Climate system scientist Paul Beckwith recently set off a media firestorm after posting a video of the jet stream in the Northern Hemisphere crossing the equator and mixing with the jet stream in the Southern Hemisphere. Originally calling the event unprecedented, Beckwith later modified the word with a question mark in the YouTube title and on his website. He also wrote that “we must declare a global climate emergency.” The Washington Post took the pre-question mark assertion and published a scathing rebuke, including comments from climate scientists pushing back hard on Beckwith’s original assertion. Later, the Post published Beckwith’s response to the criticism. We wanted to delve deeper in the controversy, so Inhabitat got on the phone with Beckwith, who is based in Canada as a part time professor at the University of Ottawa – read on for our interview.
We talked with Beckwith to discuss why he stands by his declaration of a global climate emergency and why he believes that many climate scientists and media outlets such as the Post miss the bigger picture when it comes to understanding the climate system and the abrupt changes that are occurring.
Listen to the full interview:
Why do you think there was such a strong reaction to your jet stream crossing the equator post?
I think the general public is starting to really suspect that something is very badly wrong with our climate system. Something is wrong with the weather patterns. We’re seeing torrential rains leading to massive flooding. We’re getting a lot of damage to infrastructure. We’re getting persistent droughts in other places. We’re getting unusual weather events in regions we never used to have them. The frequency and duration of extreme weather events is increasing.
People know that jet streams are a big part of weather and the jet streams are behaving very strange. They are becoming slower, wavier and they are not behaving like they used to. They are becoming fractured. The ridges of the jet streams are traveling to very high latitudes, bringing warm air to very high latitudes. So for example, last December and before that last September, the jet stream went right up to the North Pole and brought warm air on the North Pole and the middle of winter darkness was above freezing. On the other side of the coin, the troughs of the jet streams are traveling further south, bringing cold dry Arctic air further south. This is occurring because of Arctic temperature amplification. As the Arctic gets darker the temperature is rising much faster in the Arctic than the equator. This lowers the temperature gradient in the equator, which causes the jet streams to become slower and wavier.
So people are seeing this manifested in extreme weather events. When I did this video on the jet stream actually crossing the equator it hit a nerve with the public. Most people know what the jet stream is because they fly jet aircraft, which are named after the jet streams and people know that if you fly from west to east you can go much faster than flying from east to west in terms of the flight time say from New York to London versus London back. So people have some real experience with jet streams. But the idea of them crossing the equator really hit a nerve with people.
What lessons if any have you learned from this episode about how to relate some of this information to the public?
I’ve been doing videos for years. I have well over a hundred videos on all different aspects of climate change. What I do is look at the peer-reviewed literature. I look at what people are saying. What’s the latest science. My understanding of the climate system allows me to join a lot of the dots far before the general mainstream scientific community accepts these things.
For example, I’ve been talking about the Arctic temperature amplification causing jet streams to become wavier and fractured and disrupted, leading to extreme weather events. I’ve been talking about this since about 2010, 2011 because I know that if you change the heat balance on the planet, the heat balance is what determines the nature of the jet stream, so if you change that heat balance then the jet streams have to change, there’s absolutely no question.
Whereas the science community has to have people that study the nuts and bolts and the details, exactly what’s going to happen before they’ll say that the jet streams are being disrupted. So even today there’s controversy around this idea that the Arctic temperature amplification is distorting the jet stream. I think that’s absurd but that’s how the scientific community works in general.
How does the warming Arctic relate to the jet streams?
As the Arctic temperature amplification increases we lose sea ice in the Arctic and head towards a blue ocean event. As we lose snow cover over the land in the spring, the Arctic is going to continue to warm and warm much faster. Without sea ice in the Arctic to absorb heat from the sun and perform the phase change from ice to water, with no ice there the water is going to warm extremely rapidly. So we are heading to a world where there is very little temperature gradient with latitude. Take the extreme where the Arctic is almost the same temperature as the equator and what will the jet streams look like? Will there be any jet streams? Will there be some jet streams because of the humidity gradient that will still exist? What happens as the jet streams trough moves further and further south? Are they blocked by the equator? Will they cross the equator? So I think what we are seeing is that the jet streams are crossing the equator and they are joining with the Southern Hemisphere jet streams and I would argue just from the high level basics of the system that this is going to be happening more and more frequently.
