Environmental scholars and the (political) climate

April 11, 2018, 10:26 p.m.

On Nov. 9, 2016, earth systems science professor Noah Diffenbaugh ’96 M.S. ’97 was contacted by the Associated Press fewer than five minutes after the organization had called the presidential election for Donald Trump. He was asked what the outcome meant for global climate change, and it’s a question he hasn’t stopped hearing since.

“With everything that’s happened,” Diffenbaugh said, “I’m at least glad to be able to be in the position to be asked.”

He’s not alone. Indeed, what the Trump administration means for global climate change seems to be the question keeping environmental scholars across Stanford’s campus and beyond awake at night. Beyond the anxiety, however, the community of scholars seems to have a two-fold approach to their new (political) climate: doubling down on their research, and doing their damnedest to communicate that research to the public and decision makers.

I first met Diffenbaugh more than three years ago as a starry-eyed freshman in my fall quarter, when I stumbled into his 15-person introductory seminar, “Global Warming Paradox.” Although the focus of the class was to understand the tension between the human benefits of energy use and the negative climate consequences of greenhouse gas emissions, there were also questions I would grapple with from a more journalistic perspective. What is the balance between scientific integrity and communication? Does it matter if we call it global warming or climate change? Is there a difference between saying “climate change causes drought” and “climate change increases the likelihood of drought?”

During his own time as an undergraduate at Stanford, Diffenbaugh lived in Synergy, a co-op known for its vegetarianism, proclivity for activism and more alternative lifestyle. In class, however, Diffenbaugh drew a careful line when it came to communicating his science versus participating in advocacy.

Because of this, I wouldn’t have guessed that Diffenbaugh would come to make semi-regular appearances in the opinions section of the New York Times. Yet since the presidential election, Diffenbaugh has been published in four op-eds on topics ranging from the Oroville Dam disaster near Sacramento to the predictability of massive storms like Hurricane Harvey. When I asked if this is a reflection that his views had changed on scientific advocacy, he shook his head.

“My approach is to stick to evidence and my expertise,” Diffenbaugh explained. “I avoid being prescriptive because there are a lot of people out there advocating for solutions, and relatively fewer people to just explain the science.”

In fact, Diffenbaugh acknowledged that while the some on the political right may criticize him as a climate alarmist, he is simultaneously criticized by some on the left for not advocating particular responses and solutions to the climate crisis.

“I have a deliberate approach to communication,” he said, referring to his tendency not to suggest solutions. “Not everyone agrees, but what I can say is that I’ve given it a lot of thought and talked to experts who study communication on these issues. Society needs for the people creating the evidence to be at the table explaining it.”

This last point, that scientists ought to be sharing their research outside the bounds of academia, is a viewpoint that seems to be spreading.

“Stanford has a societal obligation to make the best information available in the most scientific depth as possible,” said Stephan Graham, the recently-appointed dean of the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth). Graham came to the job with a research background in geology — more specifically, sedimentary basins such as those exploited to produce oil. He emphasized, however, that oil and gas researchers at Stanford respect and appreciate climate work done within the school. Many, he pointed out, have begun to focus their work on reducing emissions from oil and gas operations.

As for the question of science versus advocacy, Graham discussed the fully defensible nature of scientific methods used at Stanford.

“Our scientists are dedicated and rigorous,” he said. “Being humans concerned about the future of society, they can’t help but be personally involved.”

University offerings have expanded with this seeming need for involvement in communicating the climate problem. Stanford Earth’s coterminal master’s degree in environmental communication, for example, has rapidly grown since its inception in the 2015-2016 school year.

And at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, offerings like the Rising Environmental Leaders Program (RELP), a program piloted in 2010 for Stanford graduate students and post-docs, and the Leopold Leadership Program, for environmental scholars at institutions across the country, focus on training scientists to communicate within the policy setting.

Heidi Hirsh, a Ph.D. candidate in the earth systems science program and a RELP participant, has appreciated the availability of such training.

“It can definitely feel isolating in academia,” she said. “I know I need to get the data and analyze it, and I know how to do that, but I don’t know feel like I know just yet how to engage with the political side. But it’s also like, if I can’t use my research for good, what was that five or six years for?”

