The New York Times
A Biden Administration Strategy: Send In The Scientists
More than a decade ago, a woman in a bar near the Columbia University campus approached Gavin Schmidt and asked if he knew the main component of air. “Yes, nitrogen,” he replied. His answer made him lose a bet on whether the average stranger at the bar would know anything about atmospheric chemistry. Two years later, they were married. Sometimes the nerds win. Today, Schmidt is one of the foremost scientists warning the world about the risks of a warming world. He was recently appointed to a newly created position as NASA Senior Climate Advisor, a job that comes with the challenge of bringing NASA’s climate science to the public and helping figure out how to apply it to save the planet. Sign up for the New York Times’ The Morning newsletter Schmidt, who has led NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies since 2014, will work with an administration that is making the fight against climate change one of its priorities. Biden’s team is adding positions across government for legislators and experts like Schmidt who understand the threats facing our planet. “Climate change is not just an environmental problem that belongs to the EPA, it is not just a scientific problem that belongs to NASA and NOAA,” said Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University. “Climate change is a problem for everything,” he said, and “must be considered by every federal agency.” President Joe Biden returned the United States to the Paris climate accord on his first day in office and has signed stacks of executive orders to begin undoing the Trump administration’s rollbacks of more than 100 environmental rules. In announcing Schmidt’s appointment, NASA Acting Administrator Steve Jurczyk said: “This position will provide critical insights and recommendations for NASA leadership for the full spectrum of agency science, technology, and infrastructure programs related to the weather”. In announcing the new position, which does not come with a separate budget or staff, Jurczyk said the job will be to “promote and participate in climate-related investments” in the agency’s earth science work and help explain to the world what NASA research and technological development related to climate. The space agency, which launches the satellites that monitor the conditions of the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, snow, ice and more, is one of the sources of the hard science that informs us all about climate change. But its leaders have sometimes had a hard time talking about it. “Not all administrations were interested in calling it ‘climate change,’ the Trump administration most notably,” said Lori Garver, a former NASA deputy administrator who is now CEO of Earthrise, a nonprofit that promotes the use of satellite data to address global warming. Garver said she was “delighted” with Schmidt’s appointment, calling it a message that “this will be one of NASA’s top priorities.” He said that while the agency has provided important scientific data to help understand warming, it has not been deeply involved enough in finding solutions. She compared the situation to what could happen if scientists at the National Institutes of Health studied cancer but did not try to find cures. With a more aggressive attitude, he said, “we can count on the brilliant scientists at NASA to do more than just take action.” Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson called the new position “long overdue,” but added that the position will be more meaningful if Schmidt “is granted routine access to Congress and the president.” Why? Because “NASA itself,” he said, “is not the one that needs advice on climate change.” Schmidt has written about 150 scientific papers and has an active and sometimes scathing presence on social media. At the Goddard Institute, he led the development of one of the most authoritative models of Earth’s climate system. When scientists tell us that climate trends are attributable to human-generated greenhouse gases, they are based in part on Schmidt’s work. On a bright and icy recent morning, Schmidt sat down for a socially distanced interview on a bench overlooking Harlem Meer in Central Park in New York City and talked about the new job. “Climate change changes what to worry about,” he said, and the space agency can help the nation and the world discover what we all need to know. That includes things like “How do we speed up the information you need to build better coastal flood defenses?” and “What do we really understand about the intensification of precipitation? How can we predict that in the future?” He will not have budgetary power or armies of workers under his command. Instead, you will have to trust your voice. “Having people who know from scratch how science works is helpful when you’re in a room full of legislators.” If officials ask, “Could science provide this?” He said, “the answer may be ‘well, yes, no. Not really. But we could do this, this is the kind of question we could answer ‘”and suggest parts of NASA that could work on the problem. Schmidt didn’t always seem destined for such heights. He grew up in a town outside Bath, England, and his first ambition was to live elsewhere. Being good at math brought him to Oxford on a scholarship. After graduation, he wasn’t sure what to do next, and he “went around the world” for two years, working a variety of odd jobs: driving cars for Avis, picking grapes in Australia. After a while, he admitted to being bored. “I said, well, the most intellectual thing I’m doing is the weekly crossword puzzle at The Guardian.” So he went to University College London, as he tells it himself, and asked if he could enter a PhD program. They scoffed because the deadline had passed, but suggested that I speak to a researcher who needed a graduate student. “He said, ‘When can you start?’” The researcher needed someone with mathematical skills for his work on the ocean’s subsurface waves. Schmidt found that he enjoyed research and also found that “people are much more interested in the oceans than they are in mathematics.” He would go on to lead the development of the Goddard Institute’s Earth System Model, a huge computer program that can simulate the planet’s climate system and can show how phenomena like rising carbon dioxide levels cause warming. Over time, he turned to so many fields that he had to become a climate scholar, focused broadly rather than delving into a single topic, as many experts do. It helped him become a gifted science communicator. In 2004, he helped start a blog, Real Climate, in hopes of explaining climate science to the general public and science journalists. But an additional audience was paying attention: other scientists. “One of the big surprises that came out of that was how many other climate scientists really needed help understanding climate science” beyond their own fields, he said. When the American Geophysical Union presented its first climate communication award in 2011, it went to Schmidt for having “transformed the climate dialogue on the web,” the group said in their appointment. Everything Schmidt has done came together, he said, and that even includes his ability to juggle, a hobby he took up in high school. Thinking back then, he recalled, “Oh, that will come in handy for women.” He honed his juggling skills over the years, beginning in Australia when he lived with a juggling busker. Today, he credits the hobby with helping him develop the confidence it took to perform in front of crowds – his 2014 TED talk has been viewed 1.3 million times. “It turns out that the things I spent time doing, learning, or practicing played a role in helping that evolution,” he said. He also learned the unicycle, which in turn got him into the sport of unicycle hockey, which is pretty much what it sounds like. He played on the British national championship team for the sport, breaking an arm at one point. Joshua Wolfe, who wrote a book with Schmidt on climate change and is a member of the Carmine Street Jugglers group in Greenwich Village, said Schmidt’s efforts to teach the world about global warming have not been free. Schmidt, like other top climate scientists, has come under fire from the denial community, which has been subjected to efforts through the courts to gain access to their private email accounts, allegedly to unearth evidence of scientific fraud. Those harassment presentations were unsuccessful and no fraud was proven, but the campaign of attacks hurt. “He paid an emotional price,” Wolfe said. “It is exhausting being the target of litigation” and being attacked on social media and by hackers. Wolfe helped found the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, which helps scientists who have been attacked. “With her modeling skills, she could have made 10 times her salary 130 blocks south of Wall Street. He chose to communicate the science despite the very real personal costs to do so. “Now every year, on the Tuesday two weeks before Good Friday, the anniversary of the night Schmidt met his future wife, he posts innocuous tweets about the Nitrogen, with the hashtag #NitrogenTuesday. Sitting on the bench, Schmidt pointed to a fluttering cardinal and worried aloud that people would try their luck by stepping out onto the icy surface of Harlem Meer. “I wouldn’t bet my life on that.” he said, and saw another hiker on the ice. “There are a lot of people who are not making sensible decisions,” he said. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.