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NASA’s Top Climatologist Gavin Schmidt on the Problem With Pessimism

What can one family do about climate change? A whole helluva lot, actually.

Jonathan Muroya for Fatherly

On the morning I’m scheduled to Zoom with NASA climatologist Dr. Gavin Schmidt, I think long and hard about canceling the interview. I’m a parent in a pandemic meaning I’m burned out as ever, overwhelmed by anxiety and stress. So why would I add to my weight a conversation about dying oceans, melting ice caps, flooding, famine, mass plant and wildlife extinction, and humanity’s uncertain future on the planet? It might just break me. If I’m being honest, I’m not in search of real answers today — just comfort. Gavin Schmidt gets this. For one, he’s a dad to a five-year-old daughter who, we should be reminded, was four going into the pandemic. And he’s tired, but the sort of tired that comes from being pent up in a New York City apartment with family for a year.

Of course, Schmidt understands my dread not just because he’s a parent but because of his role as the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City and founder of RealClimate.org, a blog that provides context and explanation on important climate developments. In these roles, he gets questions from people like me a lot: What’s going to happen? Are you a pessimist? That’s not quite how it works, however. “People seem to think that the climate scientists are possessed with some magic information that demonstrates that we’re all doomed,” he tells me, “in which case might as well party on, or we’re all saved. The real reflection of the situation is that there’s everything to play for and the choices that we have yet to make are the difference between things getting just a little bit worse or it getting very, very, very much worse.”

In other words, those little choices matter, a lot. Climate change is the defining issue of our time and we are at a defining moment. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations group tasked with providing policymakers with regular assessments on climate change and risks, maintains that mankind faces an enormous challenge keeping below the 1.5 degrees warming cap (Celsius) set by the 2015 Paris climate agreement.  Already two-thirds of the way to the 1.5 degree mark, we are likely to cross that threshold in the next twenty years.

Man still has a chance and Schmidt’s new boss, the guy in the White House, is taking climate change very seriously. Schmidt was recently appointment by the Biden Administration to a position as senior climate advisor to NASA where he is expected to offer “critical insights and recommendations for the agency’s full spectrum of science, technology, and infrastructure programs related to climate,” according to NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk. The New York Times hailed Schmidt’s hiring as a promising indication that the Biden administration is creating policy positions for climate scientists and experts throughout government agencies.

In other words, there’s hope still. Schmidt agrees, but probably not for the reasons you might think. It has everything to do with the curiosity and empathy of children. Dr. Schmidt is no magician and tells us we all have a lot of hard work ahead. But he is inspirational, and helped this anxious and overwhelmed parent get some much-needed perspective.

Good morning. What are you working on today?

Gavin Schmidt: I’ve just started this new role being the big climate honcho at NASA. For the first time, I’m in the room where the decisions are happening. For the agency, I’ve never really been at these levels before, so it’s a bit of a learning experience.

I’m spending a lot of time getting briefings on what NASA is doing because NASA, it turns out, is a very big place and has a lot going on. I’m trying to sort out what I should be doing personally. I’m coming into this and almost all of the people who are talking about this are not actual scientists. They’re administrators, or managers, or program managers. Maybe they have some science background at college or something, but they haven’t really worked in science since then.

“We’re having to be much more full-on parents than we anticipated… so that doesn’t really leave a lot of room for having big thoughtsabout what’s going to happen in five years time, or 10 years time, or in 20. “

I’m trying to see to what extent that kind of domain knowledge is useful or is needed. A lot of the things don’t obviously need you to know very precisely what cloud microphysics is doing or how sea ice is responding to changes in wind patterns. But there’s a lot of conversation going on now because of the new push by the administration where people are trying to do the right thing, but they often don’t know what the right thing is because they don’t have a solid grasp of what the science is doing.  It’s not like NASA is suddenly going to take over all policymaking. But NASA brings down petabytes of data every day about the state of the planet. If we can’t find ways to use that to improve the state of the planet, then really what are we doing?

