This blog post is part of the Frozen Friday Series, an A-Z journey of the Polar Archives.  Each week, we will feature some aspect of the history of polar exploration with a blog post written by our student authors.

Over the next few weeks, we will be publishing one of four blogs highlighting portions of our interview with Dr. Lonnie Thompson, a leading glaciologist and outspoken climate scientist at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center. Each post will focus on a theme from the interview and feature highlights of that particular section.  A full transcript of the interview can be found here.

This week, we are focusing on  Climate Change, specifically Dr. Thompson’s reaction to the lack of action being taken in Washington D.C. I found his responses to be very surprising. His optimism is striking, especially given that he has been outspoken about the dangers of Climate Change for much of his career.

What would you say to someone who denies the existence of Climate Change, or considers it to be something that is happening naturally, something not caused by mankind that has happened in the past and will happen again?

Dr, Lonnie Thompson is married to
Dr. Ellen Mosley-Thompson, a
leading scientist that also works at
the Byrd Polar and Climate
Research Center.

First of all, I’d tell them that you’re absolutely right. Climate on this planet has changed through time. Yes, it has changed. There have been times when there has been no glaciers on this planet… Our time is different only in that there are seven point three billion people. We settled this planet in sailing ships so we built the cities and infrastructure on the coast. As climate warms and the sea level rises again, all that infrastructure is suddenly at risk…All of this is chemistry and physics.

Facts matter. Glaciers will melt and will continue to melt. Sea levels will rise. People will increasingly be adversely be affected by that change. Yes, it’s changed in the past, but the difference now is us. We will all be impacted. It’s not going away. It doesn’t matter who’s president, or at least who is not president. No matter what I believe, it’s fact.

I would say that I understand skeptics of climate change. If I worked for ExxonMobil and there was some way you could argue the quality of life on Earth has been changed by fossil fuels, that all the things that we are able to do with mechanized things that reduce the workload of human beings is fueled by fossil fuels, I’d argue it… We’ve known for over two hundred years that if you increase carbon dioxide, the temperature of the planet will rise. This is physics. Carbon dioxide is rising and the temperature of the planet is rising. This is not worth the change caused by technology… What’s happening now is that there are so many of us depending on fossil fuels that we are now seeing the adverse side of that advancement.

Four and a half years ago I was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. But fifteen years earlier, I had been diagnosed with exercise induced asthma… When it came down to a choice between believing if it was asthma or congestive heart failure, I went with the asthma. I told the doctor that he didn’t know what he was talking about because I had climbed the highest mountains on Earth. “The old heart was doing just fine, thank you very much!”

For two years I fought the idea that I had congestive heart failure because if I had put on my medical that I had congestive heart failure, I would not receive medical clearance to do what I do. I didn’t want to believe that. But at the end of the day, I was drilling in the Alps and one day I could not walk from my tent to the drill site. I couldn’t breathe. I ended up coming back. I was in the hospital for four months. I initially had a heart pump and I had a turbine put in the old heart which meant that for six months I operated on a computer. I had a drive line coming out of my side that drove the turbine. It was in my old heart and I wore a battery pack that powered the computer. At night I would plug into the wall. That was my key to life for six months. Fortunately, while I was on the heart transplant list, in May of 2012 I got a heart transplant and in 2015, drilling in the Western Kunluns, set a world record for a heart transplant patient drilling at 22 k feet. So, I just want to say there’s a bad gene. [Laughs].

(Here is an article about Dr. Thompson’s heart transplant)

The way that it relates to climate change is that it really does not matter what you wish for, you hope for, because at the end of the day it only matters what is. If you deal with what is, you can actually make life better than it was before. But you have to come to grips with the fact that you have to deal with it. So it is with climate change. It is just a matter of time because it will continue to worsen, the cost will continue to increase and as the human race we will deal with it because we won’t have any choice. So I kind of understand where these people are coming from, but on the other hand, it doesn’t matter! [Laughs] It’s physics and chemistry.

So, climate change is more than just rising tides. Could you describe what might happen?

Dr. Thompson with President George W. Bush
in 2005.

Well, I think it’s happening and I think it’s bad in a way and good in a way. As a species, we are “here and now”. We are not very good at planning for the future and climate change is something that is going to happen fifty years from now, a hundred years from now. We are more concerned about what is going to happen today, tomorrow, maybe next week. With the climate changes that are already under way, you can talk to the mayor of Miami. He has no qualms that the sea level is rising. High-tide comes up through the streets, comes back up through the city. That’s going to increase on all coastal towns throughout the world. And that’s nothing. The extreme events, the major hurricanes, typhoons…all you have to do is look at the last five years and the number of super-storms and the number of destructions.

People that keep track of these are the big insurance companies, insurance companies that insure insurance companies. Nationwide, downtown, has records going back to 1980 of losses due to floods, droughts, storm damage, and these are increasing faster than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. There’s a cost to climate change and we are paying that cost. Everyone who is paying insurance is paying that cost because what insurance does is distribute risk. But if you’re paying more for damage on coastal cities even though you live in Ohio, your insurance premium will go up because insurance companies are in the business to make money. So we all pay the price and right now it’s just that the companies that are causing the problem are not paying the costs of the problem. As long as they can get away with that, then we will continue to pay.

But these things will catch up. We will have no choice. Even in this country now, seventy percent of Americans believe that climate change is a real issue and that it’s a problem. At what stage in a democracy does this become so overwhelming to our representatives in Washington, that’s hard to say but I’d say that time is coming, that it’s close. There will be a real change…The system works, it’s just up and down. You have to look at the longer term, just like climate.

