By Erica Boniface, Bonfils-Stanton Foundation Staff
Have you seen that graphic floating around the Internet asking people who they’d like to choose to sit on a park bench with for two hours – and why? Well, we’ll add someone to your list – Dr. Warren Washington. After reading his biography and more about his studies on climate research, climate modeling and all of his lifetime achievements, you’ll quickly see why he’s on our list.
Dr. Warren Washington is someone who has dedicated his life’s work to study climate change. And as he puts it, “As scientists, we have children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to think about when it comes to our planet’s future.”
In 2009, Bonfils-Stanton Foundation got to know Dr. Warren Washington when we honored him with our “Science and Medicine Award” at our Annual Awards Luncheon. Needless to say, the Foundation has always been incredibly impressed with Dr. Washington and his work, so it came as no surprise when we heard that he was honored with the ‘Nobel Prize for the Environment,’ the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement in 2019.
We wanted to check in with him after winning the Tyler Prize, and get his thoughts on climate research and more about his life’s work. He’s a busy scientist, but he quickly made time for our interview. What transpired was a stimulating conversation that could have lasted for hours.
Bonfils-Stanton Foundation: We first want to start by congratulating you for winning the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement – which is seen as the ‘Nobel Prize for the Environment. Tell us about the experience and what it meant to you.
Dr. Warren Washington: Well, 2019 was certainly a special year and such a meaningful award. It began with a Saturday morning phone call in February notifying me of the honor. I learned that Michael Mann, a long-time colleague with Penn State University, was a co-recipient of the Prize. I was very pleased to be recognized for my many years of work in climate research. There was a small private ceremony in May and then a symposium in my honor at Penn State University in September. It’s during that time that the president of Penn State surprised me once again by offering to name a building after me!
After that, Oregon State gave me a Lifetime Award for my research. I tease my wife by saying I have run out of wall space. I asked if I can put awards on her wall in her office. She said a very strong ‘no’.
BSF: Wow! It was a wonderful year. Do you have any other memorable moments from your career?
Dr. Washington: I have had the honor of briefing the cabinet of George Bush I on climate change and that lead to the U.S. Global Change Research Program. It involves roughly 13 agencies and departments. That’s led to a lot of discovery on how the climate system works, and eventually Congress signed onto it and it was signed into law. It has slowed down a bit in recent years, but it’s still in effect.
BSF: If you could explain what you know about climate change to skeptics, what would you tell them?
Dr. Washington: I would tell them it’s real. It’s happening. We all have to contribute to preventing it from getting worse and worse as time goes on.
BSF: What excites you the most about climate research? What worries you the most?
Dr. Washington: Clearly, for my part and my colleague’s part, we proved over the last 40 or 50 years that we can make computer models of the climate and the weather – and you see from looking at the evening news that the weather forecasts are pretty good, and same is true with climate. First thing we did was look at the change of seasons going from winter to summer and winter again and so forth – we can understand how the climate system worked.
The next thing that was asked of us was going back about 30 years – what happens if you increase the carbon dioxide? The Department of Energy along with other agencies such as the National Science Foundation, invested a lot of money trying to answer this question. I think we pretty much answered it. It received a Nobel Prize.
Now what we seem to be doing is improving these models by increasing the resolution and also by improving things like precipitation, cloudiness, vegetation effects and so forth – we elaborated on the early computer models. They are pretty good.
Like all research, there are still some unanswered questions and we’re investing in trying to answer those questions. You don’t need that to know the climate system is going to be warming up substantially if we don’t do anything – it’ll warm by 3 or 4 degrees – or, if you double that, it would be about 8 or 9 degrees Fahrenheit at the end of this century.
That worried us because for us scientists we have children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and they are going to be affected by a very large warming of the planet that will change not only the storms, but also make things worse – plus there’s higher sea level, they wouldn’t be able to accommodate such an increase and we’d be losing places where people are live.
I’ll put a little caveat on that – if you live in Manhattan, it is easy for New York to just build sea walls so they can live like people in Holland. They can build to protect. For most of the world, that’s not going to be possible. It would cost too much.
BSF: What’s the time range for that? There are so many articles – are we looking at 100 years? 50 years?
Dr. Washington: I think it will be roughly 30 or 40 years. We are actually finding the glaciers are melting much faster than we thought they would be. Antarctica is showing big increases in the amount of melting that is taking place. If Greenland melts all the ice that is up there, it would raise the sea level by over 20 feet. It would take several hundred years or longer to melt all these things – but if you wait to do something, it just isn’t going to work.
The climate modeling community and research community feels that we should start cutting back on greenhouse gasses and their emissions- now.
We are making some progress. It is clear that a lot of states and countries (not ours, of course) are essentially cutting back on greenhouse gasses. Even though President Trump doesn’t believe in climate change, his researchers who are supported by the government feel they can make progress by cutting back on emissions.
It’s call geo-engineering. Have you heard of that?
BSF: No, I don’t believe so – what’s geo-engineering?
Dr. Washington: Geo-engineering is to look at ways other than cutting back on greenhouse gasses to compensate with less carbon dioxide getting out there. For example, if you catch the carbon dioxide coming out of a plant, and actually trap that gas and pump it back in the ground where it came from in the form of coal, you can delay the warming.
Also, things like solar energy, using electric cars, reducing plastic and all kinds of things like that are being researched. We even have more graphic ideas of putting aerosols in the atmosphere artificially to simulate the effect of large volcanic eruptions. We know that when we have had large eruptions, the climate cools off substantially for a year to 18 months.
In fact, when you had big asteroids hitting the Earth, they would act like huge volcanic eruptions and summer never came for a few years. It’s a big eruption that occurred in the 1870s or so where a big volcano errupted near the Philippines, and they refer to it as the year ‘that did not have a summer’ because it cooled the climate so much. That actually caused massive migration from people from Europe because they couldn’t grow their normal food supply.
So, we have a good understanding of sizable events that have happened in the past. Some of these events you can trace back to looking at ice cores and drill down into the ice into Greenland and Antarctica, and you can see that the layers when we had volcanic eruptions, we can actually see the effects of these aerosols that get put into the atmosphere. We can simulate on those features. We can look at past climates to help with present and future climates.
BSF: You’ve had such a successful life. What do you still hope to accomplish?
Dr. Washington: I spend a lot of time writing and talking to different groups. I also spend some time with students. I really feel that the students are the future. It is sort of giving back.
BSF: Since it’s a new year, everyone likes to make resolutions. What goals or checklist items are you hoping to accomplish in 2020?
Dr. Washington: I plan on keeping my efforts to inform the public, policymakers, and colleagues in other fields, on what we know about climate change. Our knowledge of climate change increases each year, both from observations, and by improving climate computer modeling. Improvement of climate modeling has improved our understanding of previous and future climate change.
BSF: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? Or did you always know you wanted to be an atmospheric scientist?
Dr. Washington: I knew I wanted to be a physicist, which was the first degree I received at Oregon State University. When I was working on my physics major for a Master’s degree, I had a great summer job at Stanford Research Institute on an atmospheric computer modeling science project in 1959. As a result, I applied to five universities to obtain a PhD in the new field of computer modeling. I was accepted at most schools – and chose Penn State University and obtained my PhD in 1963-1964. That’s why it’s such an honor to have a building at Penn State named after me.
BSF: You are a role model to many, but for you, who is someone you’ve always looked up to – and why?
Dr. Washington: I’ve had great role models in my life and mentors, starting with the great Albert Einstein.