January 12, 2015

On the 12th day of Christmas, I reflect on this past year

Embracing change

My colleagues have been asking me why I have not written a blog in a long time. It's been a tough year. My goal was to write science articles and then more science articles. Between bugs in our simulation model that needed fixing and delayed obtaining reliable results, climate data from reliable sources that also included bugs to fix, my writing experience has been write, re-write, and re-re-write . I cancelled trips and meetings to focus.

But how do you justify spending valuable time writing while media, polls, blogs, conversations with managers tell you that no one reads science articles anyway? Yes, funding agencies require publications.  Yes, as a scientist your reputation is based on what you have written not what you have said.  But in the end, did the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports make a big difference in the world's attitude towards climate change? In other countries than ours yes, they did.  But in the United States - a picture is worth a thousand words - Gore was more effective with a movie and James Balog's movie “Chasing Ice” was showed at the White House and the United Nations. To be effective as a climate change scientist, should I become a movie-maker or a photographer and spend less time writing?

Now, I work with a superb team of committed individuals who want to bring to the web the information needed to make informed decisions about the environment. They design web sites and tools to help deliver the holy-grail, usable actionable climate change information. Are we really making a difference by trying to package complex academic information that is probably at the wrong scale for anyone to really notice? What can people get out of it when they access it through their 5x3 phone screens? A whole suite of folks are designing games (also see Ecomobile and Ecomuve) to not only increase awareness to environmental problems but show players possible solutions to simple environmental problems. To bring them into systems they feel they can control at some level. Other programmers design virtual reality games to provide folks with near "real life" experiences in environments where their actions count. 

Everyone is trying to overcome the inertia that, in my mind, has been caused by the constant doom-and-gloom stories told by the media and the incessant message from deniers that the stories are overblown and irrelevant to day-to-day life. What to do to make a difference and get people engaged in responsible behavior to avoid the tragedy of the commons? My suggestion is to hang out with the creative minds and help the wave of enthusiastic, positive young minds ready to change the world. As you get old, you get tired of trying and it is important to hang out with young energetic people who think they can. People win elections on that ticket. So it is important when your own energy fails, when the news is dark, to work with people who know they can make a difference. This is why I continue to teach on campus, organize seminars, go to conferences to meet those young positive minds, work with programmers excited about creating cool software. 

As scientists we have an incredible advantage:  we are curious. And to tell you the truth, this whole climate change business is a fantastic opportunity to see what no human has seen before; to stand on the shoulders of giants who have identified the building blocks of healthy ecosystems; to try and understand what is changing, why, how, and where critical thresholds might hide. When I was a postdoctoral fellow, I used to make fun of my advisor who went home with his Science journal and read it like a newspaper - at home! Guess what, every week a new Science magazine comes out, and I am so excited to find out the latest climate change "news". Because scientists are documenting the changes, new technology is providing fantastic images of this changing world, we are learning every day about how systems are "evolving". It is an amazing opportunity to be able to see so much change all during one's career. 

I keep going, trying to juggle as many balls in the air as I can: writing, talking, teaching, helping design web tools, searching for new effective ways to pass on the message that climate change brings us challenges that creativity and collaboration can address. We all live on this planet, we all share the air and the water, we should rejoice that we are alive to see so many changes and that we have technology to innovate and try to find solutions to the most egregious problems to our societies. Otherwise bacteria, viruses, plants and animals will survive, maybe not the ones we know today, maybe not like what existed when the dinosaurs roam the planet, but unless men blow up the planet or an asteroid destroys it, life will continue in exciting new ways we can keep discovering …

About the author:
Dominique Bachelet, Ph.D.
Senior Climate Change Scientist, Team Lead- Global Change
Dominique is a Senior Climate Change Scientist at CBI. She works extensively with a variety of climate scenarios to explore climate change impacts.
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