A Conversation With Climate Scientist Kate Marvel

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

Before she fell in love with climate science, Kate Marvel dreamed of being a movie star. She was tall and blond and good with words and liked the idea of life on the big screen. But after a year or so as a drama major at UC Berkeley, she had a rude awakening: “It turns out that there are a lot of people who would like to be actors and most of them, unlike me, are talented,” she says.

On a lark, she took an astronomy class and discovered that she had a brain for science. She switched her major to physics, and went on to get a Ph.D from the University of Cambridge in the UK. She gave up quarks and string theory to work on energy-grid modeling and arms control (abandoning that, she says, because “I don’t like bombs”). She’s now an associate research scientist at Columbia University and NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, one of the citadels of climate science, where she studies how our rapidly warming atmosphere impacts clouds, rainfall, and other climate feedbacks.

Gavin Schmidt, the director of the Goddard Institute, praises Marvel’s creative thinking about complex problems, and her ability to dive into big data sets and slice it in interesting ways. “There are a billion scientists with great ideas,” says Schmidt. “But the thing that marks Kate is her technical chops and her ability to work it through to the end. That’s a rare combination.”

Still, Marvel has not lost touch with her inner movie star. In a world of climate geeks and data nerds, she stands out for her wit and her ability to speak about climate science in human terms. “I am a climate scientist, and I hate weather,” she said as she walked on stage for a 2017 TED talk. “I have spent too much time in California and I strongly feel that weather should be optional.” As a writer, she often balances rigorous thinking with a sense of wonder: being a scientist, she wrote in an essay challenging the climate doomerism of novelist Jonathan Franzen, “means I believe in miracles. I live on one. We are improbable life on a perfect planet.” She is also very good at cutting through bullshit. In All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, a new collection of essays by women in the climate movement, Marvel obliterates the much-repeated notion that climate changes in previous epochs are evidence that humans aren’t responsible this time: “There have always been gentle and natural deaths,” she writes. “That does not make murder impossible.”

In honor of climate week and as part of Rolling Stone’s collaboration with Covering Climate Now, I talked to Marvel about the most urgent questions climate scientists are trying to answer right now, the Trump administration’s war on science, and why we’ll never head off a climate catastrophe without dismantling white supremacy.

 

The hottest summer ever recorded in the Northern Hemisphere just ended. We have a record number of hurricanes in the Atlantic, extreme wildfires in California, where you and I both went to college. How does this moment feel to you – not as a scientist, but as a human being?
Not great. There’s absolutely no sense of “I told you so.” I think I’m so far beyond that. It’s kind of grief and fear, but also trying to supplant that paralyzing grief and fear with resolve.

The other day when President Trump was out in California, he was asked about the connection between heat waves and wildfires. He said, “It’s going to start getting cooler. Just you watch.” Then the California secretary of Natural Resources pushed back, saying, “I wish science agreed with you.” And Trump replied, “Well, I don’t think science knows actually.”
So he is right that it’s going to get cooler, because winter is a phenomenon that is known to science. We know about the seasonal cycle. But climate-wise, we know it’s not going to get cooler in the near future.  That’s not how physics and chemistry works. You can’t wish away the molecular structure of carbon dioxide. You can’t make it not a greenhouse gas. And you can’t make it not a byproduct of combustion.

And what about the fact that we have a president who’s saying that he personally knows that science doesn’t know?
I don’t want to skirt a Hatch Act violation here [The Hatch Act is a law that prevents federal employees from engaging in overtly political activities while they’re on the job]. But I will say scientists have done a lot of very interesting work on the uses of uncertainty and how uncertainty gets construed as a political weapon. And I think a lot of that is our fault as scientists because a lot of times when we say we’re uncertain, people take that to mean, “Oh, they don’t know anything.” And it’s true we don’t know everything. But we don’t know nothing.

Trump is clearly waging a war on science. You see it with the pandemic. You see it with climate. You see it in all kinds of things. Are you concerned about the implications of this in the long run for American life?
I mean, I don’t think ignoring science is a good long-term strategy. I feel like fantasy is best kept in books and TV shows. Let’s not have that in our politics. So yeah. Obviously, I’m concerned. I think we’ve seen with the coronavirus pandemic that wishing something weren’t true doesn’t make it go away. And the same is true with climate change. I really, really, really wish that carbon dioxide wasn’t a greenhouse gas. I wish that it didn’t have the effect that it’s been having. But it does. And wishing doesn’t change that.

