Global climate talks among government leaders are underway in Scotland for the next two weeks under the auspices of the UN’s 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26). Here at home, there is a small group of climate scientists whose focus is more domestic. They call themselves Science Moms. They came together to help other “everyday moms” who may not be confident in their knowledge of climate change to fight for their kids’ futures by “demanding solutions” for a sick planet.
Kids’ Futures Are in Question; These Moms Have Answers
As a mom in Arizona, Joellen Russell grew worried in recent summers when she had to wake her children at 5 a.m. so they could have some outdoor playtime before temperatures rose and the air quality plummeted. As a climate scientist, that worry was exacerbated by her professional understanding of the forces driving those conditions. Though an avowed optimist who feels we’ve already taken significant strides in addressing climate change, Russell is also a realist who acknowledges that time is critical, that “the earth is screaming.”
She has joined the fight on global warming with her own two-pronged attack: professionally, as an oceanographer working on global carbon accounting, and as part of Science Moms to educate and empower other mothers concerned about the future of the planet’s climate. Professor Russell recently spoke with Governing Editor-at-Large Clay Jenkinson.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The earth is screaming.
Governing: You’re in Arizona, one of the states that was significantly affected in August when federal officials declared a water shortage in the Colorado River. How concerned are you?
Dr. Russell: Things are worrisome here in Tucson. We drink mostly Colorado River water, which we cut with aquifer water. We’ve set up a pumping infrastructure so that everything we don’t use, we pump back in. It’s a huge deal in our dry west, but there’s a path out of this. It’s going to take a lot of effort, and it’s very likely going to anger a lot of people. Over 70 percent of the water in Arizona goes to agriculture, which is less than 3 percent of our state GDP, so there are obvious ways we could adapt to the changing climate. But it will be painful.
It’s like the beginning of World War II, when the people of the United States weren’t sure they wanted to be involved. Eventually we did because it was the best thing for all of us. But in the same manner, I understand the reluctance to get into this fight against climate change. The physics, however, are relentless. These are not facts that can be changed. The good news is that the U.S. has cut 20 percent of its emisions since 2007. We did that without organization, without direct regulations, with people just making wise, small-c conservative decisions at their businesses, at their homes, and in their communities, mostly to save a buck rather than the planet, but still with an eye to the long term.
Here in Arizona it was our grandparents and great-grandparents who built the Palo Verde nuclear power plant that gives us 43 percent of our electricity. They were looking down the pike, knowing they might not see the full benefit in their lifetimes. We are so grateful for their foresight and investment. I want my grandchildren to feel the same way about us.
“I understand the reluctance to get into this fight against climate change. The physics, however, are relentless.”
Governing: In his own recent interview with Governing, scientist James Lawrence Powell opined that until politicians begin to tell the truth, we can’t move forward. We can disagree about policy, about conservation, about which projects are the right ones, but until we get serious about this, we’re paralyzed. That doesn’t seem to be your sense of it.
Dr. Russell: Look at the evidence. We cut 20 percent of our emissions while we grew our economy and our population. We’re on the right trajectory. We just need to accelerate it. The politicians may be paralyzed, but the people on the ground are already doing it. I grew up in Alaska and Montana, where many of our family and friends are adapting to the necessary changes in water management on farms and ranches. Knowing climates saves them money. The management of planting times, what crops to grow, what contracts to take. This is the norm for climate-savvy farmers and ranchers. These are things that people who live closer to the land know already, especially here in the West where we don’t have a big ocean or massive forests. We don’t have these buffers. We’re living with the emissions from these wildfires.
“I was alarmed by these hot summers with my kids not being able to play outside.”
Governing: What’s your role in this?
Dr. Russell: I’m pushing global carbon accounting from a scientific perspective as a way to significantly reduce uncertainties. My work involves putting out robotic floats to monitor the uptake of CO2. The National Science Foundation has funded a global array of floats that are going to provide real-time monitoring. We will know what’s in the atmosphere, we will know what was burned. And we can say, to China or whomever, you burned that.
I’m also a part of Science Moms. I was alarmed by these hot summers with my kids not being able to play outside. It was Katharine Hayhoe who reached out and suggested that, as moms, we could get our fellow moms to raise their voices to make sure that our kids and our grandkids have the future that they deserve. We try to do more climate communication, breaking it down so that it’s not a partisan issue. It’s a kid’s issue. It’s a mom’s issue. We reach out to other mothers to make the science easier and more digestible so that they feel more confident in picking up that phone and calling their legislators.
You can hear Professor Russell’s dual roles in how she describes her professional role and at the same time appealing to the interests of young people. “I study the ocean’s role in climate change using super computers, robot floats and satelites.” (ScienceMoms.com)
Governing: How do we ramp things up to the point where we have a rational society listening to rational science and making thoughtful policy decisions based upon solid evidence?
Dr. Russell: This has to be a nonpartisan effort because it matters to everyone. The evidence matters. I don’t have my finger on the sensors on my robot floats. They’re just reporting the truth, which is that the ocean is warming. Fourteen percent of all our coral reefs have died in just the past 10 years because of warming. The earth is screaming. We’ve got to move past this fighting and start talking about how America can make a difference and ensure the future prosperity of its people. I worry that people won’t believe something that they’re paid not to believe.
