade legislation getting through the Senate this year. South Carolina GOP Senator Jim DeMint tweeted that "It's going to keep snowing in DC until Al Gore cries 'uncle,'" and Rush Limbaugh called it another nail in the coffin for "the whole global warming thing."

But Lonnie Thompson, an acclaimed professor at Ohio State University who served as an adviser for Gore's 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, says nobody should be making such rash judgments based on one particular weather cycle.

Speaking to CL after giving a presentation at USF's School of Global Sustainability conference last week, Thompson said the fact of the matter is that it's winter, and weather variability is at play. "If you look at this part of the world, it was cold in December here, but at the same time... it was 42 degrees and raining in Greenland."

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