Can you explain what you mean when you say that some climate scientists can miss the bigger picture by only focusing on the peer review process?
I see a huge problem in the scientific community, in the present structures, to address climate change. It’s a multidisciplinary problem. We have the very overspecialized scientists who are studying just their small specialized part of the problem and they are not seeing the big picture. Then we have the mainstream media who go to specialized scientists to talk about issues and they’ll just get a very narrow view of an issue because they all talk to the same people. Then we have social media and there’s a lot more information on social media than you can get from the mainstream media on climate change.
What I’m hoping from this video is it doesn’t have to be me that spends all of this time to specialize on jet streams, to go study all of this stuff and write a paper on how jet streams are crossing the equator more frequently because of Arctic temperature amplification. I know that that will be the result of a study. I don’t have to be the one doing the study.
The videos I put out talk about these things, how the system will in my view react, respond. As far as the jet streams go, I want people to research what the jet streams are doing, how they are crossing the equator. I don’t have to do that research myself. But by bringing it out in a video saying that this is what’s happening, in fact this is what has to happen, then it doesn’t matter if the scientists go out and do it but hopefully I triggered the interest of some scientists. I can almost guarantee you that some of the most vocal scientific critics of the video that I did on jet streams crossing the equator have gone back to their labs, to their research groups, and they are researching this very thing right at the moment to publish a paper. That’s how the scientific community works.
Most scientists keep their work secret from the public until they actually publish a paper, and then they’ll have media interviews and they’ll talk about the paper, but if the media asks them about something that isn’t directly covered in their paper, that they haven’t directly published on, then they will often decline and say well I can’t comment on that, I’m not an expert on that. This is a real problem because who knows the climate system better than these people?
The time for peer reviewed paper is a problem for the IPCC for example because for a work to be considered in the IPCC report it would have had to be published, the research would have been done, the paper would have gone through a peer review and published. It might have taken a year, year and a half, even two years for that process and then the paper has to be in the scientific literature for two years for the IPCC to put it in their report. So a lag of at least 3, maybe even 4 years. So whenever the IPCC comes out with a report the scientific information in that report is at least 3 or 4 years out of date and because we’re going through abrupt changes, things are happening very quickly, this method of bureaucracy if you’d like, is completely failing to address the problem quick enough.
So by doing these videos on phenomena that I see occurring I want the world to wake up and say “hey yes, this is a problem, what about this connection,” and have many people, it’s the complete opposite model to normal scientists who keep their work very close to their vests until they actually publish a paper. I want to get it out there.
So like I say, I have done this a lot on many different issues. The one that comes strongest to mind is the connect of jet streams to Arctic temperature amplification and that has to happen because jet streams are formed by that temperature difference between the pole to the equator. Obviously the question is when the equator is the same temperature as the Arctic, what will the jet streams look like? Will they be crossing the equator, and this is when I saw signs that this was happening I jumped on it and did the video and since the original video came out just over a month ago I did a follow up response to the Washington Post which went on my website and just last Wednesday they actually published a portion of my response, but what is very telling is what they did not publish, the parts of my response that they did not publish which talk about why we need to declare a climate change emergency.
Do you think that media outlets such as The Washington Post could do a better job of educating the public about climate change?
Absolutely. What’s going to happen is we’re going to have an event with the climate system that terrifies the public. That absolutely terrifies them. People will throw up their hands, it’s too late we can’t do anything. I’ve thought for a long time this will probably be say no sea ice at all in the Arctic and when that happens some September very soon we’ll have no sea ice in the Arctic, we’ll have a completely open ocean. The extreme weather events will ramp up significantly. If we think they are bad now, we haven’t seen anything yet, they’re going to get a lot worse and then as the Arctic thaws there’s going to be something that absolutely terrifies the public. They’ll be screaming at politicians and scientists, “you didn’t let us know this was happening.” Politicians will have to take very rapid action if they haven’t done so before.
I think it’s important for the media to start bringing this message to the public. Why wait until we lose the sea ice completely? It’s basically a done deal. We’re going to lose the sea ice completely. It’s a done deal. Is it going to happen, there’s a very small chance it could happen this year, it may happen next year, probably certainly before 2020 based on the trends and then the public will panic.
