Four of Colorado’s top climate scientists on grief, activism and hope.
“Science is an alloy of heart and mind, factual and personal all at once.” – Alan Townsend
Science, they say, is a left-brained endeavor. But, in light of the People’s Climate March and March on Science over the past two weekends, The Colorado Independent sought out some decidedly right-brained conversations with Coloradans working in various capacities around federally funded climate change research. Here’s what four of them had to say about climate activism, the role of earth scientists in a purportedly “post-truth” era, and how they’re coping as the planet warms yet politics and policy chill to their work.
Alan Townsend knows all too well that some afflictions can’t be healed. He needs to believe that climate change isn’t among them.
The ecologist and associate vice chancellor for research at the University of Colorado at Boulder has a 7-year-old who developed a brain tumor as a toddler. A year after Neva’s brain surgery at age 4, his wife, fellow scientist Diana Nemergut, was diagnosed with a different type of brain tumor – the worst kind, glioblastoma – from which she died 16 months ago. Then Neva’s tumor came back, requiring another brain surgery earlier this year.
Science, he knows, has limits as well as promises.
Yet for someone so unlucky in the morbidity lottery, Townsend is keenly grateful for the scientific advances that bought his family more time together. He credits his wife’s experimental treatment for extending by one year a life that could have ended days after her diagnosis. And he thanks evolving cancer research for keeping Neva alive and thriving.
He’s counting on ever-evolving medical science to keep her that way, and on ever-evolving earth science to do the same for the planet she inhabits.
“Here’s Neva, who has gone through so many things that are so incredibly tough. We can’t just hand her over to a world around her that we’re not healing,” he says.
An expert in ecosystem ecology, Townsend (pictured above with his daughter) returned to CU this year after having served as dean of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, director of the Division of Environmental Biology at the National Science Foundation, and director of CU Boulder’s Environmental Studies program. He has spent his career studying how ecosystems interact with a changing global environment and why this matters to human health.
His years grappling with his wife’s and daughter’s cancers – as well as those of his grandmother and both his parents – have informed his work, teaching him that science isn’t just a compendium of data, but “an alloy of heart and mind, factual and personal all at once.”
He has come, for example, to understand the tendency toward denial, and that “people don’t want a cloud over them all the time about all these terrible things that can happen.”
“That’s a lousy way to live your life,” he says.
Yet he decries the exploitation of that tendency for political gain, calling politically-motivated attacks on science “metastatic.”
“When climate science is thrown under the bus, when lifesaving vaccines are painted as dangerous, when science is chewed up in the ugly machinations of partisan politics and when the most basic truths of our world are twisted and ignored, it weakens the entire infrastructure and threatens society as a whole,” he wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece that’s worth reading, then reading again.
Most indelibly, he has come to learn that when there are things we know that could be making a difference, we need to use them, and that the best measure of people, individually and as a society, “is often not what we do in our average, ordinary days, but what we do in our hardest times.”
“This is where I find my hope,” he says. “It is our job to help not only diagnose the problem, but also provide meaningful paths toward making it better.”
On Saturday, those paths led Townsend on an annual run with friends in Boulder to benefit brain tumor research and commemorate his wife, and later to Denver to march for climate action with his daughter.
There’s no choice, he says, but to keep moving forward.
The catcher in the rye
Josh Tewksbury came to his job the long way.
The former University of Washington ecologist spent 10 years researching why chilies are hot. His many trips through the forests of central Bolivia gave him a poignant look at organisms and ecosystems withering from climate change. For him, questions about the heat of the peppers came to seem far less burning than those about the heat of the planet.
Tewksbury – 47 and now director of Future Earth’s U.S. hub at the University of Colorado and Colorado State University – shifted his focus to global sustainability out of a sense of weary responsibility he likens to that of Holden Caulfield, the teenage narrator of “Catcher in the Rye.” He cites the title passage in which Caulfield imagines standing in a field of ryegrass surrounded by younger children.
“Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”
In Tewksbury’s version of the rye field, the kids are peppers, plants, critters and ecosystems strained by changing climate patterns. The cliff is the point on the climate trajectory beyond which they won’t survive. As he tells it, “Scores of scientists are alone out there in the ryegrass trying to save this species or that incredibly complex ecosystem that they’ve spent their lives understanding, and at this point they’re at a loss about why all this understanding is not enough to allow these things to last another generation.”
There’s something manic about Tewksbury – his rush of speech and urgency of tone, his impatience, it seems, with the knowledge that, as you’re asking questions and as he’s answering, some species is in its last gasp because, despite ample evidence, scientists couldn’t convince a policy-maker to save it.
It’s lonely, he says, to research a problem, identify its cause, and prove it with sound evidence, only to realize that isn’t enough to prompt political action. His job, and the mission of Future Earth, is to harness that loneliness and organize some 50,000 scientists around the world to combine their efforts so that when science is produced, policymakers heed it, regardless of whether the truth revealed is inconvenient.
In case Tewksbury isn’t getting his point across, he cites a study showing that 51 percent of Americans don’t know there’s a scientific consensus that climate change is real and human-caused. What he calls “very crafty opposition messaging” by corporate and political interests still manages to convince a slight majority – including his own mother-in-law – that climate change is theory rather than fact.
This hurts Tewksbury’s head.
“When people you love are making decisions that have a direct impact on your children, it’s demoralizing and antithetical to a democracy and actually very hard to counter because as long as people believe there’s no scientific consensus, there will be no mandate to act.
“So if I’m honest, really honest about how this impacts me, it’s a deep disappointment in our country and in our inability to recognize facts when we see them and distinguish them from statements that are politically expedient. It makes me mad, very mad because the consequences of this one are so broad.”
Tewksbury is at his best channeling his inner-Holden Caulfield. In his anger, his breathless indignation, the hot pepper researcher has found his calling in the slow burn of the global sustainability movement to which he’s marshaling scientists who have nothing to lose but their loneliness.
The marcher who didn’t march
Judging from his credentials, you’d figure Peter Backlund would have rallied for science last weekend as he has for decades within federal labs, agencies and even the White House.
But Backlund stayed home in Boulder nursing a cold and licking his wounds, convinced that waving signs won’t heal what’s ailing the planet and his profession.
“Marching is not a solution. It is a symbolic act. I feel like it’s a bit too easy,” he said between coughs and sneezes.
Backlund, 56, has built a career on the right-brained practice of explaining why the fruits of left-brained inquiry matter. He was a senior advisor in the Clinton White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, worked at NASA and spent twelve years helping run the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder before joining Colorado State University’s School of Global Environmental Sustainability as associate director. He has fought his whole career for scientific research, especially on climate change, and for its use informing public policy.
Scientists are nothing if not pragmatic. And from a practical standpoint, Backlund suspects that the marches for science and climate action in April gave participants a false sense that, by attending rallies, they’ve done what they can to help preserve federally funded research and defend the values behind it. He winces at the thought of marchers shrugging off their activism like an old pussy hat.
“It won’t amount to anything if they don’t get more deeply involved and stay involved.”
Involved, as he sees it, entails sustained engagement working to elect candidates whose policy decisions pivot on evidence and facts, and working to elect more scientists in particular. It means attending city council and county commission meetings, bending the ears of state lawmakers, showing up at the Rotary Club, the Elks Club, building trust as citizen scientists who do research for reasons beyond just that it’s interesting. He urged his students to march Saturday if they were inspired, but also to work well beyond one rally spreading awareness about how their research – or any solid research – promotes understanding and progress.
For Backlund, the Trump administration’s climate change scepticism isn’t just an attack on research and global sustainability, but also a denunciation of intellectualism, expertise, and evidence-based policy-making. He says the cuts Trump has threatened on environmental and medical research stem less from underestimating the value of those inquiries than from a perceived threat posed by “an elite profession with elite knowledge.”
“There has always been a segment of the population that is hostile to science, universities, and ‘experts.’ Many politicians have pandered to this segment. But this administration feels like it is taking anti-intellectual sentiment to a new level. This scares me as much as budget cuts,” he said.
And so Backlund worries.
He worries that the spectacle of scientists marching last weekend might backfire, spurring even more misperceptions that scientists are driving a globalist conspiracy to take away people’s cars, jobs and profits.
He worries that, in crying out against budget cuts, scientists will seem like an elite group merely trying to preserve their elite status at tax-funded research universities and federal labs.
He worries about Donald Trump making things up, especially about climate change. During Backlund’s years advising Bill Clinton’s administration on science policy, he said, “The one thing we did more than anything was to make sure the President always had the correct information.”
“We would have felt physical pain if the President said something wrong,” he added. “How can you have an administration in which being correct, factually correct, isn’t valued?”
