Climate modelling has long been the specialty of Prof. Claudio Piani who joined AUP in 2012. Since then his work in climate model bias correction has been referenced over a thousand times in peer reviewed publications while new research, developed while at AUP, has been presented in the most prestigious international symposia and published in the highest impact journals of the field. In September 2015 Prof. Piani was invited to participate in a bias correction taskforce at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change IPCC Workshop on Regional Climate Projections.

An Interview with Professor Claudio Piani

You specialize in climate modeling and bias correction, while your colleague and lab partner, Elena Berg, specializes in evolutionary biology. How do you plan to work together on projects for the Environmental Science Center?

The main thing we’re collaborating on is climate based evolutionary experiments, looking at the effects of climate change on behavioral evolution. So, in very elementary terms, we tweak climate and see what that does to a population of organisms (in this case, seed beetles), who have the advantage of having generations that are very, very short in time, and the more generations you see, the more you have time for any form of evolution to be appreciable. My contribution to all this is having a vague idea of what climate change looks like, because it’s not just increasing temperature. This is me acting as her climate consultant. While this is her work and she does these kinds of experiments, it’s both an experiment of evolutionary biology and a climate impact study.

Elena has a knowledge of all things living, which sort of makes my research relevant, since we care about climate change because we’re concerned about the impact that it has on the ecosystem, humans being a part of that ecosystem. What worries us as a population (and by population, I mean a group of living organisms of the same species, so in very ecological terms), is the impact that climate change will have on us, and that’s precisely the kind of experiment that Elena and I do in the Joy and Ed Frieman Research Center. Between the two of us, there’s nothing that’s not covered by our respective areas of expertise.

What are some of the upcoming activities you are considering for the Environmental Science Center?

The next experiment will take off next Monday with the generation change. We’ll have one set of the population in a 28 degree fixed climate chamber and the other in a climate chamber where we’ll have temperature and light increases and decreases. There will also be a light cycle, so we’ll have a dawn and a dusk to simulate an entire day, and it will be an Indian day to the extent that we’re able. Once we have this population acclimatized, for a couple of generations, then we’ll start with some summer Indian experiments, since in 2015 there were very strong heat waves in India, and we’re going to  see what effect heat waves like that could have on these organisms.

What do you consider to be the biggest myths and inaccuracies on the subject of climate change?

People often say global warming when they mean climate change. People also talk about global warming in terms of a dichotomy: do you believe in it or not? And the main thing I want my students to come away with is to be aware of how excessively reductive that question is. It’s never a question of, do you believe or not? The question is, how much of a certain part of a causal relationship do you think is shrouded in uncertainty?

One of the biggest myths is the idea that sea levels will rise seven meters over the next century. People pull this number out all the time. Sea levels are rising: they’ve already risen 20 centimeters over the last century, and they’re likely to keep on rising over the next century, somewhere between 35 and 70 centimeters. That’s a lot. That’s really a lot, because in countries like Bangladesh, most of their territory is very low-lying, so all it takes is one high tide, with the ocean coming in, and whatever the salt water reaches becomes a dead field, a marsh, where you can no longer cultivate rice. So 70 centimeters is actually quite a lot. But it’s not seven meters.

Also, the melting of the North Pole is not going to cause a rise in sea level. If you put an ice cube in a glass of water, the ice cube melts, but the level of the water doesn’t rise. If Antarctica and Greenland melted, sea levels would rise, but Antarctica isn’t melting; Greenland is, but not that fast. Another myth is that the intensity of hurricanes has increased—it hasn’t. It might, it probably will, just because sea temperatures are rising, but it hasn’t yet. Also, you can never associate a single extreme event to global warming. That’s one thing that even the media takes a lot of care with: one hurricane, one tornado, one flooding event, you cannot say that this was caused by global warming. And you shouldn’t say that because if you do, you open yourself up to critique from climate skeptics and in the end, that doesn’t do any good. If you think it’s important to convince people that global warming is occurring and they need to do something to back governments that produce policies to mitigate its effects, you should not state incorrect theories. You cannot attribute a single event to global warming but what you can attribute is an increased frequency of occurrence.

What is your advice for those who want to get involved in environmental issues?

I think the most important duty of young people today is to educate themselves about environmental issues. That’s as important as, and precedes, activism. Make sure you know what you’re talking about. Go online, educate yourself, because any kind of educated opinion will not be extremist. I think you have a moral duty to educate yourself and to pressure your peers to educate themselves. Don’t change their opinion, just tell them to educate themselves, in whatever way. People become defensive and entrench themselves when you press their opinions, so just point them in a direction, whichever it is, to educate themselves.