So why not get strong action done now. Why not get governments to declare a climate change emergency? What’s going to happen is the extreme weather events are going to happen simultaneously and impact grain crops in a country, say fruits and vegetables in California and torrential rains flooding parts of Europe. We’ll have a simultaneous crop failure or crop shortage and food prices will go up two or three times or four times and then this will cause large portions of the globe to start panicking about the food supply and then this will destabilize countries. This goes into all the geopolitical things.
Why do we have to wait for that to actually happen when we know it’s going to happen? So we need to educate the public a lot more to get strong action now. And I’ve been talking about climate solutions in terms of my three-legged bar stool metaphor for quite a while now.
Could climate scientists do a better job of educating the public about climate change?
Before my video you could google “jet streams equator” and you would get nothing. So the science community hasn’t looked at this problem and now we’re seeing lots of unusual behaviors as we transition through abrupt climate change which I’ve been saying for at least five years we’re actually transitioning through.
So I think there is an enormous problem in the way that our society is dealing with climate change. We have the scientific community who are extremely specialized only looking at one particular aspect. We don’t have enough people like myself that can understand the technical nature, the science – I’m an engineer, a physicist, now a climate scientist. I’ve been studying climate change for years and I’m trying to connect the dots. We don’t have enough people that do this and what is actually very frustrating is people like myself are pretty much ignored by mainstream media and many hardcore specialized scientists.
You recently posted a video of diners in Ellicot City, Maryland reacting in stages to the flash flooding that devastated the town. You use it as an example of how the public is behaving in regards to what you describe as the abrupt climate emergency. Why do you think that the public isn’t making the connection and how can we mobilize the public into emergency mode?
A lot of the public, they’ve gotten away from their connection to nature I think. More and more people are living in cities. We’re completely bombarded by advertising from professional public relations firms on things that we have to buy, on things that we have to do, on vacations that we have to take and we’re being more and more in the moment, in very short term thinking. Very shallow thinking. Not thinking about the deep questions. Losing sight of the fact that we need habitat, the we need a viable planet that can support life in order to continue our existence and that the signs are all around us that the Earth is losing its ability to sustain life. We’re turning the ocean acidic, we’re losing large parts of the phytoplankton that produce oxygen, half of the oxygen that we breathe. On land the extreme temperatures and droughts are weakening trees that are then attacked by pine beetle and emerald ash borer, further weakening them, and then these trees are like tinder to massive wildfires that are burning hotter than they did before and traveling faster and threatening things.
So people are not connecting the dots. They’re not connecting all of these incidents. There are still lots of torrential rain causing flooding events where meteorologists are talking about details about what’s causing it but aren’t saying it’s because the jet streams have changed from climate change. The statistics have obviously changed – one in a thousand year event that happens three times in a decade in some places. Obviously the statistics have completely changed. The climate we are in now is different than the climate that people are familiar with. We’ve been spoiled to have a stable climate allowing humans to develop technologies and civilizations and we are actually quickly moving out of a stable climate into an unstable climate and people just don’t want to see what’s happening.
But a lot of people are really starting to suspect that there is something very wrong with things and so this video, I put an example, a good analogy if you’d like, because people in the restaurant on the second floor, they are well above the water, they were spectators, until someone noticed, “hey, there are people clinging to one of the cars, there are people in the cars.” That completely changed the mood. It was like that moment in Soylent Green at the end of the movie when people come to the realization that cookies are made of people or in Planet of the Apes when Charlton Heston is walking on the beach and sees the Statue of Liberty and realizes that the planet he’s on is Earth all along as far as the future.
People are disassociated from what is happening. And that will only continue so far and they will come to the realization that we are facing enormous risk from the abrupt climate change that is under way so we have to actually do things very, very quickly to try to bring us back from the brink.
You also recently tweeted about trees dying in California. Obviously trees sequester carbon. If they are dying or cut down or burned down then they release that carbon in the atmosphere. Is this a major concern, what you are observing about the trees dying in California?