So many people get weather and climate get mixed up. You get an extreme winter and the number of emails I get in February that say, “It’s cold outside! It’s cold outside! Where’s Global Warming? Where’s Global Warming?” They aren’t looking at the world! When it’s cold here, it’s cold somewhere else. This is the variability that is in the system, You’ve got to have a thirty year average of that variability to have climate. It’s that trend that we have to keep our eyes on…

I grew up in West Virginia, so I know how important a pay check was to coal miners at the end of the week for their families. But I also know that the maximum number of coal miners were employed in 1924. The maximum amount of coal production in Virginia was in 2002. The number of miners has been decreasing since 1924 and they will continue to decrease. The problems in the coal industry have very little to do with the Environmental Protection Agency and everything to do with how cheap natural gas is. That’s an economic driver and you can’t legislate that back into existence…

I tell young people, “The future is in solar, it’s in wind, it’s in engineering jobs, better paying jobs, safer jobs and it will come.” That’s the beauty of this country. This country goes along because of local and regional governments. This is where people and the government actually interact. The changes are very basic and they are occurring all over. There will be blips, but they won’t stop the change.

Dr. Thompson and his National Medal
of Science.

You seem very optimistic.

You think about the human condition and you go back to the 1800s in London or Paris, on Wednesday, all the excrement from humans was thrown out the window into the street. There was a whole industry about collecting that and turning it into fertilizer and putting it on the fields to grow crops. People noticed that the number of people dying in the cities was increasing and they tied it to this problem. You can imagine the mayor of London saying, “Okay, we understand we have a problem here. We have decided that we are going to dig up the streets and put in a sewer system to collect this. Oh, and if you’re a landlord, you going to have to put in a special room in the apartments and you’ll have to put in plumbing for all this.” You can imaging the pushback that came at that time. But it didn’t stop it. The change came anyway. It’s the same with fuel… The change will come.

It’s the same with alternative energy. The human race didn’t leave the Stone Age because we ran out of stone. We found a better way and I think we know what that better way is now. It will come, regardless of who is in charge.

Do you think that if humanity has a change of heart and does everything it can for climate change right now, do you think we have a chance?

Oh yes. I think that the technology is there. If we wanted to, and this is where the old and the new are in conflict, we can increase the mileage of out vehicles to 50 miles to a gallon. This can happen overnight. The technology is there, we have electric cars. We just need to have a new source for the electricity to charge those cars. These changes can come very rapidly.

Still, in the meantime, does the current administration’s efforts and the general lack of political will to change frustrate you? I know that you’ve been outspoken about climate change for a long while and that you actually worked with former Vice President Al Gore on An Inconvenient Truth.

We also worked with Senator McCain with the insurance companies because the insurance companies know what’s going on. It frustrates me because the evidence is so overwhelming. The only way these people have made an inroad is that they are trying to move away from facts.

But facts do matter. They really do matter when it comes to anything that is proven by chemistry and physics. How far will they be able to go… If I was the current administration, I would be very afraid of a major climate impact occurring under my watch while I have taken a very strong stance against this thing and issue. It can come back and bite you. Anyone who’s been in politics realizes that a month is an eternity. I have to feel that the pendulum has gone very far to the right, but it will come back. How much damage can be done in the short-term? Well, it’s probably the only time in my life that I think bureaucracy will work to our benefit. [Laughs]

My greatest concern is for young people; people who are just starting their careers. I’ve had people ask me, “Is there going to be a future in my area of research?” My feeling has always been that you go with the facts and the facts always win. Yes, there will be a future. It may be a rough spell here, but I believe that every time there is something bad here, there is something good on the other side that counteracts it.

Dr. Lonnie G. Thompson

It is important that people speak out. Science is not going to change. You may be cover it up, hide it, try not to monitor it, but it is not going away. Change will come. It’s an interesting time that we are living in… For me, I’ve got my forty year pin here. I’ve been with Ohio State for forty years. I’ve been through times when the government’s been shut down for nine months. It’s stressful for anyone who is working in the area. But at the end of the day, the facts do matter. You just stick to the facts.

But what about the alternative facts?

[Chuckles] They will be short lived. I do think about this. The fact is the human race has gone through two dark ages where people revert to myths, to magic, but it never lasts. I’ve seen the Cultural Revolution. I’ve been to China after their Cultural Revolution. There was an uprising of all the peasants and all the professors were sent out to work in pepper fields in far western China, practically starved to death and the country went down.

In every country, gross domestic product is directly related to how much support that country gives to science and technology. This is where new ideas come from that keep a country strong. So, are we going to go through a cultural revolution is this country, are we going to try to go backwards? I think you can do it in a system like they had in China, but it is harder to do in a democracy.

Last week I was lecturing in Alberta, Canada, and there was a reporter who came to talk to me afterwards. He asked me, “Is the time when other nations need to step up and support climate science instead of the U.S.?” They may have to. They may have to. But I believe that the science will go on because it always has. There are good times and bad times, but in the end it is absolutely essential for the wellbeing of the country that we deal with facts.

I’m teaching a paleoclimate class and I asked the students where they thought the climate would be in 2040 and I was discouraged. Young people should be the ones who are optimistic about the future and that they can change the world. But no, they were really concerned about where we are headed. I think that is not good because, when you get to my age you can get pessimistic, because you’ve seen a lot. [Chuckles] But when you’re young, you need to think you can change the world. Because you can. You’ve got to believe it.

Published by John Hooton.