Climate One: Weather Whiplash

This program was recorded live at The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.



Deputy Director, California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research

Director of Strategic Communications, Climate Nexus

Administrator, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration


If anybody has seen the big picture when it comes to climate, it’s Kathryn Sullivan.  As a former NASA astronaut and the first woman to walk in space, she’s gotten more than a bird’s eye view.

“When you get even a couple hundred miles away and look back the planet you get a really different sense of proportion,” she marvels. The atmosphere we depend to survive on looks “like the fuzz on the tennis ball. It’s remarkably thin…a little fluid membrane that envelops this ball of dirt and makes it habitable.  It’s very elegantly and finely structured.”

It’s an elegance that the public first glimpsed in the famous “Earthrise” photos, taken in 1968 by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders.  This new perspective on our home planet helped shape our understanding of the effects we humans were having on it, and spurred the environmental movement.

“We are the first generation of human beings ever in the history of humankind that has the ability to comprehend and measure our planet with satellites and other instrumentation,” says Sullivan, who now heads up the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  “We can essentially take a snapshot of global conditions, oceanic conditions, atmospheric conditions.  And this has what’s made it possible for us to have the kind of forecasting we have in weather forecasting and longer range outlooks. “

The outlook for California is sobering, according to Louise Bedsworth of the state’s Office of Planning and Research.  California has seen its share of recent extreme weather events, including the 2013 Rim Fire, which burned over 250,000 acres and impacted tourism and other businesses throughout the region.  And there’s more to come this year as the summer heats up.

“I think probably one of our biggest impacts of concern is going to be the effect on the state’s water supply,” Bedsworth warns.  While the amount of precipitation is hard to predict, “we’ll have more of that precipitation as rain than as snow, so that is going to really impact the state’s water supply.

We also know that we’ll see more extreme events, more large destructive wildfires, severe droughts and heat waves.”

And it’s not just California that’s feeling the heat.  According to NOAA’s latest National Climate Assessment, the frequency of extreme weather events, from hurricanes and floods to wildfires and drought, is on the rise across the country.  We know that climate change is causing this weather whiplash, but how?  Kathryn Sullivan describes it as “kitchen table science.”

“The energy that drives weather in our planet is the heat coming in from the sun, the moisture content of the atmosphere, and obviously the rotation of the earth all of the swirling that that introduces,” she explains.  “So we’re dialing up the extra heat in the atmosphere…when you heat up the water, the relative humidity in a hot atmosphere can be much higher than in the cooler and drier atmosphere.

“It’s really stovetop science working on the planetary scale.”

This global chemistry experiment has given birth to some familiar names in the news:  Superstorm Sandy.  Hurricane Katrina.  Winterstorm Juno.   While the practice of naming our weather has been criticized as media hype, Hunter Cutting of communications firm Climate Nexus says it’s actually helpful to the average viewer. “If you give something a name, it’s a character in the story,” he says.  “Scientists work with numbers and formulas.  Average folks tell stories…then that story can be expanded to talk about what causes storm, what changed the odds of the storm happening. That’s how you can bring climate change into the conversation.”

Human, plant and animal migration is an important, if less dramatic, part of the climate story, adds Kathryn Sullivan.

“Disease patterns are migrating.  The hay fever seasons have already expanded by up to 26 days” throughout North America, she says.  Biologists have observed growing seasons changing all around the globe.  “Human migrations are also being observed, and are very much a concern of national security officials in many, many, many countries.”  Sullivan cited a recent National Academy of Sciences study that draws a link between climate change, drought and the Syrian uprising.

When it comes to escaping disaster, Sullivan emphasizes that it’s not about location – it’s about community.  The word “resilience,” she says, has three strands:  “It’s societal, it’s economic and its ecological resilience.  You’ve got to be looking at all three, you’ve got to be weaving all three, or the notion is meaningless.”

So, “adaption or mitigation?” asked one audience member.  Which strategy will better ensure our survival?  Hunter Cutting believes that with the temperature projected to increase by up to eight degrees, we can – and should – do both.

“It’s a bit of a balancing act, right?” he replied. “Eight degrees may not sound like much.  But that’s about the amount of temperature change that we saw that ended the last Ice Age, and we’d have crocodiles living in the Arctic. So we really don’t want to go there.”   Reducing emissions will help keep that number down, but what’s a manageable number?