Another RELP participant, civil and environmental engineering Ph.D. candidate Andrew Sonta, said that he sought out the program because he realized that environmental progress requires conversation between science-literate policymakers  and policy-literate scientists.

After the election, Sonta noticed that the discussions he led for the Hard Earth lecture series almost always turned to political questions.

“I do think it’s scary to say that any conversation has a political bent — it’s like science is no longer just science,” Sonta admitted. “As a researcher, you like to think that you’re coming up with solutions. But in this political climate, if you can’t communicate those ideas, you’re risking not being effective.”

Admittedly, science communication wasn’t cast aside prior to Trump’s election. Biology professor and Jasper Ridge Biology Preserve faculty director Liz Hadly, for example, cited the late Stanford scientist Stephen Schneider as an early champion of explaining climate science in her recent piece “Making America great again requires action on scientific knowledge.”

Hadly did say, however, that she’s noticed a sudden increase in the field of people wanting to share their research with the public. Needless to say, it’s a movement she’s supportive of.

“People should spend time to communicate why what we study matters to someone other than ourselves,” Hadly said. “You’ll hear people ask how climate really affects them. But when you take the time to actually communicate how they’re already seeing climate change in their daily lives, they get it.”

When I first spoke with Hadly, she quickly introduced me to her dog, Dasher, who was happily wandering her office. When I later asked her how working in the shifted political climate has affect her work, she laughingly answered “puppies.”

“You think I’m kidding, but one of the ways it’s all changed is this puppy,” Hadly said. “In reading the news and following everything that was happening, I was just kind of depressed and flabbergasted. This was a way of re-engaging and finding that energy.”

In some ways, this fits with Hadly’s environmentalist persona. She described her journey toward ecology as never growing out of the curiosity about the world everyone is born with; gravitating away from the crowded indoors and toward the outside and places with less people. And yet, she insisted that scientists aren’t, and can’t afford to be, hermits.

“My deepest motivation is that I believe in people,” Hadly said.

It made sense, then, that some of the hardest emotional points in her work have come in hearing about conflicts between humans and tigers.

“I do work in the tiger genome, and so for me it’s on my mind that there are less than 3,500 tigers left in the wild,” she explained. “But it’s hard to see this local-global disconnect on these issues.”

Indeed, when I asked each environmental scholar the moments in the past 14 months they found most difficult, the answers varied according to their research focus.

For Diffenbaugh in atmospheric science, it was Presidential tweets suggesting that perhaps the US “could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming” to warm up on cold winter nights. Diffenbaugh groaned a bit as he talked about the tweet, citing a study he co-authored with Deepti Singh Ph.D. ’15 and five other scientists. The study found that increased extreme cold in the Northeast is not just consistent with global warming, but more likely.

For Richard Nevle Ph.D. ’95, the deputy director of the earth systems program, it has been absorbing environmental news each day. It’s difficult, but he keeps tuning in: “I keep reading all the headlines and environmental news I can even when it’s depressing because I feel a sort of duty to at least bear witness to what’s happening,” Nevle said.

His position isn’t a unique one. Scholar after scholar recounted how hard it can be to continuously hear the news of another rollback or threat to funding. Julia Goolsby ’18, a student in the environmental communication coterm program, told me that she’s taken to putting her New York Times updates in a folder labeled “ahhhhhhhhh.”

For Graham, his biggest worry has shifted toward maintaining research funding since stepping into the role of dean.

“I’m first and foremost concerned about their ability to continue to do the type of research that they do,” Graham said. “That’s job number one for me.”

A forlorn look crossed the dean’s face as he mentioned a project in earth systems science in the climate space that lost funding midstream. According to the dean, the project was left with partial results but no way to finish.

The fear of not finding funding seems to be especially prominent in younger environmental scholars. Graham said that younger professors and graduate students seem to be more on edge, and Hirsh — one of the graduate students and RELP participants — even sent me a follow-up link to a story about the narrow preservation of National Science Foundation funding programs a few hours after we met.

Of course, the concerns about environmental changes in the new administration aren’t just limited to scholars in the sciences.

