Episode 30 – Interview with climate scientist Professor David Karoly (Part 2)

What better way to celebrate the 30th episode of Let’s Talk SciComm than continue our conversation with world-renowned climate scientist and climate science communicator, Professor David Karoly. This is part 2 of our conversation with David, so if you haven’t listened to last week’s episode, please go back and do that first!

David is an honorary Professor at the University of Melbourne having retired in February 2022 from CSIRO in Australia, where he was a Chief Research Scientist in the CSIRO Climate Science Centre. He is an internationally recognised expert on climate change and climate variability.

Professor Karoly was the Leader of the Earth Systems and Climate Change Hub in the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program, based in CSIRO, from 2018 until the Hub closed at the end of June 2021.

He was a member of the National Climate Science Advisory Committee during 2018-19. During 2012-2017, he was a member of the Climate Change Authority, which provides advice to the Australian government on responding to climate change, including targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

He was involved in the Assessment Reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2001, 2007, 2014 and 2021 in several different roles. He is also a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists. He was elected as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 2019. He was awarded the 2015 Royal Society of Victoria Medal for Scientific Excellence in Earth Sciences. From 2007 to February 2018, David Karoly was Professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Melbourne and in the A.R.C. Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science.

You can learn more about David here:


Jen (00:00:00)
Hello and welcome to Let’s Talk SciComm, a podcast by the University of Melbourne Science Communication Teaching Team. I’m Associate Professor Jen Martin and my wonderful co-host is Dr Michael Wheeler and we believe that science isn’t finished until it’s communicated.

Jen (00:00:45)
Hello and welcome to another episode of Let’s Talk SciComm. Last week Michael and I had the huge pleasure of introducing you to renowned climate scientist Professor David Karoly. We had a really great chat with David all about his career journey, how he became a climate scientist and how he actually went from being a climate change sceptic to changing his mind based on the data that he saw. And it was really fascinating to hear his story. So if you haven’t listened to last week’s episode yet, please do that right now and then come back to this episode because it’s Part 2 of our chat with David.
So let’s pick up right where we left off. David, we finished Part 1 of our chat with you telling us that the data that you saw convinced you that greenhouse gas emissions were driving global warming. And then after changing your mind, you went about trying to change other people’s minds. And your communication of climate science is really what we want to focus on in this episode.
And one of the things that you’ve done so successfully is to bring climate change science into the political sphere. And as we talked about, you spent many years as a highly successful academic. And one of the things that we get to enjoy as academics is freedom of speech. We’re allowed to comment on politics. But of course, you moved from the academic sector to take up a government position at CSIRO. And at that point you weren’t free anymore to discuss government policy, which must have been a very big shift for you.
So I realise that this is a big question, but we’d love to hear your thoughts about what you were expecting when you made that shift, in terms of censorship and how you felt about it.

David (00:02:51)
Uh, yeah. And that’s a really interesting question. I’m gonna talk about if you like, two different phases in my career. I mean, I had the academic freedom that you were talking about. But my first experience in providing direct policy advice was when I returned to Australia in 2007, having been in the United States, criticised the Victorian Government, which was a Labor government at the time for lack of action on climate change and was then invited to become chair of the Premier’s Reference Group on Climate Change.
The opportunity that I had there was to provide advice to the premier and the relevant department in the state government at the time was what should the Victorian Government targets be for emission reductions? And we argued for very strong emission reduction targets both by 2020 and 2030. This was way back in 2007 and 2008. Remarkable thing is now we are past 2020, Victorian government reached those targets through policies on emission reductions. So that was a great success. But it was also a great opportunity for me to learn about how policy framing, policy setting can work, how using the science to provide evidence to support whatever recommendations we were making was critically important. And I learned that doing things within the government can actually be… or within government framework can be really successful.
But you asked, what happened when I moved to CSIRO? I moved to CSIRO in 2018 with my eyes wide open. I read the public comment policy and the Code of conduct in CSIRO. I knew what I was going to be allowed to do and not allowed to do. And I made sure that while I was employed in CSIRO over that four-year period I would do everything possible to communicate to state governments and the federal government all of the findings on climate change impacts and climate change solutions, as well as on climate change science from the IPCC assessments, as well as any other assessments that were being undertaken in the research centre that I was leading.
I believe that was very, very successful. We had interactions with businesses, with local government, state government, federal government, with communities. I spent a lot of my time because in that position, I was basically funded to be the spokesperson for the research centre and I was, actively. But I just wasn’t allowed to tell the government that their policy on climate change emissions reductions was completely inappropriate and was going to make the problem worse.
I could say that privately and I could say what Australia was doing wasn’t consistent with what other countries were doing, but I wasn’t able to criticise the government. When I left CSIRO, when I retired at the end of January, I was much more open and I’ve been much more open in the last six months with making comments which have been very critical. And I was very pleased to see that the Australian population voted in a government that is much more willing to address climate change as a major issue for Australia and the world, and has much stronger targets, back to the targets that were recommended by the Climate Change Authority back in 2012.