Yes it is a major concern because a couple of things in 2016 that have been reported. First of all the large temperature increase over previous years, some months being over 1.5 degrees which is the new threshold from Paris. We’ve also had reports that global greenhouse gas emissions being produced by humans have leveled off in the last few years, meanwhile the actual thing that is important is the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and in 2015 it increased I think it was about 3.09 parts per million or something like that and this year if you compare July 1, 2016 to July 1, 2015 the rise is about 5 ppm. So last year it was a record rise of about 3 and this year we could hit 5 when the numbers come through, at least 4 or 5, and this will blow away any previous rise in one single year of CO2. The concern is if the report, I would hope that the report saying that CO2 from humans has leveled is incorrect and they are missing things because if it has leveled and we are getting these huge rises of CO2 than that means that we are rapidly losing the sinks of carbon on our planet. It means that we are rapidly losing the sinks and there are more greenhouse gases, CO2 and methane coming out of wetlands and the permafrost, the tundra. There are massive peat fires in Siberia right now. Massive boreal forest fires that are burning right into the peat that are uncontrollably burning and they aren’t reported on enough and they are producing huge amounts of CO2 and they can burn for years if its peat fire. And we saw these massive peat fires, record peat fires in Indonesia late last year as well. Double whammy with forests burning because not only are we destroying the sink’s ability to store carbon but we’re releasing all that stored carbon into the atmosphere very quickly.
So the Amazon rainforest is under enormous threat of burning and not regrowing. The forest will not regrow because the conditions have changed so we’ll get savannah or grassland where the forest used to be. But it’s not just the terrestrial sink. The marine sinks are dropping quickly. The phytoplankton in the ocean. As the ocean is becoming warmer and more acidic and stratifying we’re not getting vertical mixing like we used to so the nutrients are not getting to the surface. The phytoplankton that require nutrients. We’re not having as many as we had. And these extract CO2 from the atmosphere and they also produce oxygen. So the oxygen levels are dropping in the oceans about six times faster than oceanographers have thought. There’s a, I call it an emergency conference on oxygen levels in the ocean at the Royal Society this September in the UK where they are getting top oceanographers to look at this because their equations for calculating oxygen levels in the ocean were incorrect. They weren’t accounting properly for the temperature rise. Warmer oceans can’t hold as much gas.
So we’re getting hit from all different directions on climate change and it’s about time that the world stood upright and recognized the risks and the threats that we face because they are enormous and they are completely underreported by media.
— Paul Beckwith (@PaulHBeckwith) August 8, 2016
What other observations about the climate system are you making right now that have you the most concerned? What keeps you up at night? Permafrost? Ocean acidification? Is there one observation you’ve made about the climate system that is the most concerning to you?
The rapidity of the changes is concerning. There’s new things all the time. I had a lot of sleepless nights years ago. I kind of went through this phase. Things kept me up at night, maybe four or five years ago. I’m far past the stage of being kept up at night by anything that I read or find out because I kind of got to the stage where I expect massive changes to occur. I expect many people in the public to have sleepless nights and to start panicking as they go through stages that I went through many years ago.
The methane is an enormous risk in the Arctic. If we lose the sea ice and have a completely blue ocean, it might be open ocean for a couple of weeks to a month and then it refreezes and then within a few years it’s open ocean not just in September but August, September, October. Than within about a decade it’s open ocean year round and we’re in a completely different climate system and Greenland gets unrelenting heat and we get massive ice calving from Greenland and very, very rapid sea level rise and methane is a huge risk of coming out in large amounts which would then propel the climate to a much warmer situation.
So I try to fit all the pieces together. What keeps me going is that I love to talk to the public. I love to try to transfer some of my understanding and knowledge on the climate system to as many people in the public as possible via video and blog and interviews, all of these other venues.
What is the three-legged barstool solution?
Leg one we need to slash fossil fuel emissions as quickly as possible. Studies show this could be done globally in 15 years. Just over a decade on an emergency basis. We need to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. We need to apply carbon dioxide removal methods to remove it. Third thing we need to do is we need to try to cool the Arctic because if you let the Arctic go completely warm it will just be a matter of time before the methane comes out, before Greenland heaves huge chunks of ice and sea level rise ramps up.
Human are very linear thinkers. The climate system is completely non-linear and we’ve triggered these big changes but I think there’s lots of things we can do to deal with the changes and minimize them and try to stabilize the climate as I mentioned in three-legged bar stool analogy. You need three legs or the bar stool tips over.
Do you believe that climate change can be solved and if so what would it take? It sounds like the three-legged barstool’s kind of the blueprint for how to solve climate change.