“Two degrees…we can adapt to that much,” he concludes.  “So I think we have to do both.  We have to mitigate to avoid the catastrophic, and adapt to what we can’t avoid.”

And change, Cutter points out, is one of the signature characteristics of our species.

“Adaptation is just going to be part of what we do now going forward in the future.”

Related Links:

2014 National Climate Assessment

The Risky Business Report

NY Times: Study Links Syrian Conflict to Drought Made Worse by Climate Change



Climate One: Cheap Gasoline

This program was recorded live at The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on February 27, 2015.


For the past few years, skyrocketing oil prices have had Americans on a gasoline diet. We’re walking more, using public transportation, opting for weekend “stay-cations,” even trading in our gas-guzzlers for hybrids. Ten years ago, the consensus was that oil demand would go up as supply went down, and prices would follow. But as it turns out, the opposite was true. So, what happened? That was the first question host Greg Dalton put to his guests at a recent Climate One forum.

The last five years have seen a significant – and unprecedented — shift in American’s driving habits, says Bill Reilly, a former head of the EPA. “We leveled off in terms of vehicle miles traveled,” he says, “Now, there are more of us, there are more cars that are being sold and manufactured every day, but at the same time we’re driving less.”

One reason? Both millennials and retiring baby boomers are moving towards urban centers, choosing ride-sharing, public transportation and bicycles over long commutes from the suburbs. “That has profound consequences, I think, for the future,” continues Reilly. “I think we’re going to see a continuing reduction in demand.”

At the same time, the global balance between oil producers and oil consumers is changing, says Jason Bordoff, director of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. “So the places we thought of as the producers of oil, the Middle East, Venezuela, these are rapidly growing demand centers,” he says. Meanwhile, major consuming countries, such as the U.S. and Canada have become major suppliers. “US oil production is up four million barrels a day since 2008, I think… imports have gone from 60% to 20% of our consumption.”

And Reilly points out that China and other countries also have their own untapped supplies of shale gas. “I think they will find ways to develop it,” he predicts. “And once that happens, it’s very possible that we could see a cascade of new supply at the same time as we see the decline in demand. And we will then I think see the oil price follow the gas price, the natural gas price in the United States, which is trending down.”

So despite its inherent volatility, Bordoff doesn’t see oil returning to $100 a barrel anytime soon. “We’ll probably be on this range of $60 to $80 for several years,” he told the audience. “But it’s easy to see it dipping further before it comes back up. So could it go down to $30 or $40 before it comes back? I think that’s definitely possible.”

Good news for consumers, not so good for Big Oil – and its investors. What do falling oil prices mean to Wall Street? Kate Gordon keeps a close eye on the fossil fuels market as senior policy advisor to The Risky Business Project. “The one thing that is predictable in oil markets is that they’re volatile, and we will see unpredictability going forward,” she warns. And the way to ride this boom-bust wave is by continuing to reduce consumption.

“The key to me for policy makers and consumers is keeping our eyes on policies that do reduce that vulnerability to volatility,” Gordon advises. For example, “pushing electric vehicles, trying to move the vehicle fleet more into electricity side, which has become far more renewable.”

As Willie Nelson sang, “I just can’t wait to get on the road again,” and most Americans are ready to do just that. But environmentalists fear that lower prices at the pump could spell trouble for the climate. Could cheaper gas mean an end to carbon consciousness? Will we see the return of the Hummer this summer?

“Carmakers respond to consumer demand,” says Bordoff. “So if consumers decide that cheaper gasoline is here to stay…they’ll respond to that.

“From an oil demand and emission standpoint, lower prices are not a good thing,” he adds. “You’re going to drive a little bit more, maybe make a different choice about what kind of car you would buy.

“That’s why I think policy is so important. And I think what prevents us from returning to the Hummer is the fact that we have aggressive fuel economy standards…policy is going to be the key driver.”

Host: Greg Dalton

Guests: Jason Bordoff, Founding Director, Center on Global Energy Policy, Columbia University; Former Special Advisor to President Obama, National Security Council Staff; Kate Gordon, Senior VP and Director, Energy & Climate Program, Next Generation; Bill Reilly, Former Board Member, ConocoPhillips, Senior Advisor, TPG Capital

Climate One: Chasing Water

This program was recorded live at The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on October 28, 2014.


