BERKELEY -- Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's April 22 "How Hot Will it Get?" lecture may not have presented incontrovertible answers to the talk's title question, but it did provide concrete proof of one, undeniable fact: Berkeley is a hotbed of citizens concerned about climate.
From the snaky line, winding its way along Addison Street outside the Berkeley Repertory Theatre (and delaying the start by nearly 30 minutes) to the rhetoric-laden dissertations disguised as audience questions, it was local reality drama.
The story line of the panel -- LBNL scientists Bill Collins, Margaret Torn, Jeff Chambers and Michael Wehner, and Maximilian Auffhammer of UC Berkeley -- was grim.
A well-respected group of climate, carbon, ecosystem and eco-economist scientists consult a "crystal ball" of rock-solid research and determine the Earth will someday boil. Or at least, is growing warm enough to release 2,500 year-old carbon, change the arctic topography, alter forever the land's forestation and turn hurricanes, droughts, floods and extreme temperature spiking into increasingly commonplace occurrences.
"These models are a synthesis of our knowledge," physicist Collins began, as charts and diagrams showed precipitous inclines. "We've experienced a billion percent (warming) increase since climate research began in the 1960s."
Most compelling were figures associated with "The Angry Summer of 2012/13." Australia experienced 123 record-breaking weather events in 90 days and Collins recalled airplanes "buckling" as their skins peeled in the 120 degree heat.
"What's going to happen in the future?" he asked. "The more (greenhouse gases) we emit, the higher the carbon dioxide. You know, we've invented a time machine: it's called your car engine. It's taking us back in time to compound concentrations we haven't seen in 34 million years."
Perennial frozen ground and the carbon released as it melts in Barrow, Alaska, caused Torn to highlight smaller-scale ecosystems.
Her research showed that slipping houses, "drunken" trees and changes in moss, lichen, and blueberry shrubs reveal how destabilization caused by melting ice activates microbes and unlocks carbon dioxide and methane. Confusingly, the atmospheric warming also creates taller plants with increased cooling potential.
How do scientists make complex, conflicting research results palatable in a sometimes bitter, polemic debate on global warming?
To answer in part, climate scientist Wehner focused only on extreme weather.
"Are recent weather events the result of global warming and how is global warming changing their magnitude?" he asked.
Without a true "crystal ball," Wehner relied on historical and statistical projection models, saying a 2003 European heat wave was 35 times more likely to occur in 2023. A 2010 Russian heat blast that caused 50,000 more deaths than normal, was 10 times more likely in the not-so-distant future.
Urgency took over the plot line as Chambers described how 25 percent of the audience's emitted CO2 was being "mopped up" by forests. And another quarter percent was stripping the ocean of brightly-colored coral reefs.
"It's so hard not to get swept up in the science and forget this stuff can be destructive," he said.
Auffhammer pulled all the loose ends together with economic alacrity.
"You know you're at a nerdy event if they bring out a German economist to close the show," he joked.
Auffhammer said the major greenhouse gas-emitting countries are "a long way" from agreement. Emissions standards are a high-cost solution and he favored taxes, because they make people pay the full cost of global warming activities.
"Look at the percentage an air conditioner is of your income now, (compared to) 20 years ago. It's astounding. It's artificially cheap because we're not paying for it fully."
Instead of trying to convince 200 countries to "hold hands" in global accord, he suggested aiming for 20 countries agreeing to tax carbon and use California-style cap-and-trade regulations.
During the public question period, Torn introduced the evening's first glimmer of hope, saying, "California has found the will to take a different path. We have a binding executive order to reduce emissions 20 percent by 2020."
The event was live-streamed and LBNL Community and Media Relations Manager Jon Weiner said 300 online viewers participated. AYouTube video will soon be available at http://www.youtube.com/berkeleylab.