He also worries about his own credibility. Although he backed Hillary Clinton – and was part of the team helping craft her climate change policies – he took a measured view of 2016’s election in his professional life, assuring CSU students, colleagues and visiting researchers that science policy pendulums long have swung back and forth and that “Republicans have done a lot of great things for the environment.” Five months later, he cringes at the memory of his optimism.
“Now I’m pretty sure those people are thinking ‘Wow, that guy is really an idiot’,” he said. “I now feel more worried about the political situation in the United States than I’ve felt in my entire life.”
Backlund struggles with this dark view, his inability to offer young researchers a sunnier forecast about their careers. He’s tempted to “shake people” about threats of Trump’s apparent science agenda, and to shout, “This is just the beginning, this is just getting started.” But nobody wants to be the one squawking that the sky is falling.
He’s well aware that, just when a pro-science megaphone is perhaps most needed, he’s hesitant to use it. Why is it, he was asked, that he has marched for women’s rights, against wars, and even as a young boy behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Albuquerque, but sat out this months marches?
He paused before answering.
“It’s weird, I know. I know it’s weird,” he said. “I guess I’m more comfortable marching for other people’s causes than for my own.”
The risk taker
Things are stressful these days at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, and not just because of its ever-mounting evidence that the planet is overheating.
Scientists throughout NCAR’s campus are on edge anticipating Trump-era budget cuts that may slash their research and many of their jobs.
One of them, Sociologist Paty Romero Lankao has worked nearly 11 years at NCAR studying the human dimensions of energy and water consumption, urban development and climate change. Like her colleagues, she long ago understood the climate trajectory as the factual baseline and primary challenge of her work. It motivates rather than rattles her.
What’s alarming, she says, is that years of quantifiably verified evidence apparently aren’t enough to affect policy in a country to which she immigrated because of the value it once put on research. What hurts is realizing her work isn’t making enough impact.
It’s tempting to suck it up and keep quiet, as some of her colleagues have advised. And on a few mornings, “there has been the urge to leave, or just give up.” But most days she has a stronger impulse to speak up and fight.
“I can understand if people say they don’t care about science. But I can’t understand anyone saying they don’t care about science and nobody else should, either,” she said.
“About that, I can’t stay quiet.”
And so, in her rain boots, poncho and “Forget princess. I want to be a scientist” T-shirt, Romero Lankao set out with her husband and daughter for Denver last weekend to make some noise. She was buoyed by the crowds and humbled by so many non-scientists marching in support of research like hers and the principles behind it – ideas she realizes “aren’t so sexy” that they typically inspire action.
She delighted in demonstrators’ energy and creativity. “The signs. Oh, I love the signs,” she said, noting with a loud and glorious belly laugh one particular that read, “Earth is not flat. Neither is Uranus.”
She was especially fond of a sign reading, “Climate Change is Real. Denial is Deadly,” for which she complimented the woman carrying it. The woman handed it to her. The 54-year-old researcher waved it with pride and incredulity. She’d never expected to be marching for facts.
Romero Lankao realizes there are risks to speaking out against the administration that signs her paychecks. She has taken such risks before, both as a graduate student and as a professor in Mexico where she spoke against corruption in her academies. She lost the grad school job. As for the professorship, she quit and left Mexico in search of a place to research with integrity.
In her work at NCAR, she studies the ways people in different urban areas live, sleep, eat, get around and play, and which practices are more sustainable in terms of climate change than others. She suspects her research wouldn’t be much appreciated by a president who built his brand on luxury developments, a gilded airplane, and well-watered golf courses.
“It’s not desirable under this administration. In this political climate, it’s not welcome. I know how they look at me. I know I represent someone who threatens to take away their freedoms,” she said of a collective “they” who, sooner or later, she understands may try to silence her.
She figures at some point the risk of losing her job is outweighed by the risk of keeping quiet. If she has learned anything as a researcher, it’s that facts don’t change by ignoring them.
“It’s like journalists, you’re also being attacked on those grounds – that facts, uncomfortable ones, aren’t tolerated. What do you do? Would you let this happen? Stay silent? No. You’d feel the need to speak out about the problems we see in front of us. We are not only scientists. We are citizens, people. We feel. We dream.
“And we live here, like everyone else.”
Photos courtesy of Alan Townsend, Josh Tewksbury, Peter Backlund and Paty Romero Lankao.
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