For Deborah Sivas J.D. ’87, director of Stanford Law School’s Environmental Law Clinic, the most difficult challenge of the Trump administration has been the onslaught of climate policy rollbacks — the Paris Accords and the Clean Power Plan, but also “a whole host of other things around methane and public lands that the media can’t even pay attention to with all the other chaos.”

Sivas describes herself as an environmentalist first and a lawyer second, although the students that work and study in the clinic are driven by a mix of ideological career goals and the simple desire to attain legal skills. Either way, she says, environmental law and other politically-targeted fields can be hard due to the lack of linear trajectories toward progress.

“There’s ups and downs, and we’re in a down right now,” Sivas said. “Keeping people motivated and not demoralized is very important to me. And it can be demoralizing–working on something for 10 years and having Congress wipe it out with a single sentence in a rider isn’t easy.”

It’s because of Sivas’ calm persistence that Danny Cullenward ’06 M.S. ’07 J.D. ’13 Ph.D. ’13, a lecturer in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, reached out to Sivas last year to co-teach “U.S. Environmental Law in Transition.”

According to Cullenward, the class was created in part because he could feel panic amongst students following the election. As a last-minute enrollee in the class myself, I had to laugh at how spot-on his analysis was. But Cullenward also added that he had his a personal reason for wanting to teach:

“Staying motivated can be a huge struggle,” Cullenward said. “If you spend your professional life working on a problem you know won’t be solved and that will cause major consequences for virtually every species, it’s hard to get out of bed sometimes … I know that me putting my shoulder to the wheel every day in my life is going to make an imperceptible difference in those problems. But what I can do is teach. And when I present primary material to students, they tend to not fall for the lies … that gives me some hope.”

Cullenward and Sivas’ class wasn’t the only student-facing response to the Trump political tide. In the medical school, for example, talks have surfaced about creating a comprehensive class on the health implications of climate change. And even within two weeks of the presidential election, I was added to an “Earth Systems Community” group on Canvas, a website normally reserved for course announcements and academic assignments. The page was described as a place for Stanford community members to “collaborate, educate each other, ask questions, learn new information, form working groups, and figure out how to take action in this new political climate.”

There have also been more formal changes in how Stanford Earth presents itself to Stanford stakeholders and beyond. According to Barbara Buell, associate dean and chief marketing/communications officer of Stanford Earth, there’s been a big push to make ensure that research being produced actually gets read. Buell lead the charge in creating a website for the Stanford Earth Matters magazine, including easy-share options and a subscription list targeted not just at Stanford community members, but also key decision makers in the public and private sector.

Even the school itself (formerly just the School of Earth Sciences) was renamed in 2015 to capture a broader swath of environmental work — although the change predated Trump’s rise. Prior to that, the School of Earth had been born out of the defunct School of Mineral Sciences in 1963. It was soon after this restructuring that a degree in “applied earth sciences” first joined the spattering of offerings in petroleum and mineral engineering.

Stanford Earth is perhaps less recognized on campus than other schools for a reason: By the numbers, it’s small. It boasts the second-to-least number of faculty, four percent of graduate students and just two percent of declared undergraduates. Yet the school’s impact has been undeniably significant, with the Stanford News’ press release page typically being peppered with studies on topics ranging from models of extreme weather patterns to reviews of corporate sustainability measures to surveys of coastal fisheries.

Indeed, Stanford Earth’s programs have continued to grow from the original move toward academic interdisciplinarity initiated by former president John Hennessy. Other entities outside of the school such as the Woods Institute, Precourt Institute, Freeman Spogli Institute, The Center for Ocean Solutions and more have all taken on climate change in their work, too.

It’s not that all the changes have come directly as a response to the Trump administration — the two new coterminal master’s programs, the M.A. in Environmental Communication and an M.S./M.A. in Sustainability Science and Practice, for example, were already being developed — but that the political changes have caused an increased sense of urgency for such integrated, interdisciplinary approaches.

As Diffenbaugh told me when he explained his role in studying systems, “A wise person said that if you can say what discipline you’re in, you’re probably doing something old.”

Dean Graham emphasized that in addition to interdisciplinary work within members of the school, Stanford Earth wants to reach students in all corners of the university.

“We’ve been working on the ‘80×20’ goal for a while now,” Graham said. “By 2020, we want to be touching 80 percent of Stanford undergraduates in some way.”

