David Titley is a rare blend of two opposing personality types. He is a scientist and skilled navigator of Washington politics. That makes him one of the most interesting voices on climate change.
He is the founding director of the Center for Solutions for Weather and Climate Risk at Penn State University and a retired Rear Admiral with the U.S. Navy who worked many years in Washington—first at the Pentagon and then as chief operating officer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the Commerce Department. His PhD is in meteorology, and he has worked as an oceanographer and navigator for the Navy.
Titley is candid, pragmatic, and can be both funny and somber on the defining issue of our time. He also views climate science from the perspective of someone who was once a skeptic.
He spoke in a long conversation with National Geographic about the perils of inaction on climate change and the consequences of making deep cuts in government science programs in the age of Trump. His remarks have been edited and condensed.
What are people missing about understanding climate change?
It’s not about the climate per se, it’s about the change. It’s not the warming of the planet. This would be just as big of a crisis if we were cooling the planet. We developed agriculture and civilization when we came out of the last ice age. We built civilization on the premise of climate stability.
Now we’re changing that. We are no longer stable. We are putting the planet into a different state and doing it with seven-plus billion people. We’re not able to figure out change as fast as the climate is changing.
President Trump’s proposal to increase Defense Department spending by $54 billion is to be funded by making equivalent cuts across the rest of government. That includes significant cuts in science research and climate programs. As a 32-year veteran of the Navy, what does this approach tell you?
Up until now, when presidents put a significant increase into defense, you raise revenues and raise the deficit. You don’t take these tiny, tiny programs to balance defense. DOD is $600 billion. It’s the cartoon of the 400-pound guy on one end of the teeter-totter and all the second graders on the other end. You rape and pillage the non-defense accounts to make a small difference in DOD. That was kind of eye-opening.
The budget as proposed by the president is absolutely devoid of looking into the future. Cutting future satellites, cutting research that will shed light on what our future condition will be. The only thing that will change is our ability to anticipate. It’s not clear that there is even the slightest flicker of intellectual or scientific curiosity at the highest levels of government. It’s like that light just got snuffed out.
What are your concerns about science and research?
If the agencies are left to themselves, they’ll keep the heart and lungs functioning but sacrifice fingers and hands and arms. What do we do with the cadre of non-government scientists who worked on these issues?
California says come to California. Really? Are they going to fund to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars? The best ones will try to go to Europe. The richest universities will try to recruit the really good scientists who don't have funding. If you have a billion-dollar endowment, you can say, “We’ll give these scientists a home for two or three years while we go through the dark ages.”
If you are early-career, and don’t have that track record, it’s going to be really hard. Do we lose a generation of scientists if we go through this for three, four, five years? Some people may say, “So what? Who cares?”
Can we afford to wait out those years?
The real risk I see of these delays is: what do you lock in for the amount of sea-level rise? There is reasonably credible evidence, with big uncertainties, to say that we are really getting close to where the East Antarctic ice sheet just lets go. How do you keep sea-level rise at one, two or three meters, as opposed to nine, ten, fifteen meters?
What does that difference mean?
Three meters is still hundreds of billions of dollars. We are already seeing it starting in Norfolk, Virginia, and Miami. But a world where you have ten meters —35 feet of sea-level rise—that is a world that we literally do not recognize. That is a world where Orlando is the southernmost point in Florida. Norfolk isn’t there. Parts of Boston, Lower Manhattan go under water—and that’s not even mentioning Asia, Africa, Shanghai, Tokyo, all the megacities.
We’ve seen that 700,000 refugees coming from Syria have shaken the European Union to its core. Take that number and multiply it by 100 who would be forced to leave the coasts and that’s the kind of change we are going to unleash upon ourselves. The impacts of that on security or economics are fundamentally unknowable. But anybody who thinks that’s not a huge risk is probably smoking something.
What kind of research will be affected?
How do we understand the interactions between the ice shelves and the changing climate? That’s cutting edge research and many people who are doing this are at universities. Do these kinds of monies stop? What do we do then?
