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EPA Chief: Weather, Climate Scientists’ Work Is ‘Essential’

PHOENIX – As the sun slowly crept above the desert horizon Wednesday morning, the unmistakable Boston accent of EPA administrator Gina McCarthy jolted to life a room of scientists gathered here for the annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society.

“Are you awake?” she asked, prompting a round a laughter that set the tone for her spirited talk and answers to AMS president William Gail's questions about the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rules that would require states to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants run by fossil fuels.

In her speech, which touched on some of the ways the EPA is altering its thinking on environmental regulation and the need for the U.S. to lead the way on devising solutions to climate change, McCarthy urged the gathered experts to keep pushing the envelope on climate research and to increase their participation in the climate change discussion.

“The work you do is absolutely essential,” she said. “I take what you tell me [about the science] and put it into action.” 

But, she added that “one of the challenges we face is to just have the scientists be more vocal” about the science.

Overall, McCarthy struck an optimistic tone on the ability of the U.S. to lead the global effort to solve the myriad issues that climate change has raised, including reducing greenhouse gases.

“If there is ever a challenge where the U.S. can shine and provide leadership, it is the challenge of climate change,” she said. In addition to the administration’s plans, she cited local efforts, from plans by cities like Fort Collins, Colo. — where she had been the previous day — to recreate natural wetlands to absorb floodwaters, to the growth of renewable energy.

“We are beginning to go crazy with renewable energy in many areas of the country,” McCarthy said.

Those examples show that “I think people are beginning to get the fact that we have challenges we cannot run away from,” she said.

While there are still segments of the population, including myriad politicians, who haven’t accepted the scientific consensus on climate change, “I can’t worry about that,” McCarthy said. Her focus is on the increasing proportion of the public and business community that realize the scope of the problem posed by warming and are looking for action to avoid economic costs in the future.

While not a climate scientist herself, McCarthy said the changes in the past few decades are clear: “I remember what the world was like when I was a kid and if you don’t think the world has changed, you’re nuts,” she said.

McCarthy acknowledged that the emissions cuts proposed by the EPA won’t by themselves lead to the changes that experts like those at Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have said will be needed between now and the middle of the century to avoid the worst effects of climate change, but that such measures are necessary to get the ball rolling and establish momentum.

Previous efforts at climate action made 15 to 20 years ago “asked people for way too much too fast,” she said. Likening climate action to a marathon, she added, “you have to pace yourself.”

Some scientists, though, have argued for deeper emissions cuts to be made sooner to avoid reaching the threshold of a 2°C rise in average temperatures that has been deemed the “safe” level of warming.

Acknowledging the global nature of climate change, McCarthy said that world action is necessary, but that a clear signal that the U.S. is acting on climate will spur other major polluting nations such as China and India to take action and trigger investments in technologies.

“Some country is going to be developing the technologies,” she said, citing the major growth of solar energy in China as an example. “We’re running to catch up with them. Why aren’t we first?”

EPA map showing all U.S power plants affected by the Clean Power Plan announced Monday. Credit: EPA

Ultimately, getting the public on board with any action on climate change means communicating “in a way that’s not based on fear, but in a way that’s based on opportunity.”

The EPA can’t just talk about “dire environmental consequences,” she said. “We have to talk about solutions and we have to talk about the economy” as we’re developing those solutions.

She asked for the atmospheric science community’s help in the effort to get both the facts of climate change and potential solutions across to the public.

“I cannot tell you how important it is for you” to keep connecting the dots of climate change, she said, and to communicate it in a way that, in a self-deprecating nod, “even people dense enough to work in government” can understand.

Several of the scientists in attendance were receptive to McCarthy’s message.

Scientists enjoy talking about their work and do make efforts at communicating with the public, Daniel Kirk-Davidoff, who is chief scientist of weather and climate for a private forecast company and an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland, said. “There are only so many hours in the day, of course, but I agree it's something we should all work on doing well, and be willing to do whenever we have an opportunity,” he wrote in an email.

Jim Gandy, chief meteorologist for WLTX19 in Columbia, S.C., said that many of McCarthy’s concerns were why he makes considerable effort to explain climate change to his viewers. He said that EPA’s Clean Power Plan was a case where the public was confused because of differing reduction numbers.

“I think the EPA’s got some educating to do,” he said.

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