December 6th, 2011


Professor of Geosciences, Penn State


Climate One played host to a moving tribute to the late Stanford University climatologist Stephen Schneider on Tuesday, December 6. Penn State geoscientist Richard Alley was honored as the inaugural winner of the Stephen H. Schneider Award for Outstanding Climate Science Communication.

Bestowed by Climate One and underwritten by the ClimateWorks Foundation and energy entrepreneur Michael Haas, the $10,000 annual award is “given to a natural or social scientist who made extraordinary scientific contributions and communicated that knowledge to a broad public in a clear and compelling fashion.” Alley, the Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, is also host of the PBS documentary "Earth: The Operators Manual."

After a video montage featuring clips of Stephen Schneider speaking at Climate One, Alley and Climate One’s Greg Dalton talked about the challenges confronting scientists who carry on Schneider’s legacy of communicating climate science to the public and policymakers.

The intent of the PBS series and companion book, Alley said, is to present both the risks and opportunities presented by climate change, and to use different messengers to tell the story. “We’re hoping to communicate more, not only the imperatives of doing something, but the amazing opportunities that are out there.”

“Let’s be honest: We’ve had really, really smart people spending the last 100 year working really, really hard to get fossil fuels for us,” said Alley. “Drill, baby, drill worked for us, but it’s not going to work forever. It cannot.”

The good news is that we have the tools we need to get started, said Alley. We just need to fully harness the available alternatives to fossil fuels. “The first place to start is that we know we can get there without game-changers. This is the wonderful thing. If you can get a hundredth of a percent of the sun’s energy, that’s all of humanity’s energy. If you can put a wind farm on the windiest 20 percent of the plains and deserts of the world, that is far more than humanity’s energy needs.”

And it helps if that message isn’t coming solely from him – a professor who, he warned, could profess all day. “What we’ve tried to do in the book and the PBS TV show is to find new ways to present what we know that will allow people to engage with it in a different way,” he said.

“‘Climate change matters to you,’ I can say that. But why not have an admiral in the U.S. Navy say it, because climate change matters to them.”

He also doesn’t want to prescribe policy solutions. “As scientists, we are no better or worse than anybody else in knowing what is a best policy,” he said. “But we are way better than some people in knowing what CO2 does interacting with the atmosphere, or what warm temperatures do to an ice sheet. I would like very much to bring forward what we know, why it matters, and what opportunities are attached to that knowledge. And then stop and say, ‘It’s yours.’”

That handoff invariably involves asking policymakers, and the public, to grapple with the tricky concept of scientific uncertainty. Fortunately, Alley said, Stephen Schneider excelled at explaining uncertainty, using techniques that Alley has made his own. “You have to say: ‘This is what we know. And this is as good as it can get. And this is as bad as it can get.' And make that very clear to people,’” he said.

He went on: “One of the things that comes out over and over again in climate science: We expect something, and that something is sufficiently challenging that we are better off including it in our planning as opposed to ignoring it. And it may be that things turn out a little better than that – we’ve overestimated the dangers; we’ve underestimated the good. It may be a little better. It may be a little worse. And it may be a lot worse. But we don’t find a lot better. We don’t know how dumping CO2 into the air turns it into Eden, but we can see a slight chance of turning it into a disaster.”

Despite the enduring strength of climate change denial among conservatives in the United States, Alley maintains that skeptics, even politicians, can be reached. “I believe in the science. I believe firmly and deeply that if the right information get to people and they see the whole picture, they will, eventually, make wise decisions,” he said. Talk to politicians privately, away from the cameras and microphones, he said, and what comes out sounds very different than the tired sound bites.

And though his inbox is sometimes the target of skeptics’ screeds, Alley’s preferred response is to engage. “There may be bad people out there, but I don’t talk to them,” he said. “Even the ones who call me names, when you can actually sit down with them, they care. Usually they’re arguing about things that are not really what they care about. What they really care about are their grandkids.”

“Respect is where it starts. And then it is finding out where they are, and figuring out how to get from there to someplace better. It’s not what you don’t know; it’s what you know that ain’t so. A lot of them have been told things that aren’t so,” he said.


– Justin Gerdes
December 6, 2011
Photos by Ed Ritger
The Commonwealth Club of California