Jen (00:06:23)
And if only we hadn’t lost that decade in between of no action.

David (00:06:26)
Look, you’re absolutely right there. And unfortunately, it’s even worse than that, because the problem is associated with the cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide. And it wasn’t just 10 years of lost time in action, it was ten years of continued emissions and growing emissions from Australia and around the world. And that means 10 years of making the problem worse.
And the only way we can solve this is when we get to zero emissions and then suck out some of the extra carbon dioxide that’s been added into the atmosphere. This is a ongoing problem that depends on the cumulative emissions from all countries and all individuals. The good news is every time we don’t emit carbon dioxide, it’s part of the solution, but we have to get to zero emissions.

Michael (00:07:21)
So David, I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about climate change deniers. And I know the science has been conclusive for a long time, but debate and disagreement and many shades of those that are much scarier have run rife in the community.
You’ve had some pretty high-profile encounters with climate change deniers. And I think the most well-known example is your interview with Alan Jones, which has actually been described not as an interview, but part interrogation, part harangue. Just curious to get your thoughts on what your interactions with climate change deniers have been like. You know, what’s your motivation for doing that and what have you learned from it?

David (00:08:00)
Look that’s, that’s a really good question. And what I was doing was essentially responding to a request from Alan Jones’s producer. And almost 99 times out of 100, I would have said no. But, and there’s a really, really important “but” here. Alan Jones had been having a series of climate change denier scientists who were supporting Alan Jones’s views and Alan Jones’s view is that climate change [due to] human activity or climate change due to increase in greenhouse gases was a hoax, is still a hoax. And he still promotes the view that the climate change scientists are in it to make money out of research grants or whatever else it is.
Way back in 2011, Alan Jones called… or his producers contacted me and I agreed to be on the program because he had contacted five other climate scientists. They all said they wouldn’t go on the program. And I knew that there was a complaint that had been made about Alan Jones’s misinformation, about climate change science. And that complaint would not gain any credit. Alan Jones’s response was going to be, “Well. I tried to get climate change scientists on my program and none of them would appear.”
So what can I do? You know, I’ve tried everything and he would continue to have climate change deniers on his programs and only climate change deniers. When Alan Jones contacted me, I was advised not to do it by a media adviser. But then when I explained the reason that I was sort of stuck between a rock and a hard place. I needed to get advice on well, how would I best do it? The advice was whatever you do, you’re not speaking to Alan Jones, you’re speaking to his audience.

Jen (00:09:50)
Which, for overseas listeners, we should point out, who’ve never heard of Alan Jones. This is somebody who it might sound a bit crazy, but it has a huge following, is an absolute shock jock who is, is absolutely beloved by his audience.

David (00:10:03)
That’s correct. And and shock jock is exactly the description that’s appropriate for him. Is like many shock jocks in the United States and on radio or television. And in the United Kingdom, he makes business of misrepresenting information to suit his interests or priorities or whatever he has.
I was told, “Speak to his audience. Whatever you do, don’t get angry. If at all possible, agree with him on some minor points, but come back to the two or three key points that you want to make.” And that’s true of all interviews, but it was even more important in this. Don’t get angry. Stick your key points. And reiterate the key points at the beginning, in the middle and at the end, over and over again.
And it worked because yes, Alan Jones had a go at me. Yes, I got tangled a little bit with some of the things that he threw at me. Bottom line was at the end of it he gave me… And yes, he interrupted me all the time. And it yes, it was covered in Media Watch’s separate program about all the things that he did to me.
It was a great training exercise, not for me, but for other people about how to handle a sort of antagonistic interview and how to handle a shock jock. It’s also important to recognise a final thing.
A year later, another complaint was made about Alan Jones from the Australian Communications and Media Authority. And he was banned from the radio for two weeks and sent to factual accuracy retraining, because I had provided to Alan Jones the mistakes that he was making in writing back to his producer and Alan Jones. And that information was made publicly available through a range of websites as to why Alan Jones was wrong.

