Climate Change Discussion in Houston

February 26, 2014 4:40 pm4 comments

The self proclaimed “Energy Capital of the World” hosted a climate change event last week.   On Tuesday February 11th, more than 300 students, faculty, industry leaders, and members of general public participated in a hosted climate change discussion at the University of Houston (UH).  The event was the third part of UH’s 2013-14 Energy Symposium Series entitled “Critical Issues in Energy”.

The original, and unfortunate, title for the event was “Climate Change: Is it a Real Threat?”.  As you can imagine, the event was supposed to be a climate change debate.  As a faculty member in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, I was asked about two and half months before the event to try help round up some high quality speakers on “both” sides of the debate.   Fortunately the organizing committee immediately agreed that we should be educating the public about the threats (i.e., risks) of climate change instead of debating if climate change was “real” or not.   Were were very lucky to quickly find three very high quality speakers to discuss various aspects of the threat of climate change to the ecosystems, water security, and the US /global economy as well as a threat to an individual’s world view.  After the speakers were secured, the committee asked me to be the moderator.

The featured speakers for the event were:

  • Richard A. Feely, Ph.D., a NOAA Science Fellow at the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle. His area of research is carbon cycling in the ocean and ocean acidification processes with an emphasis on marine ecosystems. Richard has won several prestigious awards including the Department of Commerce Gold Award and the Heinz Family Foundation Environmental Award.  He is also a fellow of the American Geophysical Union.
  • John W. Nielsen-Gammon, Ph.D., the Regents Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas A&M University.  John is the Texas State Climatologist who does research on both large scale and local scale meteorology, air pollution meteorology, and drought monitoring and forecasting.
  • David Hone, a chemical engineer and the Chief Climate Change Adviser in the CO2 team at Royal Dutch Shell. David was chairman of the International Emissions Trading Association from 2011-2013 and is a board member of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

My job was to introduce the speakers and the frame the discussion by noting that the geophysical measurements have clearly shown that:

  1. Earth’s average surface temperature has warmed by ~ 0.7°C since 1900; and
  2. the concentrations of greenhouse gases (e.g., CO2, CH4, N2O) have substantially increased in the atmosphere over the last 100 years due to human activities.

After pointing out that these two geophysical datasets are physically related to each other. I stated that the framing assumption of the discussion was that: “Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused by human activities, and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems.” This is a quote from the National Research Council’s fairly recent report titled “America’s Climate Choices“.

Next, each of the invited speakers spent ten to fifteen minutes talking about their specialty.  Dr. Richard Feely went first to talk about the carbon cycle and ocean acidification, Professor Nielsen-Gammon was next with the climate forecast for 2100, and David Hone followed with an argument for the need for a price on carbon (both in the US and globally) before any substantial change in emissions will occur. Mr. Hone’s conclusion was that Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) was the best path forward as it was inevitable that the fossil fuels would be burned over the next several hundred years.

The floor was then open to questions submitted on note cards by the audience.  The pre-printed cards had an affiliation (student/faculty/general public) for the audience member to circle and a check box for the presenter(s) that they wanted to address the question to.  We easily received more than 100 questions and used the next 45 minutes to answer about 2o of them.  Some were able to be handled with short/simple answers:

Q.1 Who will pay for (i.e., subsidize) CCS or renewable energy efforts?

A.1  In the end the consumer will pay.

Other questions required longer answers with responses from all three of the invited experts.  I was most surprised at the wide range of the questions.  Some of questions quite technical, others were more political in nature.

My job was to balance the questions from the various audience groups  and filter out the “good” from the “bad” questions.  This was a bit harder than I imagined it would be.  First, I found some of the handwriting difficult to read.  While I wanted to keep the discussion on track I did not want to overly stifle discussion by not asking any of the critical or skeptical questions.

Some of the “negative” cards included statements such as: “This whole discussion is a farce.  Where is the the “other” point of view?  Why are you wasting everyone’s time? Why are you not talking about Climategate?”.  While I chose to not address these statements, I did ask some questions such as: “What are the benefits of climate change?” and “Why does a majority of the public think that climate change is the result of natural processes?”

After we ran out of time we were all besieged by additional questions from the audience.  A few climate change skeptics/deniers came up to challenge me, but I also got a lot of encouragement.  I should have been expecting it, nevertheless I was a bit taken aback by the degree of animosity from some members of the audience.  But overall I had a very positive response. This is an important part of our responsibility as educators and scientists. It is also good to get out of the ivory tower and see first hand what the real people are thinking.

Finally, I want to thank again the invited speakers for their time.  Each of them visited an undergraduate class earlier in the day to spend some more than an hour talking with students in either air pollution, sustainability, and biogeochemistry courses at UH.




  • Great discussion, very well moderated and targeted. Thanks to everyone involved in putting this together.

  • The need to not just get out of the ivory tower, but also speak as if we are in one is key. The most interesting question at the end was, “Why does a majority of the public think that climate change is the result of natural processes?”. John of course did not have time to answer it completely. His answer about the differing sources of information is certainly crucial. I do frequently here the notion from many, who are not particularly ideological, that we are just too small to influence something so vast. Yet, we have seen time again from DDT to acid rain and ozone depletion that not only can we affect things globally, but also that our solutions can and do limit the impact.

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