For Graham, it’s important to encourage students pursuing majors and careers unrelated to the environmental space to gain a basic literacy about how the earth works. So far the school has felt fairly successful in these initiatives with popular new classes like “Science Outside” and a 200 percent enrollment jump in the school’s introductory class, Earth Systems 10, over the past two years.

The Dean was also excited about the prospects of the sustainability white paper produced as part of the long-range planning process initiated by President Marc Tessier-Lavigne.

Initially, sustainability wasn’t intended to receive its own paper in the process; the four steering groups were established as Education, Research, “Our Community” and “Engaging Beyond Our University.” As Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell wrote on their blog, however, “sustainability was such an important cross-cutting topic that the four steering groups collaborated to produce a single white paper on it.”

About a third of the public suggestions incorporated into the paper focused on campus sustainability measures, about a fourth on innovating sustainability on topics from climate science to urbanization and the remaining portion on sustainability education.

“Taken together,” the paper reads, “the collective body of sustainability-related proposals limn a compelling, ambitious, and hopeful vision for Stanford’s future.”

Nevle, who in addition to his role in earth systems served on the Education steering committee, said that he thinks the sustainability paper offers an exciting opportunity for Stanford to walk the talk.

“I think what emerges is a vision of Stanford as an even more committed sustainability leader,” Nevle said. “There really seems to be a desire to make this a core part of our mission at Stanford.”

In the often dire-seeming times, it’s the little things that can carry scholars through the rough nights.

For Hirsh, it’s been the experience of doing field research in Palau, a small island nation in the west Pacific Ocean. In the international climate community, Palau is known both for its vulnerability to biological change and its outspoken leadership in responding to such changes. During the Paris climate negotiations, for instance, Palau called for a more aggressive plan to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, rather than the 2-degree limit in the final proposal and the 4-degree trajectory warming that many scientists predict. In the country itself, 80 percent of Palau’s exclusive economic zone — some 500,000 square kilometers of coral- and fish-heavy ocean — commercial fishing is entirely banned in order to protect the ecosystem.

“It’s funny to do fieldwork in Palau and see how different everything can be,” Hirsh said. “Sometimes I’ll joke that if all goes to hell I’ll just go there, but I also know I can’t run away. There’s such a contrast of in how even as we’re going backward and stripping away marine protections here, there they are marching forward with hope and respect for what they have. That gives me hope.”

There’s somewhat of analogy between how Hirsh sees Palau as a small spot of political hope and resilience and the marine chemistry work she does there. She studies how different seagrasses might protect shelled-animals, coral and other calcifiers from increasingly acidic water due to carbon dioxide in the water. Specifically, her goal is to understand how some small underwater localities have managed to stay resilient even under less hospitable conditions — and then to find ways to mimic that resilience in other locations.

“I know that I’m just one person and that one single person can’t save the world,” Hirsh reflected. “But it is hopeful to think local and find those pockets of resilience.”

For many scholars, state and local government in California has served as a sort of pocket of resilience, too.

“Jerry Brown has really had some moments of carrying the flag for us on climate,” said Katherine Burke, deputy director of the Center for Innovation in Global Health.

Situated in the medical school, Burke was the lead author of a Sept. 2016 white paper commissioned by the Woods Institute for the Environment aiming to add a “human face” and health perspective to climate change for the 45th president. Like many Americans, the researchers assumed a different president at the time of writing the paper. Despite the lack of uptake the paper and its recommendations have received under the Trump administration, Burke maintains that it was still better to put forth an audacious plan.

“It’s better to put bold ideas out there than to pull back,” Burke said. “The way I see it, the election has only made the work we’re able to do in California more important.”

Across campus at the law school, Sivas expressed a similar sentiment. Normally, she explained, the environmental law clinic is involved in administrative cases pushing governments to do better environmentally. In the last 14 months, that focus has shifted toward just defending existing environmental protections.

“In the post-Trump world in California, you’ve got state and local governments actually trying to be more progressive than the federal government,” Sivas said.

That’s not to say the local work can’t have a big impact. In one case, for example, law students in the clinic are helping defend efforts by the city of Oakland to ban the handling of coal in city facilities. The efforts have come under fire from industry groups hoping to use the Port of Oakland to ship coal from the United States to China and other East Asian countries.

