Imagine two of the nation’s leading climate science protagonists sitting together for a long-form national broadcast exploring their quite different approaches to and understandings of climate change and its implications.

You’ll have to imagine it, because the pairing of Georgia Tech scientist Judith Curry and National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) scientist Kevin Trenberth didn’t actually happen that way. Instead, NPR and “All Things Considered” science reporter Richard Harris aired consecutive-day eight-minute broadcasts focusing on each of them individually.

NPR science correspondent Richard Harris

“An interesting and complicated person” is how Harris described Curry in a phone call interview days after the two pieces aired on August 22 and 23 respectively. He said his goal in the interview with Curry was to do not so much a profile of what NPR described as the “controversial scientist” as an exploration of her points of view that make her something of “an outcast these days in the world of climate science.”

With Trenberth, his goal was to shed light on the approaches of a scientist seen as being key to the broad “consensus” perspective shared by most climatologists.

Harris spent a full day with Curry at her summer retreat on the California-Nevada border near Reno, but he wanted to avoid “a back and forth” with Trenberth with the two featured in a single broadcast. He stopped in Boulder, Co., on his way back east and spent a full day with Trenberth during a two-night stay. His tape recorder ran throughout most of the time he spent with both of them, the scientists have said, and the final broadcasts were about eight minutes each.

Harris said he had not told either Curry or Trenberth that he was interviewing the other scientist, and the two have indicated they had no advance notice of the kind of broadcasts he was planning, or of the particular approach to the story he had in mind.

Curry Focus: Uncertainties and Unknown Unknowns

Judith Curry had a focus on climate ‘uncertainties.’

In his piece with Curry, discussing her testimony before a House subcommittee this past spring, Harris described her as “one of a very small pool of atmospheric scientists that a Republican would invite to talk about climate change.” He said she “focuses on uncertainties and unknown unknowns more than on the consensus of climate scientists who say we know enough to be deeply worried.”

While accepting that more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will lead to more warming, Curry told Harris, a no-action approach to scientists’ concerns may in fact be “the best solution.” Her position is the result “as much about the economics as the science,” Harris said.

He prodded Curry: “Of course, doing nothing to address climate change is actually doing a lot. Carbon dioxide levels are growing.”

“I don’t know how concerned I should be about it, on what time scale that might happen, whether it’s 100 or 200 years, what societies will be like, what other things are going on with the natural climate….I just don’t know.”

While taking steps to reduce her own carbon footprint, Curry said, “in terms of telling other people what to do, I don’t have any big answers.” She pointed to concerns that her six nieces and nephews could find trouble getting good jobs if climate decisions “jeopardize their economic future, and we don’t even know if they’re going to care and if this is going to matter.”

“But leaving climate change actions to individuals will not solve the problem,” Harris concluded in an NPR website article about the Curry interview. You can’t affect global warming simply by buying a Prius and adjusting the thermostat. And there’s no uncertainty about that.”

In her climate.etc blog, Curry wrote that she was “rather surprised when I read the article on the NPR website. It was mostly about politics and policy, which constituted a small fraction of our conversation.” She said she had spent about half of the eight hours with Harris discussing climate science, with policy issues coming up only when he raised them. She described as “generally accurate” Harris’s characterizations of her views on climate uncertainties and proposed policies and said “I don’t have any big complaints about the story.”

At the same time, she wrote “the implication that I am mostly about the politics and policies surrounding climate change is just wrong. I see this as a missed opportunity to discuss the science and the changing dynamics of the climate debate after ‘climategate.’” She wrote that she had expected the broadcast itself would include “more of an actual interview (i.e. where I actually said something)…I got about 60 seconds of airtime in an 8 minute radio show ostensibly about my own opinions. I have to wonder why Harris spent two days talking to me. I guess it took that long to get me to say something about my nieces and nephews.”

For Trenberth, ‘Rate of Change’ Most Worrisome

NCAR’s Kevin Trenberth, for whom pace of change is a major concern.

Introduced as “the prominent denizen” of NCAR and its “distinguished senior scientist,” Trenberth appeared more satisfied with Harris’s “recording stuff all day…he went back and kluged it together, and it came out alright.”

Harris related Trenberth’s initial differences in 1988 with retired NASA scientist Jim Hansen’s congressional testimony linking drought and global warming. He reported that Trenberth thinks Hurricane Sandy in 2012 “was maybe five or 10 percent more powerful as a result of global warming.”

“Trenberth readily acknowledges that there are still some gaps in understanding the Earth’s overall heat balance,” Harris said on air, after discussing issues related to natural variability and the role of oceans in warming. But those uncertainties don’t dispel Trenberth’s concerns over climate and carbon dioxide basics, he said.

Responding to Harris’s pointing to “frustrating times” for climate scientists finding their views often rejected for political reasons, Trenberth stepped into the policy arena, saying “I’m not sure so many politicians fully understand their role in this.” He said if the U.S. “plays[s] the right kind of role, then other countries will follow.”

“Some of the human-induced changes are occurring 100 times faster than they occur in nature. And this is one of the things that I think worries me more than climate change itself. It’s actually the rate of change that’s most worrying.”

The two actual broadcasts and transcripts — Curry’s lasting 7 minutes and 50 seconds and Trenberth’s 7 minutes and 49 seconds — are available online at NPR’s website: Curry here and Trenberth here. The two aired at 5:08 and 5:47 p.m. EDT respectively on Thursday and Friday “All Things Considered” broadcasts. As of late August, the Curry broadcast had attracted more than 330 onsite comments, and her own website posting on the interview had attracted more than 700 comments. The Trenberth broadcast had attracted more than 240 comments.

Bud Ward was editor of Yale Climate Connections from 2007-2022. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as assistant director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission...