“Reformed Climate Skeptic” Discusses How the Science Changed His Mind

Written by Lisa Hayden on . Posted in Learn

Good scientists are always a little skeptical. Strong arguments have to be supported with facts, tested repeatedly over time, and subjected to rigorous peer review. Thus, one New York professor was persuaded – only by the accumulating body of research – that there is something to the idea that humans are causing today’s changing climate.

Curt Stager, PhD., a Duke University-trained paleoclimatologist and natural sciences professor at Paul Smith’s College, says he used to question climate change as a human-caused phenomenon. But when studies came out eliminating other causation factors, the science changed his mind.

“I’m a reformed climate skeptic,” Stager says. “The only thing that is increasing now that should be making temperatures go up is greenhouse gases … and we’re the ones releasing most of those greenhouse gases.”

Potential factors (for example, warming of the sun or drastically cleaner air) that could influence the scale of global warming being observed “don’t explain what‘s happening now,” he says.

Stager is the author of Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life On Earth, which releases this month and has already garnered a long list of glowing comments from prominent scientists and authors. He also has a background in studying sediment cores from lakes. One of his papers was recently accepted for publication in the journal Science and he co-authored a study for The Nature Conservancy on the climate-related changes underway at Lake Champlain, the huge body of water straddling the borders of New York, Vermont and Quebec.

Other than the gradual warming of Earth’s average surface temperatures, climate change is not expected to produce the same effects everywhere. So, in order to gain a clearer picture of what climate change will mean in any specific place, Stager says, global climate computer models must be extrapolated locally, as was done with Climate Wizard for Lake Champlain.

According to the report, the historic record shows that, in the 1800s, Lake Champlain failed to freeze only 3 times, but from 1970 to 2007, the main lake remained unfrozen 18 times. Stager says he used to take students out on the frozen lake in the winter to drill through the ice to obtain sediment cores. But he no longer conducts those field trips because there is too often not enough ice nowadays, and it’s not safe.

Stager’s research has focused on the intersection of geology and biology, or in other words, how the archives “written in mud,” or sediments and fossil deposits tell the story of what happened on the Earth in the past. The intense interest in, and conflicting views about modern climate change have pulled Stager’s interests more toward our current point in geologic time when human activity has become a major influence on the planet’s climate.

“People like me are the ones who told the [climate change] deniers about the natural cycles” that they claim are the cause of rapid climate change, Stager says. Indeed natural cycles do affect the climate, but in the last 30 to 40 years, the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels have placed an additional influence on the climate system.

In an online lecture, Stager argues that we shouldn’t burn all the Earth’s coal at once over the next century if we can move to alternatives. Taking the long view, he suggests that if people are still around when the planet eventually hits another cooling, ice age phase – the next one is expected 130,000 years from now – we might still need reserves of coal locked up underground that our descendants could burn, thereby releasing enough greenhouse gases to prevent that future ice age from happening.

Lisa Hayden is climate change writer for The Nature Conservancy

Video by Connie Prickett/The Nature Conservancy (Author Curt Stager discusses how the science eventually overruled his skepticism about the human impacts on climate change.)

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Planet Change is a Nature Conservancy blog site designed to share stories about actions the Conservancy and others around the world are taking to fight carbon pollution and the impacts of climate change, and to help people feel the connections between climate change and their daily lives and understand actions they can take.

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