I love the idea of building in uncertainty. Does dealing with uncertainty in climate models in any way impact the way you’re dealing with the uncertainty of raising a child in these insane times.

We build uncertainty our models into because we’re trying to avoid outright errors. But there are lots of things we don’t know, which means that what we do is uncertain and so may be wrong, so we need to build that in. 

My daughter’s connections to these kinds of wider issues are not very firm yet. She asked me about global warming yesterday actually because there was a New Yorker that just came out and it’s got a polar bear picking up some ice from the ice machine on the cover. She said, “Why is the polar bear … What’s going on?,” and I explained the joke. I told her the polar bear is getting ice from the ice machine because there’s not enough ice because of global warming. She says, “Oh.” She really didn’t understand, so she was aware of the election and things that were happening around that, but she doesn’t really have a very well contextualized grasp of what it all means.

In terms of actual parenting around that topic, we haven’t had to do very much about that so far. Talking about parenting in terms of thinking of the future and then kind of relating that to thinking about the future for the planet, that’s a deeper issue. It’s hard. I mean, I don’t know. Parenting right now really is very much one day at a time with homeschooling, with hybrid, with no after-school, with limited play dates. We’re having to be much more full-on parents than we anticipated or that was the case last year, and hopefully will be the case next year, and so that doesn’t really leave a lot of room for having big thoughts or big plans about what’s going to happen in five years time, or 10 years time, or in 20. 

This whole situation has shrunk our parenting horizons to basically, “can we just get through this week?”

As much as I care about climate change I find that I have this very unintentional resistance to thinking about the depth and seriousness of the problem. And this morning I am wondering if that’s because it forces me to reckon with my own smallness and powerlessness.  I want to open that up, open up that idea that’s maybe the issue we’re having in terms of advancing the conversation around really big concepts or problems like climate change and ultimately impacts the way we talk to kids and the way they end up seeing the world?

 In my experience, yes, kids obviously start out with very limited horizons, but their horizons expand very quickly. You can see them getting excited about planets, and Mars, and what happened to the dinosaurs millions of years ago. Those are very far away from their day-to-day existence, and so I’m going to push back a little bit on the notion that they can’t. I think they have limits to how big a picture they can see, but that expands as they get older. But I think even from a very early age they can assimilate concepts and issues that are quite a ways away from them personally.

I mean, you just have to see the joy that the kids show when they go to the Museum of Natural History. These are not their everyday things. Even if you live in New York and you go there every other week, it’s still not an everyday thing to see a massive blue whale, or a dinosaur skeleton, or some other huge meteorite or something. Then they still get excited by these things.

That’s wonderful to watch, but obviously the context for how kids, and teenagers, and adults react to changes because you know more, you assimilate more, things become more complicated, and you can see this with the school strikes, and Greta Thunberg, and the youth movement on climate. They sometimes have a clarity and authenticity about how they care for the world, and the future, and their future that is like a breath of fresh air compared to the endless rounds of death by 1,000 technical reports that passes for conversation in the grownup world.

“People ask us this all the time. ‘Are you always pessimistic?,’ and some days I read that we’re making a big step forward and I think, Oh yeah, we could do more of that. Then other days the forces of ignorance and delay seem to have got a win and I think, Oh shit.”

When you do have to have that conversation with your daughter about climate change, what is that conversation going to be like? 

Well, the science parts are fairly straightforward because you see little bits of the science all around you. It snowed a whole load the last couple of weeks, and so we talked about why the snow melts. We talked about the lake freezing over. We talk about what happens to birds and trees during warm periods and cold periods, and then there was the New Yorker cover about the polar bears. She knows what polar bears do, she knows where they live, she knows what’s going on with them, so it kind of comes bit by bit. It’s not like a let me sit you down and give you the global warming talk. It’s not like that. It’s ‘Here, be aware of the physical processes that are going on. Why is it cold when it’s still so sunny? Why is it warm in the summertime and not in the wintertime?’ We discuss those kinds of things as they come up pretty frequently. She is the daughter of two scientists, so those things perhaps come up a little bit more frequently than they might do in another family.