“We live in a 21st-century climate with a 20th-century infrastructure and 19th-century laws and policies.” That’s how Peter Gleick of The Pacific Institute summed up the issue at hand during a forum at the Commonwealth Club last fall.

Gleick and his fellow panelists were discussing the problem of how to manage “water whiplash.” Climate change has exacerbated the effects of both drought and flood conditions worldwide. California’s lakes and reservoirs are shrinking even as the sea encroaches on its shoreline, while floods and hurricanes plague the Midwest and the Atlantic Coast.

How can countries and communities make sense of a dearth of water, then suddenly too much? What can be done to guarantee water as a basic human right for all, while enacting regulations that encourage conservation? And how to avoid the inevitable conflicts that arise around this precious resource?

As Gleick points out, water has been a source of human tension going back centuries. “The earliest examples, three or four thousand years ago, were in ancient Mesopotamia, the Tigris and Euphrates River; today Turkey, Iraq and Syria,” he tells the audience. “And, again unfortunately, the most recent examples are in the same region, where there are tensions over ideology and religion and politics and access to resources…water is a tool of conflict, water is a target of conflict, water is a weapon of war. It’s another example of our inability, really, to separate politics and water.

“I think as the world grows, as populations grow, as the economy grows, as demand for water grows, the scarcity of water is more and more likely to lead to conflicts of one kind or another,” Gleick continues. “We see conflicts in the Western US, and hopefully they won’t be violent conflicts, but they’re political conflicts.”

Some believe market forces can be harnessed to control the flow of water. But what does that mean for the environment, as well as the needs of underserved communities? Brian Richter of The Nature Conservancy feels it’s possible to strike a balance. “We can have all those things together, but they depend very heavily ultimately upon having good governance, having the institutions and the capacity to manage the water well to meet all of those benefits.”

The notion of ownership of water, Richter points out, is a fallacy. “The government actually retains the ultimate ownership of the water…and what they do is they issue the right to use the water. So when we’re talking about a water market, what we’re talking about is trading in the rights to use water, rather than trading water itself.”

That distinction, he says, is an important one “because it highlights the really critical role that government has to play in that in regulating a market, in setting the rules and making sure the environment doesn’t get left out, in making sure that human access to water is provided.”

One audience member brought up the effects of climate change on our future water needs. Whether climate change is causing the current drought, says Gleick, isn’t the issue. “The issue is whether or not the extreme events, droughts and floods that we are experiencing, are now influenced by climate. And the answer to that is unambiguously yes. So would this drought have occurred anyway? Maybe.”

The last three years have been both California’s hottest and driest years on record, “and that alone is an influence of climate change on drought,” says Gleick.

“It means demand for water goes up. It means pressure on the existing reservoirs goes up. It means evaporative losses goes up. Hurricane Sandy – caused by climate change? Wrong question…The flooding caused by Sandy was worsened by climate change. That’s the issue. It’s the influence of climate change on these extreme events now.”

Gleick says there are lessons to be learned from Australia. Starting in 2003, that continent experienced a “Big Dry” lasting nearly a decade. The Australians were slow to respond to the crisis. “They did what we did, they muddled through,” he says. “They overpumped their groundwater…they did minor things.”

By the end of ten years, “they were doing things that we frankly should’ve been doing a long time ago and still are not doing; rethinking water rights, aggressively figuring out how to restore our ecosystems while maintaining some form of a healthy agricultural economy.” Californians will have to adopt similar reforms, Gleick warns, if we’re going to weather our own “big dry.” “We may be in a long-term drought, as was Australia, and we are not yet doing the things that they learned they had to do and could do to be successful.”

Unfortunately, says Gleick, “we haven’t learned the main lesson, which is it’s smarter to do these things in advance than in a crisis.”

Host: Greg Dalton

Guests: Brian Richter, Chief Water Scientist, The Nature Conservancy; Author, Chasing Water: A Guide for Moving from Scarcity to Sustainability (Island Press, 2014); Peter Gleick, President, Co-Founder, The Pacific Institute; Author, Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water (Island Press, 2011); Brooke Barton, Director, Water Program at Ceres

Cilmate One: Cli-Fi 2015

This program was recorded live at The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on January 29, 2015.


