Seattle this week is hosting the annual convention of the American Meteorological Society. Seattle native Paul Newman is in town for the convention, and says the data absolutely don’t lie about climate change, but skepticism persists, to Earth’s peril.
The other day I spoke with Paul Newman about some of the work NASA does that affects life here on Earth. Newman, a 1974 graduate of O’Dea High School in Seattle, is chief scientist for earth sciences at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
He’s been in town for this week’s annual convention of the American Meteorological Society.
At one of the conference sessions, researchers talked about communicating more effectively with the public about climate change. One speaker suggested a list of points to hit: Climate change is happening, global warming is real, global warming is caused by human activities, it’s bad for us, but there is hope if we take appropriate actions.
Newman gave a brief talk Monday about the effect of the Montreal Protocol on preserving the ozone layer as an example of the benefits of addressing problems before they go too far.
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The ozone layer of the stratosphere shields Earth from most of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, which would be extremely damaging to living things, including people.
For decades, measurements have shown that vital layer being eroded by human activities. And the discovery in 1985 of a hole in the ozone layer above the Antarctic prompted work toward an international agreement to phase out numerous substances that contribute to ozone depletion. That became the Montreal Protocol, adopted in 1987.
Newman’s research has shown that without the action taken under the protocol, the ozone layer would be destroyed by 2050. Paying attention to the science helped us avoid that disaster.
Newman is one of four scientists from around the world who advise countries as they continue to reduce damage to the atmosphere through the protocol. Those four are a conduit between scientists and policymakers.
He’s keen on the power of numbers to help people understand the world around us, if we take them seriously. When he was growing up on Capitol Hill, Newman said, numbers and reading were both important parts of life for him and his six brothers and sisters.
Newman, whose father was a Boeing engineer, said he was not a good student in elementary school, but the teachers at O’Dea pushed him. “They did not let you slack off,” he said. He’d been inspired by the space program and the Century 21 World’s Fair, so he chose to study physics at Seattle University. He said professors taught him to love science, especially Reed Guy, who, Newman said, “taught me how to look at the world from a mathematical, numbers perspective.”
After graduation, Newman worked briefly at Boeing, then went to Iowa State University to work toward a Ph.D. in solid-state physics. But he met a guy in atmospheric science and was hooked.
He’s been with NASA for almost 27 years and is still excited about the science.
“When I first got to NASA, we made a few measurements from space. We could make temperature and humidity profiles, using satellite instruments looking down.”
Now, he said, “We do everything. We are at a golden age of space observation.” He said they can tell how well plants in a particular spot on Earth are growing by detecting their phosphorescence, and even track dust from the Taklamakan Desert in China as it travels across the planet all the way to Seattle.
“Everyday I go into the office and somebody is showing something new and cool. … These data are telling us something about the people who live here, about how our planet is changing.” NASA combines all of those observations and turns the data “into real information people can use in their daily lives, policymakers can use to decide what they’re going to do in the future.”
And in that future, the big item now is climate change, he said. “It’s frustrating, the level of misinformation people have.”
Newman said that when he’s visiting friends and family, “the number that ask me, ‘Is climate change really happening?’ is amazing to me, because the truth of the matter is yeah. The climate really is changing. The data don’t lie. We’re virtually certain that it’s human-produced emissions that are leading the climate change.
“And it’s just frustrating to have to answer the same question over and over. No matter how many times I, as a scientist, will repeat it to my relatives, they’ll hear on the news there’s this equivalency. A scientist says this and a guy from wherever says that.”
He said that the effort to fight ozone depletion faced a similar struggle at first and won out.
There is always hope the facts will overcome skepticism that doesn’t have the numbers on its side.