There is a significant noise machine that is funded by folks from the fossil fuel industry whose livelihoods might be impacted. These actors are going to say what they were paid to say. I’m not paid to do this. I’m a scientist. We take academic integrity incredibly seriously, so if you put me on a stage with a paid actor who can say anything he wants, it’s not exactly a fair fight. My hands are tied. I have to show you exact and accurate information. The change in the temperature, the acidification of the ocean, the dropping pH in the ocean. All I can do is report the truth and try and reach out to my fellow moms and hope we can make it straightforward enough that they feel confident in raising their voices.
Governing: Archimedes said that if you showed him where to put the lever, he’d move the world. If climate change is the issue that is going to embrace all others, where’s the place to put the lever?
Dr. Russell: My favorite people in my community work for places like the Salt River Project, which runs the dams at our nuclear power plant, or the folks from Tucson Water who are amazing at saving water and money. Most of us are in this pragmatic middle category, even though what you hear on the news are the extremes. The reason I work so hard at global carbon accounting is that I feel like if we could turn this into a horse race, something where you can practically bet on who’s cut their emissions or who’s just burped out a bunch of our CO2, people’s competitive natures would automatically reduce emissions.
I’m working to remove the big uncertainty in the ocean. We want to do this online, with a combination of basic information in real time that everyone can see. You can click on every little float to see its data, the same way you can click on every atmospheric CO2 monitoring station. Once we have that backbone monitoring where we can attribute CO2 to individual economies, we have to combine it with the political will to save our kids, or at least save their summers. It scares me. I sent my daughter out early to ride her bike, and she came back with signs of heatstroke, nausea, dizziness, hot all over. There are lots of moms who were scared, and the polls tell us they’re persuadable, so this was the lever we picked.
Governing:Even if we got serious today, even if 90 percent of the American people got on board with a rational plan, do you see any chance that the summers are going to be any cooler over the next 15 years?
Dr. Russell: There are two parts of this. There are direct things, like reducing the carbon pollution. We’ve already cut ours, and most of the world is starting to cut theirs. There are a few outliers, but not many. Secondly, we’d need to do adaptation at the same time, with trees, better surfaces that don’t warm as much, so that as we renew our infrastructure, we don’t do it with the same old stuff that makes us hot and miserable.
If We Got Serious Tomorrow …
If we got serious tomorrow, if we got that projected two-degree increase down to a 1.5-degree increase, we keep way more of our glaciers. Sea-level rise would be much less. But there will still be damage. The worst will come when we have communities that cannot keep their homes. There are whole island nations that will have to become climate refugees. (00:57:14)
We’ve seen a decrease of 20 percent of the primary productivity of the ocean, but it could get much worse. Three billion people depend on the ocean for their livelihood or protein. These are incredible effects, but they could get much worse if we don’t actually get in front of this. It would be great if we didn’t melt all the Arctic ice. That would mean we could keep a few communities of polar bears. We’re not going to keep them all, but we could keep some. (00:58:02) We could keep some of our snow. We could keep some of the Great Barrier Reef.
Governing: This sounds like an apocalyptic world with tiny little seeds of possible renewal in a thousand years.
Dr. Russell: It’s not a thousand years. It’s a hundred years. My great-grandchildren will be there when it starts to get better. And if we really wanted to, if we could afford it, we could start doing carbon capture. It’s incredibly expensive, and I don’t want to do it until we’ve done everything we can to stop putting carbon in the air. The first issue is stopping the carbon emissions, because it’s the cheapest thing that we know works. Everything else is much more expensive, and it might not work.
Pretty much all of the science community is yelling, “mayday, mayday, mayday. We’re going down. We need to help turn the ship!” I know we sound like alarmists sometimes. But this isn’t an option. The physics is already in motion.
We have risen to challenges in the past. One of my professors was Walter Munk, the famous oceanographer. He once gave a plenary talk at Scripps with more than half of the world’s 6,000 Ph.D.-level oceanographers in the audience, and he described working on the wind/wave equations for Eisenhower in the lead-up to D-Day. His job was to determine how high the waves could be before the landing boats would swamp. The Allies wanted bad weather to deter the Luftwaffe, but not so bad that the waves would swamp the boats. Munk was the last call Eisenhower made before he made the call for “GO” on D-Day. This was oceanographic science in action.
Dr. Munk stood there before us at Scripps and said, “Hitler was my generation’s greatest challenge. Climate change is yours. You must hold the line. Help is coming. It did then, and it will now, but you have to hold the line.” You could hear the gasp from this tiny group of people that is charged with monitoring 72 percent of the Earth’s surface.
You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the new Governing podcast, “Listening to America.” Clay’s new book, “The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota,” is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and your local independent book seller.
Clay welcomes — actively solicits even — your comments and critiques of his essays, interviews and reviews. You can reach him directly by writing firstname.lastname@example.org or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.