A firefighter watches the Bobcat Fire burning on hillsides near Monrovia Canyon Park in Monrovia, California on September 15, 2020. - A major fire that has been raging outside Los Angeles for more than a week threatened to engulf a historic observatory and billion-dollar broadcast towers on September 15 as firefighters struggled to contain the flames. The so-called Bobcat Fire was within 500 feet (150 meters) from the 116-year-old Mt. Wilson Observatory, the US Forest Service said in a tweet, while fire officials said crews were in place "ready to receive the fire." (Photo by RINGO CHIU / AFP) (Photo by RINGO CHIU/AFP via Getty Images)

The Bobcat Fire burning on in Monrovia, California on September 15th, 2020. One of the pressing questions, says Marvel, is how large scale vegetation will respond to climate change and rising carbon dioxide levels. “The Amazon is going to respond, perhaps, very differently from boreal forests, which are going to respond very different from grasslands and savannas and cultivated areas and irrigated areas,” she says. “So that’s an example of something that is really important and is potentially a tipping point.”

Ringo Chiu/AFP/Getty Images

It seems to me that one of the big tasks, if we have a change of administration after the election, is restoring trust in science and repairing this breach.
I don’t know. I mean, I worry about that. I feel like there’s so few people who are like, “Yeah, I hate science. I’m anti-science.” Because people who don’t believe in vaccines, for example, are like, “I’ve done the research. I know the real science.” And people who don’t want to accept climate change generally try to dress up their beliefs with kind of a pseudoscience. Oh, “Did you know about climate changes in the past?” And things like that. I feel like there are very few people who are like, “Yeah, I hate science.”

I meet a lot of people in their twenties and thirties who are concerned about the climate crisis and questioning whether they should have kids or not. You’re a scientist, but you’re also a mother. How do you think about that?
I think you never know what kind of world you’re bringing a child into, but you do know that as a parent, you have the power to shape that for them. I know that if we continue on our current trajectory, things are going to be real, real bad. But I also know that we can stop that trajectory, we can make things a lot better, not just for the climate, but in all these other ways that are related. We can make a more just world, we can make a more fair world. I really want to be part of that, and I want to raise my kids to be part of this solution.

I don’t have a lot of space for despair. I think being worried is fine, but I think being worried is just kind of the default state of all parents all the time. I think having a kid, for me, personally, really sort of concretizes these abstract futures. It’s one thing to look at 2050 in a climate model, and it’s another thing to think about your child’s adulthood.

It certainly tests your faith in solutions to the climate crisis ….
I’m not sure it’s faith in solutions, it’s faith that creating a better world is not a possibility that’s closed off to us.

That’s an interesting distinction.
I think about this a lot in terms of, do you have hope? I think that’s the wrong question. I think the question is, do you have courage? Do you have the courage to be part of the solution?

What are the big questions in climate science you’re working on right now that are most urgent to you?
It bothers me as a scientist that we don’t have a very precise answer to the question: If we double the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, how hot is it going to get? The reason we don’t have a good answer is that we’ve never done this experiment before. We don’t know what is going to happen to the planet as it warms up because temperature change causes change to other variables, and those other things can then affect the temperature change.

The easiest example to understand is ice. You make it hotter, you melt ice. Ice is really shiny and it reflects back a lot of sunlight. So if you melt something that’s shiny and you reveal ground or water below it that’s a little bit darker and more absorbent, then that is going to be what we call a positive re-stabilizing or destabilizing feedback. So that is going to make the warming worse. Because it’s relatively easy to understand, it’s in all climate models, and it’s something they basically agree on.

Something that they agree on less is clouds. So as the planet heats up and as the patterns of warming change, what’s that going to do to cloud cover? Is that going to give us more low, thick clouds? Those low, thick clouds are really good at blocking the sun and making it colder. Or is it going to give us less of those, making it warmer? Is it going to give us more of those high, thin, wispy clouds, which are really good at trapping the heat from the planet, which kind of have their own greenhouse effect? Because clouds are really, really complex, really complicated, they’re kind of one of the biggest wildcards. But we’ve been making progress in understanding what they’re going to do.

As a scientist, how do you think about the potential for hidden surprises in the climate system? Do you feel like there are mechanisms or tipping points in our climate system that we don’t yet understand, but that could be really consequential?
I think it’s important to make the distinction between something that we know we don’t know and something that we don’t know we don’t know. So something like how fast will the West Antarctic ice sheet disintegrate? Before we include that in the climate model, we say, “Oh, hey, this is something that we don’t necessarily understand. We know that this is kind of an unknown.” So an example of that that I’m really interested in right now is, what’s the large-scale vegetation response to this?

