Q&A with Bill Patzert: ‘The bad news is politicians don’t listen to scientists’

This story is part of a Long Beach Post multi-part series, “Close to Home: How climate change is shaping the future of Long Beach.” For the full series, click here.

Bill Patzert is a world-renowned climatologist and oceanographer who recently retired after a 35-year career with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Using satellite technology, Patzert has studied and researched the global rise of sea level, the natural climate cycles of El Nino and La Nina, the shrinking of the polar ice caps and other issues affecting the planet. The Post talked to him while preparing our report on climate change.

Reading some interviews you did a few years ago, you sounded a little optimistic. Do you still feel any optimism about what’s happening with climate change?

Optimism and pessimism are subjective feelings, but if you look at the facts, we’re trampling the Earth. I’m becoming an advocate of the power of negative thinking.

Some countries seem to be trying harder than others at trying to cut greenhouse gases.

There’s lots of good intention, but economic policy across the planet has humans consuming more and more fossil fuel at an accelerating rate. The core thing is population, everywhere. I think there’s maybe one country, Russia, that has near zero population growth. It has the highest divorce rate, plus everyone wants to get the hell out of Russia.

When you look at the number, the Chinese and Indians are building more and more fossil fuel power generating plants, so their contribution to the CO2 budget is immense. Even Americans are doing relatively little. California’s been better than most, but go to a shopping center and count the SUVs.

How has more advanced technology affected your ability to monitor climate change?

All the satellite data we get provides a more quantitative accurate assessment of sea level rise and global temperatures, which actually means ocean temperatures, because 95 percent of the heat is being absorbed by ocean. We’re living in a melting, warming world.

So there’s been an increase in sea level rise for decades. How quickly is it accelerating now?

At the beginning of the century, sea level rise was a millimeter per year. Now it’s 3.5 millimeter a year, more than an inch a decade. More than 8 inches in the last 125 years; that’s pretty rapid, actually.

How much of that is thermal expansion and how much is ice melt?

At the beginning of the last century the sea was rising a millimeter a year, that was primarily thermal expansion, and at mid-century it was half thermal and half melting. Now it’s two-thirds melting and one-third thermal. The key to sea level rise is the great ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctic. An important part is terrestrial ice in Rockies, ex-Glacier National Park. We’re seeing a retreat of glaciers across the country. So initially it was thermal, now mostly melting and at higher latitudes, so the poles are warming more rapidly than the tropics. And, as the world’s population has exploded and everyone aspires to a more robust economy, all that is accelerating in terms of global temperatures, and fully 20 percent of global warming is caused by deforestation because of palm oil, toilet paper for China. We’re in the latest great extinction, not only of animal species but of plant species.

Has California, at least, been doing a good job in fighting climate change?

It turns out that in California we’ve seen the rise of alternative energy; it’s cheaper than coal and oil, so we should be doing the right thing for economic purposes if nothing else. But there’s a tremendously popular lobby for fossil fuel, so we can’t develop solar, wind, etc., fast enough, so we’re stuck with the old ways. We’ve made tremendous strides in California and Europe, but it’s the emerging countries, China is expanding, booming, and they have vast resources of coal and oil. They’re trying to transition, but economically it’s hard not to use those resources.

Has the Paris Accord had any effect?

Nobody is meeting the Paris accord. It was well intended, but it’s a toothless tiger, it’s a “trust me” thing and we all know when someone says “trust me.” This administration, it’s trying to put the nail in the coffin in terms of … global warming, repealing the Clean Air Act, rolling back regulations for protecting endangered species.

Look, the largest existential threat is Donald Trump. Looking into the future, the most serious global threat is the megalomaniacs who are repealing legislation. In this country the way you turn things around, you legislate environmental Issues, and then you enforce them. You have to vote, legislate and enforce. That’s how the system works. It’s not “trust me,” it’s not saying you promise to buy a Prius.

So, America is backsliding?

In all great civilizations, two things will get you: the basic resources of water and food. But don’t worry about it, because by the beginning of the 22nd century, global warming will make half the planet uninhabitable.  But in the short term, the most important thing is how you vote. The EPA activists were in the 1970s, 40 years ago, so in terms of the environment, right now we’re in the great leap backward, repealing all this legislation that I spent my career fighting for and had such a powerful impact on quality of life here, now all of a sudden Trump doesn’t want to sign the Paris accord. He has the reverse Midas touch. Who in their right mind would like him?

There are three levels of existential threat; one is immediate, that’s the Trump Administration; in mid century it will be scarcity of water and food; that’s climate change and pollution. Even if we had the perfect president, not just here but in the whole world, there’s simply not enough food and water for 7.5 billion heading toward 10 billion; then for those of us who remain, much of the planet will be uninhabitable.

Then increasing heat is the biggest problem?

We’ll see longer and more intense heat waves. The most deadly of all natural catastrophes is not fires or hurricanes, it’s heat waves. If anybody doubts that we’re not already adapting to global warming—imagine living in the Inland Empire or the San Gabriel or San Fernando valleys — essentially, large megalopolises would already be uninhabitable without air-conditioning, so the greatest hero for adaptation is Willis Carrier, who invented the air-conditioner. A big part of global temperature rise as the population becomes more urban, like our counties is just one big city; we create our own heat. The average temperature in these great cities in Southern California has increased more from heat islands. Downtown Los Angeles’s average annual temp is over 5 degrees Fahrenheit higher than it was 100 years ago. The average temperature in in August and September is 8 degrees higher than 100 years ago.

We’ve had serious heat waves all over the planet, Tokyo, Chicago, L.A.,  the famous 2003 heat wave in Europe that killed more than 70,000. It’s socioeconomic; it kills people on fixed incomes.

No good news, anywhere then?

The good news is scientists know what to do; the bad news is politicians ignore the scientists.

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.
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