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Ocean Heat and Hot air (with apologies to David MacKay)

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  • UserProf. Charles F Kennel, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego
  • ClockWednesday 16 March 2016, 14:30-15:30
  • HouseLT1, Department of Engineering.

If you have a question about this talk, please contact Dr Ramji Venkataramanan.

The 2015 Paris Agreement commits governments every five years to set more ambitious emission reduction targets; report on how well they are doing; and track progress through a transparency and accountability system. This new system for diplomacy could be more effective than the earlier one, but to make it effective the scientific community will need to be ready with new goals and measures for policy progress.

Government ambitions will be influenced by how their publics perceive climate change. Thus far, the primary intuitive guide to thinking about it has been surface air temperature. This is not enough. Over-reliance on air temperature has gotten climate science in hot water with vocal segments of the public, as the “hockey stick” and the more recent “hiatus” controversies illustrate.

Why do we let the world rely on surface temperature when more than 90% of the energy humanity is putting into the climate system goes into the ocean? As we will show, had ocean heat had been as prominent in the public’s mind as hot air, there would be no hiatus controversy.

Policymakers need a basket of indicators, just as in areas like central banking, trade policy, and sustainable development where issues are multi-dimensional, complex, and interacting. Like medical doctors, they need vital signs. It is time for planetary vital signs. But vital signs are only the beginning. The evaluation of the risks to human systems-health; food, water, and energy security-will require a major deployment of big data Bayesian analytics – one more place where the engineering disciplines will help the world cope with climate change.


Charles F. Kennel is Distinguished Professor, Vice-Chancellor, and Director emeritus at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. He is currently a Visiting Research Fellow at the Cambridge Centre for Science and Policy and a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Christ’s College.

He was educated in astronomy and astrophysics at Harvard and Princeton. After a post-doctoral year at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, Trieste, he joined UCLA ’s Department of Physics and its Institute for Geophysics and Planetary Physics. There he pursued research and teaching in theoretical space plasma physics and astrophysics, eventually chairing the Physics Department. He served as UCLA ’s Executive Vice Chancellor, its chief academic officer, from 1996 to 1998.

From 1994 to 1996, Kennel was Associate Administrator at NASA and Director of Mission to Planet Earth, a global Earth science satellite program. Kennel’s experiences at NASA influenced him to go into Earth and climate science, and he became the ninth Director and Dean of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Vice Chancellor of Marine Sciences at the University of California, San Diego, serving from 1998 to 2006. He was the founding director of the UCSD Environment and Sustainability Initiative.

Kennel was a member of the National Science and Technology Council and the international Committee on Earth Observation Satellites while at NASA . He has chaired the US National Academy’s Board on Physics and Astronomy and Committee on Global Change Research. He has served a total of 12 years on the NASA Advisory Council, chairing it from 2000-2005, and was a member of the Presidential (“Augustine”) Commission on human space flight in 2009. Kennel remains on the NASA Advisory Council and has chaired the Space Studies Board of the US National Academy of Sciences since 2008. For the State of California, Kennel was a member of the founding board of the California Climate Action Registry, the first chairman of the California Ocean Sciences Trust, and now chairs the California Council on Science and Technology.

This talk is part of the Signal Processing and Communications Lab Seminars series.

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