Michael (00:12:05)
Hmm yeah, and I like the end of that email that says “Given Alan’s obvious interest in the interview to get the numbers correct and confirmed by me, I am sure he will be keen to admit his mistake on air and give a correction.”

David (00:12:16)
Which did not happen, but he was sent for factual accuracy retraining.

Michael (00:12:23)
Yeah, a good outcome.

Jen (00:12:26)
Which is an incredible outcome, David. I mean, something to be incredibly proud of. But listening to you, it strikes me that you know, we can laugh about it now, although it must have been really very confronting at the time.
But you know, we can laugh about this. But the scary fact is that the way you’ve gone about engaging with climate deniers and their audiences, you’ve not just ruffled feathers and raised the ire of someone like Alan Jones, but you’ve also received threats to your life.
And I can’t imagine how terrifying that was. I don’t know, are you able to tell us a little bit about what happened and whether that experience made you rethink your commitment to sharing the climate change message so publicly?

David (00:13:03)
So that’s a really important question. I think it also is, is fine for me to share it more widely. Back in 2009 and 10, in fact, even well before the Alan Jones interview, there were groups in the Australian government and within the Australian population who were keen to see stronger action on climate change. And the Australian government was recommending the introduction of a carbon price system on the use or release of greenhouse gases from fossil fuels into the atmosphere, from industrial activity and all sorts of things.
And the fossil fuel companies thought that this was going to mean that they would lose their jobs. They did not want David Karoly or others to say that there should be dramatic reductions in fossil fuel use in Australia. And in particular, they did not want the climate science to point out the errors in the arguments from climate change deniers.
So whenever I was on radio or on television pointing out that what was needed was stronger action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, I started to get threats, I started to get adverse comments. And in particular, when it got to “You should die Karoly”, and much, much worse things than that, I posted the information to the University of Melbourne Security Office. And I contacted the police, who were within two days able to track down the address and location of the person who sent the death threats.
But the advice from the police was change how you get to your office and how you get home again. Do not follow the same route. Do not have a public office. And the University Security Office said the same thing. But I said, “If I’m teaching undergraduate students and graduate students, I can’t be in a, locked in a barbed wire cage office.” The difference that was made was the University of Melbourne removed all office information about my office, what room number it was, what location it was, removed that from all the notice boards in the building that I was in. I was effectively untraceable, except by an email address. My phone number on the university website was removed as well. And the reception staff in the school that I was based in, the School of Earth Sciences, were advised and had an emergency button to contact the Melbourne University Security Office between 2009 and 2015. It was only disabled effectively when I left the University of Melbourne.
But it was a strange world we live in when people who you know, in some sense they live in a different world, but are highly opinionated and know that scientists at universities are in there to make money. I certainly didn’t make as much money as Alan Jones, and I certainly haven’t been making an enormous amount of money through my investments. But yet, yes, I did make a lot of grant money, but that grant money was used for research projects and supporting graduate students and postdocs.

Jen (00:16:08)
And so it must have been very very scary. Did you sit back and think, hang on, I care about this deeply. This is my life’s work, but I don’t care about it so much that I’m willing to lose my life over it.
Did you think about really stepping back from the public eye, or did that never crossed your mind?

David (00:16:23)
It didn’t really cross my mind. I mean yes, I did think about my personal security and my family’s security and things like that. But the other thing was that I thought, golly, if there’s this community who completely misunderstand climate change, means that I’ve got to work harder, not necessarily on changing their minds, but improving climate literacy of businesses, of communities, of local government, of… in schools. Improve that climate understanding, climate change understanding, or climate literacy.

Michael (00:17:01)
I mean, even that work I imagine is incredibly hard, especially getting the messaging right. Because is it a case where there’s a lot of bad news to communicate. I mean, you’ve been doing this for a long time. So you must have seen kind of the predictions on climate getting worse and worse. And the messaging getting more and more dire. How do you maintain optimism in the, in the face of all that and continue to communicate?

