Renowned geologist talks climate research, renewable solutions

By Zack Fishman
Medill Reports

Richard Alley caught a cold while flying to southwest Wisconsin for the 14th annual Comer Climate Conference land, hosted Oct. 1 by the family of  late billionaire and Land’s End founder Gary Comer. But the illness didn’t stop the seasoned scientist from celebrating each research presentation with emphatic words of encouragement, and he used his closing speech to remind his peers of their crucial role in combating climate change.

As a professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, Alley has spent over three decades studying glaciers around the globe. When not in the lab, he has testified in Congress three times and hosted the PBS documentary series “Earth: The Operators’ Manual,” in which he explained the science of climate change and introduced technological solutions to the problem.

Alley joined journalists reporting for the Medill News Service in the Comer personal library, surrounded by books about sailing and the Arctic, to answer questions about climate change. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Why do you think it’s important to bring glaciologists, oceanographers and other scientists together for this conference?

This conference brings this amazing range of people working on modern atmospheres, modern oceans, modern ice and rocks, and the history of all of these. I believe that there’s a cross-fertilization — that the skills, the knowledge, the modeling tools that are developed in one of these fields inform the others.

What inspired you to work on climate issues?

I was greatly interested in geology, collecting rocks, crawling through caves and going to national parks. I just liked those growing up. So, I majored in geology and went to Ohio State. I desperately needed a summer job, and there were two summer jobs open. One of them was cleaning fossils with a dental pick, and I’d probably be an evolutionary biologist now, but the other one was helping the glaciologist. So I started working on ice, and once you get very far into ice, you realize it has this glorious climate record in it, and you realize it’s melting, and now you’re a climate scientist.

Why has science communication and helping others understand climate change been important to you?

Because really, it’s our job. I am not a meteorologist, but I know some of them, and there’s been a fascinating evolution in how meteorologists view their job. They got to the point that they were able to forecast the weather well, and they realized that when they forecast a disaster or possible disaster, many people were not responding to it. And they realized that they weren’t communicating in a way that conveyed all the information that the public needed to make use of the information. They looked at themselves and said, “Our job is not understanding the weather, our job is not forecasting the weather — that’s part of the job. Our job is to make it useful to the people who pay for it.”

So, I’ve been inspired by what they’ve done and seeing what other people do in the communications realm because there’s very clearly a huge disconnect between what we know about climate, about energy, about our future and what is being done with that knowledge. Ultimately, I really do believe that the public has paid partially for my education, partially for my job, and that I owe it to them to make the information useful as well as to get the information.

How have you, Gary Comer and Wally Broecker (late geophysicist and co-founder of the Comer Climate Conference) contributed to science communication?

Gary had a vision worked out with Wally Broecker and others of using the history of climate change to inform good decision-making. This was partially because he really wanted to make a difference with his money, and he was looking for those topics that were not well covered.

So by gaining information on this topic, which is so miscommunicated, this immediately drops us in the communications. How do we do this? How do we learn? If I ever fall into scientific jargon, it probably won’t work.

You’ve been very optimistic in the past about the economic opportunities of solving climate change. How do you feel about it now?

I still believe that if we use our knowledge, we’re better off. Lazard, the world’s largest independent investment bank, puts out statements on what different forms of energy costs to add to our electric grid in the U.S. They have said that if you got rid of all the subsidies for wind and sun, but you left in place all the subsidies for fossil fuels, that in many places and many times now in the U.S., wind and sun are still cheaper.

We’re the first generation in all of history that knows that we can build a sustainable energy system if we want to, and that knows that right now, if you actually got rid of those subsidies for fossil fuels, that renewables are really cheaper.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photo at top: Richard Alley speaks to an audience of more than 50 ocean and climate scientists at the Comer Climate Conference. (Abigail Foerstner/MEDILL)