Novelists and filmmakers have been mining the rich world of science for generations. Throughout the last century, science fiction has turned to real-world threats, such as nuclear war and plague, for its post-apocalyptic scenarios. More recently, environmental issues have moved to front and center in the narrative, in films such as Interstellar, Snowpiercer and Wall-E and best-sellers from Margaret Atwood, Nathaniel Rich and Jennifer Egan.

H.G. Wells foreshadowed this trend in his 1895 novel The Time Machine. But while the prospect of a devastated earth in a far distant future probably didn’t inspire many Victorians to recycle, today’s readers can clearly visualize a much more immediate threat. Climate change is more than a plot device – the signs are all around us. Can Cli-Fi help rally the troops in our battle to save the planet?

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Cilmate One: Energy Efficiency and Building Power

This program was recorded live at The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on January 29, 2015.


The American Dream may no longer mean a sprawling house in the suburbs, with heated pool, an endless lawn and two SUVs in the driveway. But that doesn’t mean the dream of home ownership has died. “Hopefully in the years to come, part and parcel of that American dream will be a home that is more energy efficient,” says Julián Castro. “So it’s still I think at its base the same American dream. But we can be smarter about the impacts on our climate when we achieve the American dream.”

US Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro stopped by The Commonwealth Club on a recent visit to San Francisco to talk about his plans for bringing energy efficiency to every American household. “Folks tend to think that, well, that’s something for people that have a lot of resources — driving electric cars or installing rooftop solar,” he says. “The fact is that… the declining cost of being energy efficient in general is making that more and more affordable for middle-class Americans and folks of modest means.”

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Climate One: Down and Dirty

This program was recorded live at The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on January 29, 2015.


“Hamburgers in a hot world,” is how host Greg Dalton summarized a recent Climate One discussion on cattle and their carbon hoofprint. The negative effects of the meat industry on our climate have been food for debate ever since the publication of the 2006 report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Association. But could there be a “grass-is-greener” side to this environmental fence?

“Agriculture also has a chance to be part of the solution,” says ecology professor Whendee Silver, who studies climate and land-use relationships at UC Berkeley. The FAO’s report, she says, was one sided. “It gave very little space and consideration to good management practices, how widespread those are, what the potential sustainability questions are with regard to management.”

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Climate One: Talking About the Weather

The archive of this episode is unavailable on our website.

You can also visit:  http://climate-one.org/

Climate One:
Future of Oil and Personal Mobility

This program was recorded live at The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on January 12, 2015.


Gas prices are plummeting as fracking has unleashed a gusher of American oil.  California’s cap and trade program is increasing the bottom line for petroleum producers. Meanwhile, public support for reducing fossil fuel reliance is growing, and major shareholders are divesting from oil stocks. What does the future hold for the industry?

Climate One recently gathered a panel of oil industry veterans, along with California’s top carbon cop, to discuss whether Big Oil must, in the words of H.G. Wells, adapt or perish.
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Climate One - GMOs: Necessary in a Hot and Crowded World?

This program was recorded live at The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on June 11, 2014.


Robert Fraley, Chief Technology Officer, Monsanto
Andrew Kimbrell, Founder and Executive Director, Center for Food Safety
Nathanael Johnson, Food Writer, Grist; Author, All Natural: A Skeptic’s Quest to Discover If the Natural Approach to Diet, Childbirth, Healing, and the Environment Really Keeps Us Healthier and Happier
Jessica Lundberg, Seed Nursery Manager, Lundberg Family Farms

Technology is everywhere – in our phones, in our cars and now, in our corn flakes. Biotechnology promises weed-resistant crops, bigger yields, more food for a growing population. But are genetically modified fruits and vegetables safe? Are they healthy? And should foods containing GMOs be labeled as such?

Those were some of the questions on the minds of the audience members who gathered at the Commonwealth Club for a lively discussion on GMOs – genetically modified organisms.

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Climate One: Weather Disruption

This program was recorded live at The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.


To quote Charles Dudley Warner, “Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Dr. Jane Lubchenco was tasked with just that when President Obama named her to head up the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2009. It turned out to be the start of the most extreme four-year weather period in U.S. history.

“We had over 660 major tornadoes,” Lubchenco remembers. “We had sixty Atlantic hurricanes, including Sandy, Isaac and Irene. We had six major, just devastating floods. Record-breaking snowfall, prolonged heat waves, wildfires — you name it, pretty much every category of weather, we broke records.”

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