David (00:17:27)
Look, there’s a whole range of ways that I can answer that but, but you’re absolutely right. And I was described as the scariest person at the University of Melbourne. And my answer to that was “No, no, it’s not me that’s scary. My grandchildren like me reading them nursery rhymes and things like that.” But it’s the message and the impacts that are scary. And anyone presenting that message is going to be labelled as being a scary person.
We need to go from the fossil fuel age to the renewable energy age in all the different areas that we can in the next 10, 15 years. We’ve started that transformation. We need to push it. And I know that we can do it because human ingenuity and technological ingenuity, scientific solutions and engineering solutions are already available. We just need to get the policy makers to shift and implement them and support them as quickly as possible. That’s why I’m positive. That’s why I’m optimistic.
But I also find a very optimistic view. A positive view helps me to have a happier life. If I only worry about the bad things that happened, I’d probably remain in cotton wool, locked up in a small room at home and not doing anything. That’s not going to happen. I like to get out into the environment. I do love natural environments, and that’s where I get my energy. I can see how climate change is affecting natural environments.
But again, that’s what motivates me to try to do more, rather than to see that as a negative thing. It is a negative thing. But I need to do more, and I’m optimistic that we can make the problem less bad by acting more rapidly.

Michael (00:19:22)
Yeah. So David, you’re an optimistic person. So that I guess naturally seeps into your communication. But do you advise other climate scientists to bring a bit of optimism into their messaging as well?
Because I imagine one of the risks is if the message is too dire, will people think it’s a geophysical impossibility to, to make this change at some point?

David (00:19:44)

Michael (00:19:45)
You know, what’s the point in, what’s the point in trying?
I mean is that, is that ever a consideration?

David (00:19:50)
Yes it is. And I completely agree that putting some sort of positive messaging at the end of my talks is critically important. Whether it’s me doing it or another person doing it, I try to make sure that I include some positive messaging. It isn’t a geophysical impossibility. The tricky part is, is it a social and political impossibility? That’s a much harder thing for me to control.
But what I’ve learnt here is that social change can also happen rapidly with social movements like the Me Too movement. Or the, if you like recognition of indigenous communities and racial injustices that have happened. Those sorts of movements to recognise those inequalities are suddenly rapidly changing.
And and the other thing is basically it didn’t take long for the sorts of political changes from the election in 2019 to the election in [20]22 in Australia that led to a massive change in the voting result for an Australian government.
Now admittedly, it could reverse again in three years’ time depending on what happens, but I’m not going to anticipate that. I am looking forward to an ongoing Australian population and global population that’s keen to promote ongoing action to limit global warming.

Jen (00:21:18)
David I’m, I’m also an optimist. So I’m gonna join you in thinking that that is very likely to be the case at this point, rather than us seeing a reversal.
But David, I want to finish with you know, we began our first episode conversation with you about your incredible retirement celebration. And you must have had opportunity to really reflect on the legacy of what you’ve already done. And obviously you still have plenty of time left to continue doing incredible work.
But I’d love to hear what your advice is for younger scientists. Because you know, I could imagine a young scientist might be sitting there thinking Well, that’s wonderful for you David. But you know I, I don’t have your credibility. I’ve got a lot more to lose in terms of my reputation or my future opportunities. I, I want to communicate some sort of controversial science, but I’m frightened to do so.
You know how…. What’s your advice to young people who, they’ve gone into science ’cause they want to make a difference in the world. They want to communicate effectively. But it’s a complicated thing, isn’t it?

David (00:22:14)
It is. And I mean, all science is complicated. But I think there are a whole range of approaches and and advice that I give. And the first thing is, don’t try to do what David Karoly does now without your having first of all a really good mentor or set of mentors and advisors on your media or communication strategy. And you need to do some training and some practice. You’re not going to win Wimbledon tennis the first time you pick up a tennis racket. You’re going to need to spend years of practice and years of training with coaches. And that’s essentially what I did.
And effectively what that did together with the peer reviewed scientific journal papers was to develop essentially armour plating around my body and my brain that allowed me to do the science so that the barbs and arrows from media or from climate change deniers were having no impact. And what I was also able to do was to talk to graduate students, getting involved in community radio stations which are always keen to have people talking about topics of interest, but frame it in a way that relates to the audience. That doesn’t mean you have to have funny cats or funny dogs in the stories. But there are many, many aspects of science that everyone does that can be related to everyday activities.