Because you put a lot of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, at least for some plants, that might have a fertilization effect, so you would get more plants. But it could also affect how efficiently plants use water. Because if there’s a lot of carbon dioxide in the air, maybe they don’t have to open their stomata [the pores in leaves that allow plants to breathe] as much, and therefore they lose less water to the atmosphere and get more efficient at water use. But at the same time, it’s pretty hard to be efficient at using water if you’re on fire, and we expect droughts and fires and heat stress in a lot of different areas.

Homes destroyed by Hurricane Laura, August 29th, 2020 in Cameron, Louisiana. “When systems are broken, a crisis or a catastrophe really shows the brokenness in all of the systems at once,” says Marvel.

Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

But not all plants are the same, not all regions are the same. The Amazon is going to respond, perhaps, very differently from boreal forests, which are going to respond very different from grasslands and savannas and cultivated areas and irrigated areas. So that’s an example of something that is really important and is potentially a tipping point. If the Amazon burns down, that’s going to have a substantial effect on the climate.

But then there’s things that are unknown unknowns, things that we haven’t even thought about to include in models, things that we don’t know we don’t know, and those are the real scary things, because you can’t even really account for those things [in climate models]. For me, that just kind of boils down to: This is unprecedented. I don’t think there’s ever been a time in the history of Earth where a species has changed the atmospheric composition, by now, deliberately, or at least willfully, in so quick a geologic timescale.

I’ve seen a few comments from scientists on social media speculating about how we’re seeing an acceleration of climate impacts right now – the fires, the hurricanes stacked up in the Atlantic, the temperature records broken….
It’s hard to say right now if impacts are speeding up. Not so long ago, there was a lot of talk about how things were slowing down. Remember that period between the El Nino of 1998 and the El Nino of, what was it, 2015? It was a period where the global average temperature seemed to be rising less quickly than perhaps was predicted in some of the models.

This got seized upon by some disingenuous people, including politicians. They said, “Oh, there’s been no global warming for…” however many years. But climate scientists would say, “It doesn’t really make any sense to say there’s been no warming for 10 years. Because there is so much short-term variability in the system, you can’t just pull a decade out and cite it as proof that global warming has stopped.” Even without increasing greenhouse gases, you’re going to have hot years, you’re going to have cold years, you’re going to have warm decades, you’re going to have cold decades. But there is that background warming that’s getting hotter and hotter and hotter.

In a similar way, I think now it’s not accurate to say global warming has accelerated, because you have to really do a formal study and you have to do statistics really carefully, and you have to make sure you understand the physics of that background variability. I don’t think it’s necessarily true to say things are accelerating. But I think it is true to say people are paying more attention.

Recently, you were co-author on an important paper about climate sensitivity – that is, how much the world will warm if we double CO2 levels. The paper narrowed the range of uncertainty and suggested that a doubling of CO2 would lead to a warming range of between 4.7 and 7 F., arguing basically that the best-case scenario of warming is not as good as earlier studies had suggested and the worst-case scenario is a little better. I understand why this question is of interest to you as a scientist. But from a political perspective, does that matter? We know enough to know that we have to take action to dramatically reduce carbon emissions to zero. Does it matter if we narrow the range of sensitivity like this?
First of all, I agree with the people who say, climate change isn’t a scientific problem. We know carbon dioxide is bad — let’s get it out of the atmosphere or stop putting it there. But I think scientists still have a part to play, and I think it’s very important for us to be able to say we can rule out the sort of best-case scenarios, we can rule out the existence of some sort of natural stabilizing feedback. I like to think of it as like the Earth breaking its own fever or nature saving us from ourselves. We don’t think that’s going to happen. I think it’s important to establish that and kind of explain why we don’t think that’s going to happen.

I think it’s also important to narrow that really, really, really scary high end, that high range. Because if climate sensitivity is 10 degrees [at the high end], that’s bad. That means that action kind of doesn’t matter, because we’re kind of doomed, regardless. I think it’s useful to say, I think that higher sensitivity is really, really unlikely. And that’s not an argument against action. That’s an argument for action.