It can’t really be solved. It can be managed. We’ve done crazy things up to now in dealing with it. We’ve had 21 conference of parties and we have squat on reducing global emissions. It’s just been a complete failure and people haven’t felt they’ve had their back to the wall yet but I think that is rapidly coming. The danger is that a lot of people suddenly throw up their hands and realize how bad it is and say we can’t do anything.
There’s so much misinformation on social media and it’s never addressed by the science community. I mean google geoengineering.org and there’s a million people who think right now that they, whoever they is, are spraying in the air to control, to do what? I don’t know. Ask them. There are huge followings that are things like Nibaru on Planet X that is effecting the climate on our planet, magnetic fields are shifting rapidly on our planet, that things are being done to make the jet streams do crazy things. I mean there’s all kinds of stuff out there. And yet it’s never addressed or put into its proper place as being completely ludicrous and ridiculous. And this harms us because people reject science, the real science, and even the IPCC is saying that we need to do carbon dioxide removal to stabilize the climate so carbon dioxide removal is under the umbrella of geo-engineering and people think we are already doing it. If they think they are already doing it than how can we possibly get public buy in that we need to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. So it’s causing great harm.
Look at politics in the U.S. It’s gone completely off the deep end into the twilight zone. So science is under tremendous pressure around the world. We’re going downhill fast and when are we going to do something about it because we can’t wait forever.
I’m hopeful that sanity will rule eventually and we can take strong action to slash fossil fuel emissions, to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and to cool the Arctic so we keep the methane in place and we avoid very abrupt sea level rise as we get huge chunks of ice cascading off the land in Greenland.
Are there any positive signs that the world is waking up to the climate crisis such as the Paris climate deal? Also, the increased interest in plant-based diets and regenerative agriculture, carbon farming, that can sequester atmospheric carbon? Also, the renewable energy boom, particularly solar and wind?
All of these things that are happening that you’ve mentioned are great. They are showing that people are, the public is starting to understand the necessity for doing these things, but they have yet to recognize the very short timeline that we have and also the climate system is changing so rapidly that we need to ramp up everything that we’re doing much, much faster and the easiest way to do this is for some government to say we’re actually in a climate change emergency, here is why.
In my response to the Washington Post article, one of the things that they erroneously claimed in the original article was that I was saying that it was a climate emergency because the jet stream was crossing the equator and that’s only the last piece of the puzzle that has occurred. We’ve lost huge parts of the coral reefs in Australia and globally around the world. You hear about all this but what you never hear is that a quarter of all the fish in the ocean spend part of their life cycle on coral reefs so when we lose the coral reefs we’re going to quickly lose a quarter of the remaining fish in the ocean that spends their life cycle on the coral reefs. What happens to these fish?
People don’t look deep enough. All the media is talking about coral reefs. Some are saying it’s a biodiversity hotspot of the ocean. We are going to lose a quarter of the fish in the oceans because we lose the coral reef.
The connections are just not, it’s not enough deep enough. We are distracted by being constantly bombarded with new stories and people aren’t thinking deeply enough about some of the things so it’s very hard for people to filter what is important and what is not important. Those filters are being severely damaged so now people are having trouble understanding what is really important versus what is not so important.
All these thing are happening but we need to go a lot faster. If we destroy the sinks on our planet. If we lose the forest, lose the phytoplankton, then the emissions from the Earth system will dwarf human emissions and then it will be very difficult to remove enough CO2 to make an impact and we’ll be rocketing up to a much warmer world. We’re not talking about a degree or two. We’re talking about four or five degrees Celsius rise in a decade or two or even less than that. And we’ve seen those types of changes occur in the paleo record in the history of the planet so the climate system is very capable of having extremely rapid swings in very short periods of time. And this is very nonlinear. People think in a very linear fashion. Temperatures went up this much so in 10 years they will go up this much. This is not the case in a nonlinear system.
You’re up in Ottawa. To what to do you attribute the differences between Americans and Canadians in terms of recognizing the threat from climate change? The polling in Canada seems that more Canadians recognize the urgency of this. Is the power of the fossil fuels lobby stronger in the U.S. than Canada?