Jen (00:23:59)

Michael (00:24:01)
Yeah, very important, David, you mentioned rapid transformations a while ago. Jen’s laughing because she knows where I’m going with this. Rapid transformations in, in technology.
We like to finish off our interviews with rapid fire questions, which are just some light-hearted questions. They might sound very sinister, but don’t worry.

David (00:24:31)
And do you want one word answers or three word answers?

Michael (00:24:34)
If you can keep it to half a word, I think.

David (00:24:37)

Michael (00:24:39)
No, I’m only joking.

Jen (00:24:42)
You get, you get a sentence. You get a sentence.

David (00:24:45)
Yeah, a short one.

Michael (00:24:46)
So first question David.
If you have to pick an alternative career to what you’re doing now, what would it be?

David (00:24:53)
I find the thing that I do least well, but could be a new career is in social sciences and if you like, psychology.

Jen (00:25:08)
Ooh I, I wish we had time to unpack that. ‘Cause I can absolutely understand where you’re coming from, but I’ll get in trouble with Michael if I ask you another question.
So, moving right along David, we would love to hear what your proudest professional moment has been.

David (00:25:24)
I think it’s all the graduate students that I’ve trained. And the careers and awards that they’ve received now. Including someone you mentioned right at the beginning. Linden Ashcroft, who was one of my graduate students, has won an award from the Meteorological and Oceanographic Society for her public outreach and communication activities and is a partner in the science communication activities at the University of Melbourne.

Jen (00:26:02)
She is one of our absolutely beloved and, and enormously valued colleagues. So hear, hear.

Michael (00:26:08)
Next question. Twitter or Instagram and why?

David (00:26:13)

Jen (00:26:15)
I thought you were going to say that.

Michael (00:26:18)
Why is that?

David (00:26:19)
I don’t have the time to maintain an active Twitter program because it appears to need ongoing feeding of the monster.

Michael (00:26:34)
Hmm yeah.

Jen (00:26:35)
Yeah that, that is true and and fair enough. I think your, your time is better spent elsewhere David, that would be my take on that.
But we do have a very important next question for you and that is what is your favourite science related joke or movie or book?

David (00:26:51)
I’m going to pick joke book and potential movie. And it’s Michael Crichton’s book State of Fear, which would make a fantastic movie. But I treated as a joke because the book is all fiction. The bad guys are the climate scientists and the good guys is the US Secret Service. I recommend it to anyone who wants a good laugh. And it could make a fantastic disaster movie type thing as well. But it is a real joke.

Jen (00:27:27)
‘Cause he famously… You know, he famously died as a, as a huge climate change sceptic, right?

David (00:27:32)
Oh absolutely. And was, was an expert witness to the US Senate Public Works and Environment Committee as a factual accuracy expert. They used his book. They use this book to rebut the IPCC reports because it has lots of footnotes to references.

Jen (00:27:51)
And he is a master storyteller. Even if we don’t like the you know, the story. He, he’s an incredible storyteller. So…

Michael (00:27:59)
All right. So last question David. And since we’re a science communication podcast, you’ve already given us some great advice on science communication. But if you had to pick your very top tip for effective science communication. What would it be?

David (00:28:14)
I rarely follow introduction, sorry, instructions. So I’m going to give you two pieces of advice. And I’ve given them already.
Stick to three at most key points in your science communication. And think about the audience and aim at the audience.

Michael (00:28:36)
Excellent advice.

Jen (00:28:37)
Stellar, stellar advice David. And we just can’t thank you enough for the time that you’ve given us over these podcast episodes because your story is an incredible one. And the wealth of knowledge you’ve amassed not only as a scientist but as a science communicator is really something to behold.
So thank you for sharing all of your insights with us. I feel like we could do another 5 or 10 or 15 episodes with you. But we’re very grateful for your time. And I just can’t wait for everyone to listen.

David (00:29:05)
Thank you very much, Jen and Michael. It’s been fun doing this.
And enough jokes and enough smiles from both of us. So look, it’s been great. Thank you.

Michael (00:29:15)
It’s been a pleasure. Thanks so much, David.

Michael (00:29:39)
Thanks for listening and thanks also to our wonderful production team, Stephanie Wong and Steven Tang for making these episodes happen behind the scenes. And thanks also to you, our listeners for your support.
If you are enjoying these episodes, you can help spread the word by telling a friend about Let’s Talk SciComm or even sharing one of our episodes.
But that’s all for this week. We’ll be back in your feed next Tuesday. See you then.