In terms of the physics and the processes of what the climate system does and how it changes, she loves volcanoes, and she has all these dinosaur things, and there are always massive volcanoes in the background of every single dinosaur thing that she has. Then you talk about the asteroid. She understands the asteroid came and hit, and the dinosaurs are now extinct. She can deal with these in part because she doesn’t feel them in a way that somebody older might, but I think bit by bit she’ll assimilate this kind of by osmosis, I think, rather than having it be a big thing.

One of the things that I am conscious of doing is sometimes she has these conceptions about how things work and is quite insistent that she knows better than me because she saw some YouTube thing that said X, Y, or Z. So I try and gently nudge towards correct answers now and again, but not very hard and not very dogmatic. I think these things will emerge directly from kids’ understanding of the environment and the dangers to the environment. All of that starts slow and it starts local. It’s like, “Oh my god, there’s so much litter in this park,” or, “Why is the water dirty?,” or, “Why is there a cup floating in the river?” Then I think it will expand beyond that. I don’t see it as some huge challenge. I think it will just build up bit by bit as she becomes more aware of the world and things that are going on.

I’m just going to be honest with you. I was hoping that there would be something today, some nugget from my conversation with this renowned NASA climate scientist, some kind of great news that would come out of this. I’m looking for that optimism. I’m just pretty nicked up, you know?

Yeah, you came to the wrong person, sorry.

You need it as much as I do, huh?

I mean, people ask us this all the time. “Are you always pessimistic?,” and some days I read that we’re making a big step forward and I think, Oh yeah, we could do more of that. Then other days the forces of ignorance and delay seem to have got a win and I think, Oh shit. The fact is that there is everything to play for, right? It’s not baked in, what’s going to happen, and the scope of what could happen on both ends is pretty broad, and so that means that it’s decisions that are being made today, and tomorrow, and next year, and the next year, and the decade after that that will really make a difference. But those decisions haven’t yet been made. They say they’re optimistic that everybody is going to make the right decisions. Well . . . no . . . obviously not because, as you’ve seen with COVID, there’re a lot of people who seem to be strangely unable to make decisions that would have longer lasting benefits than just to them right now, right here.

“People can do what they can do and, if you can’t do more, it’s not the end of the world. But you can do a lot.”

Those people are here, but despite the fact that there’s a lot of idiocy related to COVID and climate knocking around we are managing to do something about the pandemic and we are managing to do something about climate. 

The decisions that have been made so far, obviously they’re in the past and we can’t change those, but every day there are new things to decide that have impacts that are short term, long term, medium-term, and like really, really long term. The more of those that we can get to flip towards being climate positive the happier we’re all going to end up being.

People seem to think that the climate scientists are possessed with some magic information that demonstrates that we’re all doomed, in which case might as well party on, or we’re all saved, in which case we don’t need to think about it, but those are caricatures. The real reflection of the situation is that there’s everything to play for and the choices that we have yet to make are the difference between things getting just a little bit worse or it getting very, very, very much worse.

There are some people that want to push it one way and there are other people that want to push it the other. I know which side I’m on, but one of the pleasing things about the current administration is that they seem to be acting in a way that’s commensurate with the size of the problem, which up until now has not really been the case in the U.S. Understanding how big an issue this is and how big a challenge it is pretty much the first step to being able to do anything about it. 

I love the phrase that you used, climate positive.  What are some of the smaller things that we can do with our kids that put us in that position where we are doing some small things that are actually impactful?

