Why you can trust climate research

Professor Asgeir Sorteberg believes it is a risk to do nothing about climate change. We asked him why we should trust the predictions of climate researchers.

Professor Asgeir Sorteberg, Geophysical Institute, University of Bergen (UiB).
Professor Asgeir Sorteberg, Geophysical Institute, University of Bergen (UiB).
Eivind Senneset

We met up with climate researcher and Professor Asgeir Sorteberg of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Bergen (UiB) to discuss why climate research matters and why he and his fellow climate researchers are to be trusted.

What is climate change?

“It depends who you ask. Basically, there are two definitions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that there is a man-made or naturally-caused variation that lasts for several decades. However, the United Nations Environmental Programme's (UNEP) definition is that the changes must be man-made. However, within climate research there is no sense in ruling out naturally created climatic variations.”

And what is a climate crisis?

“Climate crises arise because a variation occurs in the climate that is so rapid that society or an ecological system is unable to adapt.”

How can we protect ourselves from a climate change threath?

“In the short-term, there are basic things like floods, landslides and extreme rainfall warnings and good construction regulations. Certain steps can also be taken in low-income countries. In Bangladesh they have volunteer warning teams. They have planted trees along the coast to reduce the intrusion of salt water when there is a tropical hurricane and have built scaffolding, where they send domestic animals up onto during floods. In the long-term, we have to reduce fossil fuel emissions.”

What is the problem? Isn't it simply a matter of adapting like the human race has always done?

“The major problem with climate change is that it is happening so rapidly. We are entering a climate that humans have never experienced before and we do not know what we will be facing with an earth that is four degrees warmer. It is a risk to do nothing and this is a risk we take on behalf of future generations.”

What types of renewable energy do you most believe in?

“In the short-term, definitely solar and wind energy. Hydropower is currently the largest source of renewable energy and we should not rule out the unused potential this represents. However, I think that it is unrealistic to think that renewable energy alone can replace oil in the short term.”

What do you think about the ethical debate concerning oil research in recent times?

“It is one of the debates in the last decade that has truly been a good one. For once it is based on a specific issue, the Academia Agreement (Akademiaavtalen) between UiB and Statoil. It goes straight to the heart of what is important concerning fossil fuels, namely sustainability.”

What is it that drives you? The actual research, or the hope of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases?

“The research itself. I find applied mathematics and physics incredibly interesting.”

What are your views on having to continually simplify your research as part of public outreach?

“I think journalists are generally good at understanding the essence, even if much of it is presented with a apocalyptic scenario. Climate research is not particularly difficult to communicate compared with many other academic fields.”

Why can we trust the predictions of climate researchers?

“We can trust the main features. Climate research is based on fundamental physical principles and high-technology observations that confirm the principal scientific theory, i.e. that the greenhouse effect is the cause of global warming.”

So why do you think there are so many climate sceptics?

“There are very few sceptics among those who do climate research. However, the percentage is higher in other academic groups. One of the reasons is political reflexes. Other reasons are that they feel their own specialist fields are being threatened or that they have not adequately acquired the research-based information from a field in which they often themselves have little knowledge. I think it's a shame that the sceptics are so willing to uncritically accept any hypothesis stating that it could be anything that causes global warming as long as there is no mention of CO2. However, there are no alternative hypotheses that have survived very long in the past 50 years.”

Have sceptics played any positive role in the climate debate?

“They turn us into better academics. But why are there so few climate change sceptics who want to publish in scientific journals? We do miss their participation in the scientific debate.”