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International Women's Day 2022: Interview with Claudia Tebaldi, Climate Scientist

March 1, 2022 - March 31, 2022
1:02 AM - 11:59 PM
Online

To mark International Women’s Day 2022, the Academy looks at the pressing issues of climate change and sustainability—as well as gender equality and the role played by women scientists.

Barbara Faedda, Executive Director of the Academy, interviewed Claudia Tebaldi, climate scientist and statistician at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and coauthor of the report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC AR6 WG1), which has been called “a code red for humanity.”

 

BF

Dr. Tebaldi, you represent a community that is currently receiving a lot of attention: women scientists. In your case, moreover, the attention is linked not only to the international recognition of your research and professional efforts, but also to the centrality of climate change as an urgent issue for humanity. Can you briefly explain what you are specifically involved in and what kind of research you are currently conducting?

CT

Thank you for this opportunity, Barbara; it’s a pleasure and an honor to be answering your questions and to be featured on this day. Since about 2000 I’ve been doing collaborative research aimed at characterizing future changes in climate and their consequences for human and natural systems. Projections of future changes in the climate system are based on complex computer models simulating the Earth system. A lot of work goes into understanding these models’ strengths and weaknesses so as to characterize the most robust future changes we can expect, as a consequence of how society and economies will evolve, how energy will be produced, how people will move around, and what their diets will be. I also dabble in so-called impact research, where the changes in the climate system are studied not just to say how much warmer, or stormier, or drier our climate is going to be, but, importantly, what those changes mean for society and ecosystems, i.e., the well-being of the current and future inhabitants of Earth.

 

BF

You are one of the authors of the recent report “Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis,” which the United Nations called “a code red for humanity.” Could you summarize the most important and urgent conclusions of this document?

CT

If I had to use one single sentence, I would say that the report’s main message is that every little bit of warming counts. This is true in a way that should concern us, in the sense that with every increase of global temperatures, a host of changes will come along, with extreme phenomena getting more frequent and more intense, oceans rising, ice sheets and glaciers melting, and ecosystems threatened, as these changes could happen at a rate too fast for animals and plants to adapt. But it is also true in a way that should inspire us to act, meaning that every bit we can do to slow down warming, to avoid even a small fraction of it, will count to buy time for us and for nature: time to adapt and therefore protect ourselves from the worst consequences, and time to develop solutions that will eventually allow us to stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, and even start recapturing greenhouse gases that have already been concentrating in our atmosphere. In more concrete terms, the report says that if we want to still have a good chance to remain around 1.5C of warming (compared to pre-industrial climate) we need to start decreasing immediately our greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale, and fast, so as to get to net-zero emissions by 2050. Unfortunately, emissions are still increasing year after year.

 

BF

Notwithstanding decades of warnings—and in spite of today's severe and destructive climate events worldwide—there is enormous resistance to taking the necessary measures. I tend to put my trust in the younger generations, because in them I notice an open mind, a deep awareness, and the will to change habits for the common benefit. Do you share this picture, or do you have a different view, especially in terms of generations?

 

CT

I do tend to think that the younger generations have more energy to dedicate and deeper, truer concerns about the environment and the future of the planet. So yes, I tend to put trust in them as well. I also hope that the younger generation will be willing to try to convince their parents, their neighbors, their teachers, besides protesting the people in power. I’m a big believer in change happening organically. Or another way to say it is that I’m not optimistic about people in power making this type of policies, but I’m optimistic about change happening nonetheless, bottom up, out of concern from the people in the street, out of economic benefits and technological progress.

 

BF

You have stressed the crucial role that technology could play in opposing climate change. How could technology act more quickly and effectively? Isn't technology anyway run by politics—or do you think it could somehow get around politics?

CT

I think reality, fortunately, is showing that technologies and solutions are popping up independently of politics, at least independently of our stagnant centralized politics, mired in power struggles. There are lots of investments happening in the private sector, making the operations of industries and individual companies more sustainable and supporting innovative solutions, like clean energy and carbon capture. Some changes are also happening because of successful lawsuits against polluters. But I want to focus on the positive forces. Individuals and communities are more and more sensitive to the need to avoid waste, to be more respectful of our planet’s finite resources. So I’m optimistic about these tendencies that are happening in a decentralized way and do not need centralized policies. Of course, centralized policies would make things faster, but what’s happening meanwhile is significant nevertheless.

 

BF

Climate change research is necessarily interdisciplinary. How many types of scientific expertise do you normally collaborate with? I would presume that the network of experts is extremely international and diverse, given the global aspect of the issue. Is that the case?

CT

I have been very lucky to collaborate from the beginning with people from different disciplines and from all around the world. Importantly, over the years that increasingly means women scientists, and scientists from developing countries. We cannot underestimate the challenges of people working without the bounty of resources and access we are blessed to have in this country. Even just access to journal articles, which we take for granted will be a mouse-click away, is far from easy elsewhere. I admire their dedication and success in spite of challenges. And new perspectives, often from people on the front line of this problem, are very valuable. As for other disciplines, yes, many: besides atmospheric scientists, I have worked with glaciologists, atmospheric chemists, bio-geochemists, oceanographers (and that is just for the traditional type of physical climate research). I work with computer scientists, hydrologists, agronomists, biologists, epidemiologists, demographers, political scientists, economists, psychologists, media experts. Probably I’m forgetting someone.