You have a very active Twitter feed, you write essays, you’re very outspoken about the dangers we face in the climate crisis. As a scientist, is it difficult for you to be so outspoken?
I think it is, yeah. It’s still not very valued in the traditional academic structures. You don’t get hired for academic jobs, you don’t get tenure, you don’t get promotions based on how well you communicate the science or how well you write about it or how you talk to other communities about it. I think in some places that’s slowly starting to change, but overall, it’s just not incentivized or valued. So that’s been a structural barrier.

On a personal level, I worry a lot about what if I say something wrong or what if I say something that makes me unsympathetic to somebody and they’re turned away from the notion of climate action, and that’s been really paralyzing for me. What helps with that is knowing that there is a broad community of people talking about these things. If somebody doesn’t listen to me because they don’t like me, maybe they’ll listen to Katharine Hayhoe or maybe they’ll listen to Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. Maybe they’ll listen to somebody from their community.

Do you get hate mail? Do you worry about your personal safety? These are weird times now.
Yeah. I tend to dismiss a lot of the hate mail as just people letting off steam or people with weird hobbies. It just makes me deeply sad that this is how people chose to spend their time. I think we scientists are not humans to them. We’re just pixels on a screen. If people do see you as human, then they do pull back a little bit, but it’s really hard to cultivate that humanity in an environment like the internet, where it just enables people to indulge their worst instincts so easily.

There are a lot of parallels between the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change. How do you think about that?
One of the things that strikes me is it’s really a lesson in how, when systems are broken, a crisis or a catastrophe really shows the brokenness in all of the systems at once. You look at who’s disproportionately affected by Covid and it’s the same communities disproportionately affected by layoffs, disproportionately affected by schools being closed, or by access to technology. That is just a really brutal reminder of the real fissures in society and the real barriers to taking action.

One other parallel obviously is the human consequences of science denial, right?
Oh yeah. I think it also illustrates what science denial is, because I think it’s possible to have a very naive view of how deep the denial is. Like people say, “Oh, just you wait. You won’t be able to deny climate change when it comes for you. You won’t be able to deny the scientific fact when it becomes completely glaringly obvious.” Almost 200,000 Americans are dead, and we still have people — not just isolated people, but people in power — still refusing to engage with the realities of the pandemic. I think that really gets rid of this comforting notion that, “Oh, well, everybody will experience this and then suddenly change their minds and start supporting sensible policy.”

People gather during the Global Climate Strike march at Foley Square in New York, September 20th, 2019. “I think the younger generation of activists understand that the scariest thing about climate change is what human beings do to each other,” says Marvel.

Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

In a tweet a month or so ago, you said that we’ll never head off climate catastrophe without dismantling white supremacy.
Yeah. I got a lot of grief for that, but I totally stand by it.

Explain what that means.
I read an essay, I think it was in a Sierra Club magazine, where the writer was arguing that basically the only way anybody could be OK with climate change is if they think “it’s not going to happen to me, it’s going to happen to those other people.” If you look at the legacy of systemic racism in this country, if you look at the legacy of slavery and red-lining and really unequal policies and the legacy of stealing land from Indigenous people, you start to understand, oh, here’s who lives in those sacrificed communities.

I think this notion that “Well, climate change is only going to affect some people” is the same thought process that underlies things like “police brutality is only going to affect those people” or “housing discrimination is only going to affect those people.” That is a really, really toxic thought process. That’s something that we have to dismantle and get rid of. Because I don’t think we’re going to solve climate change if we don’t really reckon with that history. As Ayana Elizabeth Johnson wrote recently in an op-ed, “We can’t solve climate change without people of color. But I’m pretty sure we can solve it without racists.”

That’s a great line.
There is no one magic thing that we can do that will make everything all right. This is going to take action across so many segments of society. It’s going to take technology innovation, but it’s also going to take reorganizing our cities and revaluing various occupations. We’re not going to be able to do that if, as a society, we’re systemically discounting the brilliance and the contributions of people of color. That’s just not possible.

If you view climate change as a justice issue — which it absolutely is— you have to look at why are things unjust right now and how do we change that?

I think the younger generation of activists understand that the scariest thing about climate change is what human beings do to each other. They get that this is a political problem, this is a social problem. We can’t abdicate responsibility to the natural world. We can’t say, “Well, we don’t have to think about the way we’ve structured our societies because the planet is either going to kill us or it’s not.” They’re totally rejecting that narrative. I really admire that view, both as a scientist and as a human being. The truth is there’s no silver-bullet climate solution. Getting through this is going to take all hands on deck.

 

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