Do we sort of guess and row out to the tidal gauge and see what’s going on? Do we fly over the ice sheets from time to time to see what’s collapsed? Those are the things we have to see, these extreme events. They are not in the climate models. Are they freaks of nature? Are we going to get more of them?
What does the weather look like in a changed climate? A colleague of mine is looking at this new weather system that we seem to be having. It raises more questions than it answers. Are we going to pursue that? Or are we going to stumble ignorantly into the new era and not know how the weather is going to change in this new climate? Those are the risks if we see significant cuts.
A lot of people question the idea of predicting the future so far ahead.
Because of the jobs I had in the Pentagon, I was the one token science guy in a room full of intel guys and economists. The intelligence community has a hard time looking ahead because every 20 years, everything changes. It’s really hard to forecast what humans are trying to do, especially when they are trying to deceive us. Climate is not trying to deceive us. It’s just physics. Which is why the climate community can say in 50 years, plus or minus, this is what you’re going to get.
Why is there demand for precision in the science before we can act?
That is a tactic. Most people who say that do not want to do anything. They want to do business as usual. In my talks, I quote something Admiral Nimitz [Naval commander during World War II] wrote in a letter in 1945. “Nothing is more dangerous than a seaman to be grudging in taking precautions, lest they turn out to have been unnecessary.”
Admiral (William) Halsey had ignored all the warning signs and ran the Pacific fleet through a typhoon. He lost three ships and 700 sailors killed—the biggest loss at that point since Pearl Harbor.
So to the people who say we don’t know everything, you’re right. We don’t. But we know enough to know there are real risks out there, so taking precautions might be wise.
Have we reached a tipping point?
There is no sign post. I wish there was. I don’t think anybody can credibly tell you that after you pass this amount of temperature rise, humanity is screwed, full stop. What people can tell you is that we seem to be getting really close to locking in much greater sea-level rise than the mainstream science talks about.
When will we find out?
It will be like the economists telling us we are in a recession, but they don’t tell us until we’re already two months in and you’ve already lost your job. Science in that regard does not have a magic wand. That is why so many of us talk about increasing risk.
What about those who say 200 years from now is not our concern?
This is where government will have to step in. Somebody has got to be the adult that’s looking down the road. We know our economic system is boom and bust. Business is not smart enough to avoid big risks. Look at history. Time after time business gets us into these bubbles that burst. There is a climate bubble.
If I could do one financial transaction, I would short South Florida real estate. Ultimately, it’s worth zero and there will be hundreds of billions of dollars lost. Miami’s strategy is to encourage as much development as possible and then use money in the tax base and try to figure this out. It’s the ultimate Ponzi scheme.
Do you worry that so many Republicans in Congress still do not accept the science of climate change?
No I don’t. I’ve said this many times —Congress will not lead, but Congress can be led. Fundamentally, they are in tune with their voters. They know what their voters care about and what they don’t care about.
How do we get to the point where a third or half of the Republicans and most of the Democrats say we’ve got to address this? Enough people have to care enough. It can’t be Number 15 on a list of one-to-ten. Right now, the public does not care enough about climate change and until that changes, it is going to be hard for Congress to take hard votes on this.
That could take a long time.
Look at gay marriage. It changed from the bottom up and the politicians followed. It does give hope.
So what’s to be done in the meantime?
I tell my climate friends, you’ve got to keep trying stuff. I hate to break it to National Geographic, but nobody cares about polar bears. That’s what most Americans think of when they think about climate change. It hasn’t energized the population at large. I think sea-level rise will ultimately get people’s attention. But by then, you’re really running out of runway.
How should we think about this in the end?
I close my talks with two slides. One shows Churchill and a quote that he apparently never said: “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing after exhausting every other possibility.” The other shows Mission Control during Apollo 13, when against all odds we brought the astronauts back safely. We can do that, but you have to be focused. We are not focused. I hope we get focused before it’s too late.
The sooner we start, the easier it will be to deal with it. Time is the one thing you can never get back. Yesterday would have been better, but today is acceptable to start.