You give me a chance with this question to make a larger point. Climate change impacts are not simply a function of climate events, like heat waves and storms. The impacts that will occur will depend often in equal measure on the state of society—how exposed and vulnerable populations and structures are. We tend to think that just by the fact that climate is going to become more extreme, it is a given that catastrophes will ensue, but even today many—not all, but many—of the impacts are first and foremost a consequence of poverty, lack of resources to face and adapt to climate change. Think of Hurricane Ida, which hit New York not long ago. Those most impacted, in some cases sadly so much as to lose their lives, were poor people living in basements without the appropriate protection against flooding. It is a fact that the world’s societies have progressed over the centuries: hunger is affecting fewer people than it used to, GDP per capita is increasing, and mortality and morbidity rates are going down. Climate change has the potential to slow down progress but, in most cases, not to stop it and reverse it. So we should focus many of our efforts on trying to guarantee human development, resources, and adaptation capacity to those who most need it. Many scientists in those other disciplines I listed earlier have the necessary understanding of what the crucial components of a resilient society are.

As it happens, a new report by the IPCC Working Group 2, Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, just came out on February 28. That assessment paints a more complete picture of the risk of impacts of climate change, extending the consideration beyond physical climate changes to societal and environmental conditions. I think it is fair to say that one big message coming out of that report is that those elements having to do with the human component of the problem are as important as, when not more important than, the changes we expect in terms of hot days, extreme rainfall, droughts, etc.

 

BF

Continuing with the theme of interdisciplinarity in the field of climate change, I would like to ask you how exchanges with experts in areas considered humanistic occur—if they occur at all. What kind of dialogue would you like to suggest and promote with those kinds of scholars?

CT

Personally I haven’t collaborated with those fields, but I think that the perspective and sensibilities that the humanistic disciplines engender do enrich the space of climate change research and our understanding in many ways. It’s not only cold rationality and analytical approaches that we need. It’s bringing creativity, opening up channels of communication, enlisting art and literature to express these issues and stimulate thoughts and feelings. Much of the motivation to keep this problem front and center for me is a deep concern for nature and the awful consequences of human exploitation of Earth’s limited resources. I could go about my life without really feeling personally too threatened, at least for now, by climate change. But I think we become open-minded, sensitive, and in better sync with the world in no small part thanks to our humanistic education, thanks to what a good story or a poem can teach us and make us feel. Novels and essays about climate change, art exhibits, and poetry can open perspectives that would not be as easy to gain if it were not for engaging the right part of our brain.

 

BF

Scientific communication for the general public is not always easy or clear. What is your experience in this regard? What are the key points for scientists in communicating analysis and data to nonexperts, especially when the focus of their research is imminent harm to the world's population?

CT

I have been lucky to work for a while and now collaborate regularly with an organization, Climate Central, whose mission it is to communicate the reality of climate change and its solutions to the general public. I learned a lot from this—for example, the need to clarify that climate change is a problem that is here and now, close to us individually, and not a far away, future concern. I learned that people respond better to messages that have a constructive part, that talk about solutions, besides making the problem known. I also learned that the messenger is as important as the message. People tend to listen and put their trust in messengers from their own world, aligned with their own values, part of their daily experience. That’s why it is so important to have many different types of ambassadors communicating this problem (and its solutions).

 

BF

We know that women, girls, and all children are highly affected by climate change, but it is also important here to stress the active, constructive, and crucial role of women as actors for creativity, inventiveness, and adaptation. Do you agree with those who think that this role could be an inexhaustible resource with innumerable potentialities?

CT

There are many good stories about the role of women in bringing about change that align with the direction of better resilience, more respect for the environment, and better attention to changes and their consequences. But here, if you allow me, I would like to change a bit the direction of where this is going and connect to points I was making earlier. First, progress, human and social development, goes hand in hand with better conditions and status, better education, and better jobs for women. So besides praising the role of women for what they already do, I want to underline how important it is to help women achieve independence and self-reliance, lifting them from poverty and submission, and giving them access to education. Second, women not only can serve as effective ambassadors and communicators but importantly need to be examples for other women. It is invaluable for girls to be part of a community with inspiring role models, mentors, and champions of their own gender—that shows you it is all possible.

 

BF

Do you have a specific message for young women—American, Italian, and from all over the world—who intend to pursue a scientific career for the defense of the planet?

CT

Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid not to be “brilliant enough”: that impostor syndrome that you think applies to you so especially well is something most scientists feel. There is this idea that being a scientist means being a genius, but, believe me, most successful scientists are simply smart in an average sense, but dedicated, hard workers. Don’t be afraid to ask for mentorship, advice, support: you need people who can share their experience and are willing to help you open doors, meet other scientists, have opportunities. Also, don’t start from a defensive, suspicious position as a woman in a mostly male-dominated world. My experience has been that if you have done your homework and if you have things to say and qualities to bring to the table, being a woman can actually be an advantage. A good friend of mine who just passed away, sadly, a great scientist and beautiful woman I would like to remember here, Lisa Goddard, used to say: “Come prepared, assert yourself, and you’ll be more memorable than the next guy.” My experience has also taught me that my own attitude is key to having a good personal and professional life. One of the sentiments I hold most strongly is that people most of the time do not mean to be mean to you. Sometimes they simply have no clue, sometimes they are awkward, sometimes they are having a bad day. Give them another chance, use some humor, try to talk to them. But, of course, I realize this is not a piece of advice that can apply to every situation. So once again don’t be afraid to talk to someone and ask for advice. And have fun with your women colleagues—there are fantastic women scientist networks out there to share professional and life advice.

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