Like his longtime mentor Sivas, Cullenward also described changes he’s seen within the environmental community. In addition to his research position with the Carnegie Institute for Science on the edge of campus, he’s been directly involved in the policy sphere through the nonprofit Near Zero, which aims to curb greenhouse gas emissions, and was appointed to the Independent Emissions Market Advisory Committee, the board in charge of reviewing California’s cap and trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

And yet even in that setting, Cullenward said he’d spent the past couple of years before the election fighting with people that should have been on the same page. These groups realigned after the election, offering a sort of “catharsis.”

“So on the one hand, the election was a complete disaster, Cullenward explained. “On the other hand, it’s a real opportunity to start a conversation around what it’s going to mean to make serious progress on the climate front and not just put a bandaid on and declare victory.”

Cullenward cited the emerging preeminence of environmental justice advocates as an example of one of these progressive success. Sivas cited examples inside and outside of the environmental space, such as the #MeToo movement.

“Those things just couldn’t break through except in this kinda awful time,” she said.

For almost all the scholars, working with students has played a direct role in keeping motivation high.

Nevle described the experience of witnessing transformation among students who came to let it out and cry in his office soon after the election to these same students coming back for engaged, advocacy-minded conversations.

“It keeps me young at heart, and it is really such a huge privilege to work with students and have these daily interactions,” he said.

For Hadly, it has been not just her dog, but also the freshmen in her first-year introductory seminar who have been particularly inspiring.

“These young students get more eager as the years go by,” she said. “They demand to be learning and making a difference. They’re not waiting.”

Dean Graham was no exception to the pattern:

“You know,” he added as our conversation began to wind down, “the other bright spot during this time is you. We’re seeing this big increase in interest from undergraduates in particular in these issues, increasingly taking up advocacy. That’s got to be viewed as a bright spot because you guys are going to be living this life in the next century and you’ll have to take up that role and buy in and be interested.”

From the perspective of a coterm in environmental communication, Goolsby echoed the Dean’s sense of urgency and emphasis on timing.

“It feels like this time is what will be in the textbooks, and it’s cool and motivating to have that kind of accountability,” Goolsby said. As a communicator, she said she has found the election to be a case study on the importance of “paying attention to who you’re talking to.”

Many scholars also said that they’ve been impressed by campus activism both in the climate space and on other hot-button issues. For Stephanie Fischer ’18, another earth systems major headed toward the environmental communication coterm, those issues are often intimately connected.

“I’m focused on the inequities of climate,” she said. “This discourse about race, especially nowadays, is extremely fatiguing for me. Coupled with the president’s castaway attitudes toward climate, it feels like its two battles at once and that the hill just keeps getting steeper.”

Fischer originally came to the earth sciences as an academic interest, not such a personal one. She got her start in paleoclimatology research as early as high school. But as a native of New York, her perspective was forever changed by Superstorm Sandy. Fischer was in her house when the storm came, and experienced firsthand the hardship of dealing with the impacts of the storm for months after the media attention faded away. But she also noted what she learned from lots of communities of color like hers sharing the experience.

“In some ways, it was also a sort of gem of hope to be with my community,” Fischer said. “It gave me one of my favorite moments in feeling love with my neighbors.”

Now, Fischer is one of the students working to preserve that hope and bring healing to the environmental community. For her senior capstone project, she is co-organizing “Earth in Color,” an Earth Day event to be held at the O’Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm.

With support from the earth systems program up through to administrators like Graham and Tessier-Lavigne, Fischer is excited about the prospect of drawing together people who may not normally think about attending Earth Day events. According to the description, the event is led by “student artists and environmental justice activists of color who want to see an Earth Day celebration as colorful as the people on this planet.”

In addition to bringing in the healing power of art to the often traumatic environmental space (especially for people of color), Fischer told me she hopes to share the power of looking horizontally.

“It’s necessary more than ever to be with other people and to remind yourself of what you love and why you’re doing this work,” she said. “That’s what keeps me going.”

Contact Ada Statler at adastat ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Ada Statler '18 is an earth systems major hailing from Kansas City (on the Kansas side, not Missouri). She's most passionate about environmental journalism, but cares about all things campus-related.

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