Donald Wuebbles, climate expert. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer/UI News Bureau.

How to talk about climate change: an interview with Donald Wuebbles

Donald J. Wuebbles is the Harry E. Preble Professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Illinois and one of the country’s foremost experts on climate science. He was coordinating lead author of volume I of the most recent National Climate Assessment, a comprehensive, congressionally mandated analysis of the science of climate change with a focus on the United States.

Wuebbles spoke with the Urban Institute about some of the dangers of climate change, surprising sources of progress, and how he uses evidence and empathy to cut through political differences.

“We’re all humans. We’re faced with all kinds of information. We don’t know what to believe at times. So the way I have to approach people is look at where they come from. How can I relate what I do to what they do? Otherwise, they could just look at me as a PhD pointy-head and question the findings without really listening."

Donald Wuebbles

A lot of people may understand that climate change is causing sea levels to rise and air temperatures to increase, but the impacts you and your colleagues describe in the National Climate Assessment go far beyond that. Could you talk about some of the knock-on effects that are not as often discussed?

It’s not just the change in temperature that is the really important aspect. What really matters are the changes in severe weather that go along with that. That includes things like wildfires and the increasing acreage of wildfires because of drier soil. Warmer temperatures are a concern too, because when you have the right conditions, they make wildfires that much worse. There’s the intensity of severe storms like hurricanes. Also, when you get precipitation, it’s more likely to come as a larger event, because a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor. Warmer temperatures mean increased surface evaporation, and more water vapor results in large rainfalls like we’ve seen on the East Coast recently, leading to large flooding issues.

There’s a concept in your field that puts some of these changes in very stark economic terms. What are “billion-dollar events?”

Since 1980, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been evaluating weather events that lead to at least a billion dollars in structural damage.

For the first decade or so, the United States averaged two events per year. Now, we’re typically seeing as many as 15 or 16. The analyses adjust for inflation. Last year was the costliest year on record: about $400 billion in damage. Part of this is related to the fact that the size of the US population has increased since 1980, and it’s partially because of migration to the south and coastal areas. But we’re also just getting more very large events throughout the United States and most of the world.

The total cost to the American people has been about $1.5 trillion through 2017. So if you say, well, two to three of those events per year would have happened anyway, and the others are primarily so large due to the changing climate, that’s about a $1 trillion impact of climate change for the American taxpayer over the last 37 years. Yet most people would say, “Climate change hasn’t really affected me.” It has, but they just don’t realize it.

Are there ways in which low-income communities face an even greater impact from climate change?

Yes. That certainly is an issue. When you start talking, for example, about the impact of heat waves, they tend to fall on the poor, the elderly, and children—those who don’t necessarily have the right kinds of cooling equipment in their homes or environment to be able to survive those extreme conditions really well. We know from many past situations that the poor tend to take the brunt.

You explain science to people of all political persuasions. I’ve read elsewhere about how you talk about climate change with farmers who might be skeptical. Could you talk about your approach?

First of all, you have to realize I’m a farm boy. My dad was a farmer. He just loved to do that work. So that’s where my roots are. The average person will hear all kinds of things in the media. They are confused and, in some cases, biased by inaccurate media reports. Farmers tend to be conservative and are exposed to that kind of misinformation. I give a lot of public talks about climate change as a service to humanity because this is such an important issue. To an audience with farmers, I’ll ask them about their own experience: “Well, what have you seen on the farm? In the Midwest, are you seeing more precipitation coming as larger events now than you used to 20 to 40 years ago, especially in the spring, when you are trying to get your crops in the field?”

They say, “Yeah. Yeah.”

“Are you seeing more warmer dry periods in the summer?”

“Yeah. Yeah.”

You start talking about the things that they’re experiencing and follow up and say, “That’s what climate is. And it’s changing. The climate is changing. Why is it changing? Well, here’s what the evidence tells us.”

We’re all humans. We’re all faced with all kinds of information around us. We don’t know what to believe at times. Each of us might have a tendency to believe a certain political, religious, or economic viewpoint. So the way I have to approach people is look at where they come from. What issues are they facing? And how can I relate what I do to what they do? Otherwise they could just look at me as a PhD pointy-head and question the findings without really listening.

Where are you seeing signs of progress?

Most people don’t realize how much the energy sector has changed in the United States in just the last five years. I often give the example of some states called “red states” by the media because of their recent voting trends. Iowa now has about 20 percent of its energy coming from wind power. Nebraska is at about 30 percent. Even Texas, oil country Texas, has switched 25 percent of its power to wind power. And if you look at solar, we haven’t even really begun to use solar energy. Yet the cost of solar has dropped to the point where it’s either now cheaper than natural gas or will be soon. The changes in our energy use are beginning to happen, but we’re just not recognizing that they’re happening. The revolution in transitioning energy and transportation to more sustainable approaches has begun.

One of your interests is urban sustainability. Why focus on urban areas?

Right now, about half the world is living in urban areas, and that’s projected to be more like 70 percent in the next 30 years. In the United States, more like 80 percent of the population lives in urban areas. Cities are facing all kinds of stresses. One of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. The other 16 development goals are connected to cities as well. So cities are just a good place to look to make this a more sustainable world. I don’t mean that we don’t need to look at rural areas as well, but cities give you an opportunity to examine intersecting issues facing energy, food, water, health, and other important sectors of our society.

For example, when cities go through a heat wave, there’s likely to be an uptick in crime and calls to the police. Why are those things happening? Do we fully understand the connections? The answer is no, we don’t. But that’s where we need to go. We need to figure those things out. My colleagues and I are purposely taking on something very complex, very difficult to understand. As the climate gets even warmer, we need to be able to understand these types of issues and help policymakers resolve them.