Climatologist: Global warming could have consequences in Sierra
Stephen Schneider, a climatologist and professor at Stanford University, is scheduled to speak Friday night at South Lake Tahoe as part of a fund-raising dinner for the Tahoe-Baikal Institute.
The Tahoe-Baikal Institute is in the middle of its 10-week summer environmental exchange program. This month participants are learning about environmental challenges at Lake Tahoe; next month they will learn about problems facing Lake Baikal, a massive lake in Russia that has watershed similar to Tahoe’s.
The dinner on Friday is sold out. But Schneider is expected to speak briefly at a wine-and-cheese reception open to the public from 5 to 7 p.m. at the top of the Tram at Heavenly Mountain Resort.
Schneider has served as a consultant to federal agencies and White House staff in the Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton and Bush Jr. administrations. On Wednesday, he took time to talk with the Tribune.
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Is global warming real?
“Global warming is fact established beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s not just the thermometers, it’s the rising sea levels, the stratosphere cooling and the lower atmosphere warming and the fact that plants and animals are moving. There is no doubt the world is warming. The much tougher question is how much is attributable to us.”
What’s the difference between climate change and global warming?
“Climate change is whatever we feel. Global warming is the collective impact of human activities.”
Are you trying to figure out how much of an impact, if any, that people are having on the climate?
“Yes. I am and so are many of my colleagues. It’s very difficult question to answer because we only have one Earth and we’re polluting it. How do we detangle our footprint from the diversity of nature? (Scientists) either believe we are 10 to 20 percent of the problem or 80 to 90 percent of the problem. Very few people think we are zero part of the problem.”
If the Earth warms significantly would it mean instant tidal waves and global storms?
“All of that is impossible fiction but we could end up knocking off the Gulf Stream, which would have very nasty consequences. Certainly the Earth has been warmer than this. It was substantially warmer than this in the dinosaur period. No one is arguing this would mean the extinction of life. But we can sure make it tough for some species and increase the stress on our own life-support system.”
Is global warming something the Lake Tahoe Basin in particular should worry about?
“Actually you guys are on the front line because of snowpack and fire. One of the things we’re not sure about is whether we’ll get more or less total rain or total snow. It’s tough to predict. We’re very confident it will get a few degrees or five or 10 degrees warmer in the next century. Every model agrees about that. They disagree if total precipitation goes up or down. If it gets warmer, that means longer rain season and a shorter snow season. That’s pretty straight forward. Ironically, if you end up with a short but heavy snow season, you get a quick growth of vegetation and then dry out earlier.”
How do you think global warming could affect California’s water supply?
“If we can catch all the spring runoff we’d be OK. But I don’t think we have enough reservoir capacity to do that and building new ones is not cheap. The state of California has been very responsible in studying this problem.”
How about global warming affecting the ski industry?
“Hard to say. It’s certainly likely to shorten the season.”
How soon? Will it have an impact on a ski season of someone alive today?
“I don’t know. Science is not about truth. It’s about trying to get better estimates of the likelihood of a variety of possibilities.”
Have any recent U.S. policy changes impacted global warming?
“The U.S. withdrawing from international negotiations (to reduce greenhouse gases) won’t slow it down. For the biggest producer of greenhouse gases to say ‘Go to hell,’ we’re not loved for it. I’m the one , and my colleagues are the ones who travel to international meetings and I can tell you how angry people are at America. They view it as the ultimate piggery. I think the majority of Americans disagree with the policy as well.”
If the earth has warmed by a degree in the past century, what tangible affects of that change can we point to?
“Melting glaciers are certainly tangible. Mountain glaciers have been reduced by about half. These things are receding. Seas levels are up 6 to 10 inches. And we’ve definitely seen an increase in heat waves and heat stroke deaths.”
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