By Zaina Adamu, CNN
Editor's note: The Science Seat is a feature in which CNN Light Years sits down with movers and shakers from many different areas of scientific exploration. This is the third installment.
Thousands of families were left devastated when Superstorm Sandy destroyed their homes in October. When it comes to these extreme climate events, according to Chris Field, founding director of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology, the worst is yet to come.
Field is also a professor of biology and environmental earth system science at Stanford University and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change delegation that won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. He holds a doctorate from Stanford University.
CNN Light Years spoke with Field before he headed to Boston for the recent American Association for the Advancement of Science conference. Here is a transcript, edited for brevity and clarity:
CNN: When you were a kid, did you see yourself getting into biology? If not, what did you see yourself doing?
Field: I’ve always been interested in the outdoors, and I’ve always been interested in nature. When I was about to graduate, I didn’t know if the best way to be involved with nature was from an artistic, social science or a bacheloral science perspective. But what I discovered is that the approach that I was best at and comfortable with was in the natural science perspective.
CNN: Where did your passion for climate change come from?
Field: Well, I think that - and this could be the case for most scientists studying nature over the last few decades - the importance of climate change has emerged gradually from our observations, but I think almost everyone has really seen the world changing around them. And the more I learn, the more I got an appreciation about how important the topic was and how scientific information was a critical part of the portfolio that would allow us to take action.
CNN: Back in 1984 when you began at Carnegie’s Institution for Science, climate change was not as popular a topic as it is now. Why is that?
Climate change is something that we have been able to put the pieces together to relatively slowly.
One thing that is fascinating is that if we look back at the historical roots of our understanding of the way climate works and the way humans might change it, those roots go back very deeply. And some of the key insights trace back to the late 19th century. So that’s a long time from when we realized how pervasive the human actions and the human impacts of climate were. And it really wasn’t until the late 1980s and the early 1990s that we began to assemble a comprehensive scientific picture of the importance of climate change.
CNN: There are some who suggest that global warming is a myth. What do you say to people who think that?
Field: I think that there are important things that people need to understand. The scientific roots of understanding climate change goes back more than 100 years.
There was a brilliant Swedish chemist named (Svante) Arrhenius who published a paper in 1896 based on his measurements of how much energy carbon dioxide absorbed. Simply based on his observations on the absorptions of energy by carbon dioxide, he was able to come up with a relatively accurate estimate of how much the climate might change by the doubling of CO2.
Part of the reason why it is important to look back to Arrhenius is because we can really understand in great agonizing detail how the physics of heat absorption by carbon dioxide works and we can understand how that translates to our warmer planet. The understanding of the physics that was well-established more than 100 years ago is, of course, the core foundation on which the modern understanding of climate has been built.
The other thing that people need to understand is that much of our understanding of climate change and much of the foundations for our protection of the world in the future is not based on climate models, it is based on observation.
CNN: What is some of the research you’ve done and what are you working on now?
Field: For many years, my interest has been in the study of how climate change impacts ecosystems, particularly, for two reasons. One of the reasons is that humans rely on nature for a lot of important reasons. Nature provides climate regulations, water purification. Climate has a real responsibility to try and protect the natural world.
The other reason why I have been interested in studying nature is that there is critical feedback where naturally, systems could either amplify or suppress the human actions that cause climate change. A good example of that is for every ton of carbon dioxide that we release into the atmosphere, only about a half a ton stays there. And the other half is stored (at least temporarily) into the oceans, into ecosystems, forestry and other plants. I’ve been really interested in the long run where we will continue to see a giant subsidy from nature in the future.
My studies have been experimental ones where we take ecosystems and we artificially increase the temperature, change the composition of the atmosphere and just see how the plants, animals and microbes operate under these simulated conditions. I’ve also done studies based of the analysis of satellite data, trying to infer what is happening on a global scale.
CNN: Do you believe that human beings contribute to climate change or do you believe that climate change is a natural part of the way the world works?
Field: It is extremely important for people to understand that as a scientist, I believe at looking at the evidence and try to understand what the evidence is telling me. And the evidence that humans are contributing to climate change is almost beyond dispute at this point. The evidence is overwhelming with the climate system changing. The fact that humans are the drivers by far makes it the most attractive explanation based on the evidence — not based on what I believe — but based on what the evidence says.
CNN: If we (humans) continue down the same path we are on regarding our contribution to global warming, what changes do you foresee happening to the Earth?
Field: I think what we are seeing now is that there are already impacts of climate change already occurring. We have already seen extremely hot conditions, heat waves, we’ve seen flooding. We’ve seen a clear increase in the number of events like high sea levels that caused Sandy.
The evidence of linkage that cause these things are pretty clear. It is also clear that as we move forward, much of what we will see will be a change in the frequency, the intensity and the duration of these types of extreme events. Climate change is not going to be about a perception about how the average [temperature] has changed. The most important impact that I believe [will happen] when it comes to climate is more extreme conditions.