Canada went through, I call it a dark decade. [Former Prime Minister Stephen] Harper was in power for 10 years and he basically effectively dismantled environmental regulations and protections of bodies of water. He was quoted before he became prime minister about his denial of climate change being a problem. The fossil fuel companies in Canada basically rewrote, they essentially wrote environmental regulations which went into Canadian government bills almost word for word. This has been documented.
So Canada was actually much worse than the U.S. until we got a new government last November. Now we have a government that consists of much younger people. [Current Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau appointed half of the cabinet ministers were female by decree and we have a government that respects science a lot more than the previous government.
I think the polling does show that Canadians are more aware of the problems of climate change. A big part of that reason is our geographical location. We’re further north than the U.S. and as you go further north the temperature rises are more rapid. As you go further north you get more change so the average temperatures across Canada has risen more than they have in the U.S. And a lot of the influence of fossil fuel companies like the Koch brothers for example. They own a big chunk of the oil sands, the tar sands in Alberta. Their influence is across borders. I also think that there is a lot more people in the U.S. that are members of fundamentalist religion and some of these religions think that the earth was formed 20,000 years ago and that the revelations is coming soon and that it doesn’t matter about climate change. The Yale people do very good polls and surveys on the views of Americans. I’m trying to get them to poll Canadians, have a Canadian branch, because that would allow a better comparison.
In your view, how important is the U.S. presidential election to the future of the planet?
This is a huge problem the way we do things. If we were smart about it, climate change is a long term problem. We need to put policies into place that have continuity above and beyond four years or eight years and yet what we do is it’s like OK if a Republican gets elected, [Republican presidential nominee Donald] Trump gets in, science will be slashed in the U.S. NASA will no longer look at the Earth. It will be looking outward, what’s left of it. Many research programs will be cut and there will be no action on climate change. Every fossil fuel infrastructure, pipeline, etc.., will be built without question and we’ll lose at least another four years with which to address this problem unless something like the blue ocean event occurs in the Arctic and there’s enough pressure to actually have action.
So a lot of people are worried about the competency of Trump for great reason and there’s a lot of people in the Republican party that are bailing on this guy. So this election is very important, but there are also a lot of people who are having doubts about [Democratic presidential nominee Hillary] Clinton’s sincerity in addressing and fighting climate change. She had a flashy nice video at the DNC, climate change is important, she’s saying a lot of good things that Obama said. But his hands are tied by the Congress in many cases, he can only do so much.
So I think that it’s really the voice that comes from the public that the politicians listen to and as the extreme weather events worsen, as we lose Arctic sea ice, it could go either two ways. The public could go and say there is nothing we can do, havoc is breaking out on the Earth. Or we could go to the science-based view that yes we messed up the chemistry of the atmosphere and oceans, we’ve disrupted the planet, we are no longer in a stable climate, it’s unstable, we need to take strong action to reverse things and try to stabilize the climate. So it could go either of two ways depending on whether science wins out or loses out to religion and it’s really unclear which way that will go. Which way that pendulum will swing. So it is a very important election.
What sort of advice would you give to the average person who recognizes the climate emergency and wants to act but might not know what to do?
We each have skills, different skill sets. And we each have different networks of friends and associates and people we work with and politicians whether they be municipal, federal or state or provincial in Canada’s case. So we all have this so each person knowing that things are getting very risky and dire with the climate and we need to take strong action. It’s up to the individual to know how they could be most effective in educating more and more people that we have a problem and we need to do something because once we reach a critical mass in society of people with this recognition than we can turn things very quickly. We can turn things on a dime.
Renewables are increasing but, imagine, I think of the scenario we hear things from the U.S. military that climate change is one of the biggest threats that we face, its an existential threat. You can read military think tank documents, you can hear this being said by various generals and admirals. So if this is actually the case then that $800 billion we spend in the U.S. on the military every year. Imagine if that was spent to A) end fossil fuel emissions, B) develop technologies to remove CO2 from the atmosphere or enhancing biological processes to do that and C) to temporarily cool the Arctic or the planet to restore some stability while we do the other two legs of the stool. I mean think of that type of money being put at the problem and what it could do. Only one year if it was put to that problem, or two years. So it’s not a lack of money. It’s not a lack of resources. It’s putting the resources we have to fighting the real problem, which I’m arguing all the time is abrupt climate change.
Images via Paul Beckwith