You have to realize, and I’m sure you do, that you wear multiple hats, right? You’re a parent. You’re a consumer, you’re a homeowner perhaps, you’re a member of the PTA, you’re a citizen in your town, in your state, in your country, you’re a letter writer, you’re a journalist, you’re a documentary filmmaker, whatever it is that defines you. Each of those roles can be utilized, right? So you don’t need to just think of yourself as a consumer or as a parent. The other things kind of bleed into these things and they help by being a better advocate. The fact is that those decisions that I talked about, the things that are really going to make differences, they’re not decisions that are made by individuals in general they’re made by systems and made by institutions.

There are individuals involved in those, but it’s not your personal decision how much money your electricity provider should be investing in renewables versus storage versus geothermal versus this, that, or the other. Those are decisions that seem to be above your level, but the people that are making those decisions, they’re not doing so in ignorance of everything that’s going on. It’s just their incentives perhaps are not necessarily aligned, and so how do you maximize your impact on those kinds of decisions? You can vote, you can campaign, you can bring it up, you can make it known that you care, and there are multiple ways of doing those things, and some of them have very outsize consequences.

I’ll mention her again: Greta Thunberg sitting outside the town hall in Sweden with a sign. Why would that propel somebody to the United Nations and to interviews with the collective heads of state of the world? How would you have ever predicted that? Small things can have big impacts. Now, not every small thing is going to have a massive impact of course, but when we’re being parents …

I mean, I’m sure you go to PTA meetings sometimes and that is often an S-H-I-T show, but making sure that at those meetings and in those situations that this is … You know, are we doing our best as the school? Are we doing our best as the school district? What’s the curriculum on this? What are we actually doing? A lot of the times I’ve come across teachers who have brought these things up in their curriculums. It’s like, oh yeah, and she’ll touch briefly on environmentalism, got to save the environment, the animals, blah, blah, blah, and then the kids are saying, “But what are we actually doing? Look at the garbage that’s coming out of our cafeteria. Are we composting our things? Are we doing this? Are we doing that?” A lot of school administrators in New York City have actually been nudged quite forcefully by the kids into adopting better systems, and zero waste cafeterias, and overhauls to the heating systems, and solar panels on the roofs.

Then you think, “Okay, well that’s nice, but it’s at the scale of the school,” but actually there’s a lot of schools and there are a lot of parents. The conversations from these situations ripple out to not just the school authorities, but to the other parents, and to the friends of the other parents, and to the people in the community around the school. These small things can have ripples and those ripples can reach all the way up to the top.

People can do what they can do and, if you can’t do more, it’s not the end of the world. But you can do a lot. You can make your concerns known, and felt, and understood, and work. There are lots of people working towards making better decisions that have good, climate-positive aspects, but also very community positive. More walkable streets, less driving, more biking, like now with less commuting, working from home. There’s a lot of things here which are both community and climate positive.

Sometimes people think of climate as being separate from all of the other issues, but it’s not. It’s like the same things that affect climate affect our ways of life in many, many other respects. Fixing those things actually improves our lives, or has the potential to improve our lives in very direct ways that don’t actually go through the climate. We cycle to school, we go for runs in the park, we don’t own a car. I mean, obviously I live in New York City, so that’s a bit easy, but there are ways that we can do better by the climate, but also in doing so do better by ourselves directly.

I don’t know if it’s just the sad space that I’m occupying at the moment, but this sort of brings me back to what we were talking about at the open, which was building in uncertainty. I’m recognizing that I kind of control nothing.

But you’re not alone in that. This whole pandemic situation has been extremely stressful for many reasons and one of those is this feeling that we’ve lost control. That kind of builds on similar feelings of … You talk about the economy, and you talk about housing, and you talk about the city, and it’s like this notion that things can’t get better and we’re not in control. It’s very pervasive and that’s depressing, but the fact is that, while we don’t individually have everything under control … All right, no man is an island, remember, right? Speaker 1: Collectively we can make our views and choices and values felt. I take a great deal of solace in seeing that happen as much as it can. I think that, despite everything that’s happened in the U.S. this last year or so, there are a lot of wallflowers blooming underneath all the grass.