“Your child is going to die from drowning.” That’s what some astrologist prick told M. Sanjayan’s family when he was a little boy. So they kept him away from water and wouldn’t teach him to swim. Sure it defies logic, but the death of their child was foretold. What’s a freaked out parent to do?
It’s several decades later, and the child has outlived the astrologer (suck it, pseudoscience). Now he’s on live television responding to questions that he wasn’t prepared to answer. Dr. Sanjayan is on the David Letterman show discussing climate change. If you watch the interview, you’ll see an admittedly skeptical Letterman challenging the optimism of a well-informed, charismatic scientist, but Sanjayan didn’t see it that way. He says he left the interview thinking, “Damn, I gotta learn about this.” During his presentation at SXSW Eco, Sanjayan explained what he decided to learn and how his work on an eight-part series for Showtime helped him do it.
Despite the big names involved with the Showtime project, Sanjayan was reluctant to participate. He didn’t want to contribute to “just another show about climate change.” He told the producers that he would contribute only if the show was compelling and creditable, so they promised to do three things. First, to tell real human stories. If the story sucks but the people in the story are compelling, people will watch it. Second, to focus on things that are happening right now. Most people think that climate change is something that’s gonna happen at some point in the future, so they need to see current events. Finally, to send Sanjayan on a journey to answer all of the questions he had after his appearance on Letterman.
Sanjayan set out on a quest to answer four questions:
1. Is carbon going up?
2. Can climate change abruptly?
3. What are climate models?
4. How do we know that the models are correct?
Sanjayan and crew traveled to Mauna Loa, Hawaii, to check out an observatory that was built in 1958. This place was built for one thing: measuring carbon dioxide levels in the upper atmosphere. And it’s been doing so continuously for nearly 60 years. CO2 levels were around 318 parts per million (ppm) in 1958, but now they’re around 400 ppm. The level of CO2 will dip (slightly) during the summer, because more growing plants = less carbon, but it climbs higher every year. The amount of CO2 in our atmosphere has never – gone – down. Is carbon going up? Yes.
Next, the group climbed a mountain with a guy Sanjayan calls “The Indiana Jones of Climate Change,” Paul Mayewski (you should start humming the theme song now). This dude cuts deep into glaciers to carefully extract long cylinders of ice. The further down he drills, the older the ice sample, similar to the way rings in a tree indicate its age, but the ice is much, much older. Paul can pull samples that go back more than 200 million years. He determines the history of Earth’s temperature by analyzing the weight and chemical composition. This process revealed that significant changes in Earth’s temperature have occurred in as little as 10 years. Can climate change abruptly? Yes, and it’s currently happening in the arctic.
The journey continued, Sanjayan dove into the ocean to see how Kim Cobb uses coral to determine historic temperatures. Kim drills into coral to extract samples, much like that guy Paul and his ice. But since the growth of coral is completely dependent upon temperature, this method yields data that is incredibly precise. Kim can use the data to determine the exact ocean temperature at any given month in the last 200 years. She also collects coral fossils, which wash up on shore, to determine temperature patterns as far back as 7,000 years. Her findings confirm the climate model accuracy…and she’s pretty. Are the models correct? Yes.
But wait, what the hell is a climate model? Sanjayan looked to Physicist and Climatologist Michael Mann to answer this one. It’s basically like the saying, “You don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.” Scientists examine weather patterns from our planet’s past and apply them to its future. This involves a lot of math (groan) and computers (yay!). If they play the model backward, it should match the historic record. When they play it forward, it should predict future weather activity.
My attempt to recount Sanjayan’s quest for answers is a gross injustice, so watch it yourself. Years of Living Dangerously will air on Showtime next year. Sanjayan expects the series to “blow the doors off the climate change discussion.”
The future of the planet is pretty well told, the question really comes down to what do we wanna do about it. If I went around this room and asked all of you. You know you’re gonna die by drowning do you want to learn how to swim? The funny thing is, most of you, maybe all of you given this audience, will probably put their hands up and say, “Yeah, I really want to learn how to swim. Give me a fighting chance.”
– M. Sanjayan
This was easily one of the best sessions that I’ve ever seen at SXSW Eco.
UPDATE Nov 8 2013: SXSW Eco posted a video of the entire talk. Check out SXSW Eco 2013 – Years of Living Dangerously on YouTube.