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The New York Times

A Biden Administration Strategy: Send In the Scientists

More than a decade ago, a woman at a bar near the Columbia University campus turned to Gavin Schmidt and asked if he knew the main component of air. “Yes, nitrogen,” he replied. His answer lost her a bet about 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 most prominent scientists warning the world about the risks of a warming world. Recently he was named to a newly created position as senior climate adviser to NASA, 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 saving the planet. Sign up for The Morning newsletter from the New York Times Schmidt, who since 2014 had headed NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, will be working with an administration that is making the fight against climate change one of its priorities. The Biden team is adding positions throughout the government for policymakers and experts like Schmidt who understand the threats facing our planet. “Climate change is not only an environmental issue that belongs to the EPA, it’s not only a science issue that belongs to NASA and NOAA,” said Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University. “Climate change is an everything issue,” she said, and “it needs to be considered by every single 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 Trump administration rollbacks of more than 100 environmental rules. In announcing Schmidt’s appointment, acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk said, “This position will provide NASA leadership critical insights and recommendations for the agency’s full spectrum of science, technology and infrastructure programs related to climate.” In the announcement of the new position, which does not come with a separate budget or staff, Jurczyk said the job will be to “promote and engage in climate-related investments” in the agency’s earth science work and help explain to the world what NASA’s climate-related research and technology development do. 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 wellsprings of hard science that informs us all about climate change. But its leaders have sometimes had a difficult time talking about it. “Not every administration was 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 using satellite data to address global warming. Garver said she was “thrilled” by Schmidt’s appointment, calling it a message that “this will be a top priority for NASA.” She said while the agency has provided important science to help understand warming, it has not been involved deeply enough in the search for solutions. She compared the situation to what might happen if scientists at the National Institutes of Health studied cancer, but did not try to find cures. With a more aggressive attitude, she said, “we can count on the brilliant scientists at NASA to do more than just take measurements.” Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson called the new post “long overdue,” but added that the position will be most meaningful if Schmidt “is granted routine access to Congress and the president.” Why? Because “NASA itself,” he said, “is not the one who needs advice on climate change.” Schmidt has written some 150 scientific papers, and has an active and sometimes acerbic social media presence. At the Goddard Institute, he led development of one of the most authoritative models of Earth’s climate system. When scientists tell us that climate trends are attributable to greenhouse gases generated by humans, they are relying in part on Schmidt’s work. On a recent bright, icy morning, Schmidt sat 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 you need to worry about,” he said, and the space agency can help the nation, and the world, figure out what we all need to know. That includes things like “How do we accelerate the information that you need to build better defenses against coastal flooding?” and “What do we really understand about intensifying precipitation — how do we predict that going forward?” He will have no budgetary might, or armies of workers under him. Instead, he will have to rely upon his voice. “Having people that know from the ground up how science works is useful when you’re in a room full of policymakers.” If officials ask, “could science provide this?” he said, “the answer may be ‘well, yeah, no. Not really. But we could do this — this is the kind of question that we could answer,’” and suggest the parts of NASA that could work on the problem. Schmidt did not always seem destined for such heights. He grew up in a village outside of Bath, England, and his early ambition was to live elsewhere. Being good at math got him to Oxford on a scholarship. Upon graduating, he was not sure what to do next, and “bummed 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 in The Guardian.” So he went to University College London, as he tells it, and asked if he could enter a doctoral program. They scoffed since the deadline was long past, but suggested he talk to one researcher who happened to need a graduate student. “He said, ‘So when can you start?’” The researcher needed someone with math skills for his work on subsurface ocean waves. Schmidt found that he enjoyed the research, and also discovered that “people are a lot more interested in the oceans than they are about mathematics.” He would go on to lead development of Goddard Institute Earth System Model, an enormous 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 came to draw on so many fields that he had to become a climate polymath, broadly focused instead of drilling down on a single topic, as many experts do. It helped make him a gifted communicator of science. 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 emerged out of that was how many other climate scientists actually needed help to understand climate science” beyond their own fields, he said. When the American Geophysical Union gave out its first climate communication prize in 2011, it went to Schmidt for having “transformed the climate dialogue on the web,” the group said in its citation. Everything Schmidt has done came together, he said — and that even includes his skill at juggling, a hobby that he took up in high school, thinking at the time, he recalled, “Oh, that’s going to be helpful with the ladies.” He honed his juggling skills over the years, beginning in Australia, when he lived with a juggling busker. Today, he attributes the hobby with helping him build the confidence it took to perform before crowds — his 2014 TED Talk has been viewed 1.3 million times. “It turns out that the things that I spent time doing or learning or practicing all played a role in helping that evolution along,” he said. He also picked up unicycling, which in turn led to 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 who is a fellow member of the Carmine Street Jugglers group in Greenwich Village, said Schmidt’s efforts to teach the world about planetary warming have not been free of cost. Schmidt, like other major climate scientists, has come under attack from the denialist community, who have been subjected to efforts through the courts to gain access to their private email accounts, supposedly to unearth evidence of scientific fraud. Those harassing filings were unsuccessful, and no fraud has been shown, but the campaign of attacks stung. “He paid an emotional price,” Wolfe said. “It’s draining to be targeted with litigation” and to be attacked on social media and by hackers. Wolfe helped found the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, which helps scientists who have been targeted. “With his modeling abilities, he could have made 10 times his salary 130 blocks south on Wall Street. He choose to communicate the science despite very real personal costs to do that.” Now, every year, on the Tuesday two weeks before Good Friday, the anniversary of the evening Schmidt met his future wife, he posts innocuous tweets about nitrogen, hashtagged #NitrogenTuesday. Sitting on the bench, Schmidt pointed out a flitting cardinal and worried aloud about the people testing their luck by stepping out over the frozen surface of the Harlem Meer. “I would not bet my life on it,” he said, and spotted another ice walker. “There are a lot of people who are not making sensible decisions,” he said. This article originally appeared in The New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company