Northwest scientists have played a central role in researching and writing global-climate reports during the past two decades.
Phil Mote spent Friday morning as he usually does: rowing around Lake Washington, marveling at the changing landscape that he has spent his life trying to understand.
But this was no ordinary day.
Earlier this year, Mote, a scientist for the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group, was the lead author of a chapter on changing snow, ice and tundra in a report by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
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And that means on Friday Mote joined thousands of other researchers from all over the globe — including dozens from the Northwest — who are sharing the Nobel Peace Prize.
“It was a beautiful moment to be on the water,” Mote said. “And it was a lot to think about.”
The Northwest scientists who were part of the IPCC are primarily from the University of Washington, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland. Collectively they have toiled for years in relative obscurity, playing varying roles in the global climate report.
On Friday, those scientists expressed elation. But universally, it wasn’t for their own accomplishments. Instead, they all spoke of hope that the prestigious award would elevate the cause.
“To actually be involved has been a great privilege,” said Mote, who is also the Washington state climatologist.
“But during the last 20 years there have been four major assessment reports, and special-issue reports in between, each having dozens, if not hundreds, of authors. … It has been a massive effort.”
For example, some researchers, such as David Battisti, a UW professor of atmospheric sciences, largely contributed by producing raw science. In doing so, he helped put to rest talk of the kinds of abrupt climate changes portrayed in Hollywood films such as the 2004 flick “The Day After Tomorrow.” And the international panel has cited Battisti’s research on how natural El Niño weather cycles and climate variability fit with climate change.
“This effort literally has involved thousands of scientists,” Battisti said.
Many researchers, such as Ruby Leung, with PNNL, and Tim Bates, Michael McPhade, Chris Sabine and Richard Feeley, all with NOAA, contributed to the IPCC reports.
Others, such as UW professors Mike Wallace, Edward Sarachik and Justin Wettstein, also reviewed chapters of many complex IPCC reports, scrutinizing them to make sure they included only the most defensible science.
Some, such as Dominique Bachelet, an Oregon State University biology professor who works in Olympia for the Nature Conservancy, did both.
“It’s pretty remarkable,” Wallace said of the prize. “It’s something I never would have dreamed of. I think it will prod us as individuals to start taking the issue more seriously. And the needed policy changes aren’t going to happen without personal changes.”
Often a “thankless job”
But Wallace, like Battisti and other scientists, directed the praise to others who wrote chapters, went to meetings, gave lectures and endlessly defended the work amid a barrage of politically charged criticism.
“Those people justly deserve a lot of credit for gradually turning public opinion in the direction of acknowledging the existence of global warming,” Wallace said. “For them, it’s been an extremely thankless job.”
Some of those people, such as Dean Hegg, a professor of atmospheric chemistry at UW, drafted sections of early reports about basic science. Others, such as Mote, Ed Miles, also with UW’s Climate Impacts Group, and Mike Scott, with PNNL, had been lead authors on portions of IPCC reports.
Miles wrote a chapter about marine policy in the mid-1990s; Scott authored a working-group report this year about impacts of climate change and the ways the planet can adapt.
Few of the scientists said they planned to celebrate.
Miles spent Friday flying back from a conference. Wallace was at work in his office.
Mote on Friday was preparing to catch a plane to Oregon, where he was scheduled to deliver one of a dozen climate-change speeches he is set to give this month alone. Then it’s back to Seattle for another lecture Sunday at the Washington Convention and Trade Center downtown, titled “Global Climate Change: Hoax or Catastrophe?”
Next weekend, he’s headed to Southern Mississippi with a church group to help rebuild homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
“Not that I’m saying Katrina was a result of global warming,” he interjected. “But I guess you could say I feel some connection with the risks.”
Craig Welch: 206-464-2093