Climate Scientists Are People, Too

scientist at weather station in Malaysia

Researcher Christine Fletcher stands atop a weather station in Malaysia’s Pasoh Forest Reserve. (© Benjamin Drummond)

I’m a correspondent for Showtime’s new series “Years of Living Dangerously — in good company with a range of other dedicated climate change advocates, including Harrison Ford, Jessica Alba, Thomas Friedman and Don Cheadle.

As I’ve been going around the U.S. speaking about the series at venues from South by Southwest to the World Bank, audiences repeatedly ask me one question: “What have you learned about climate change from working on this series?”

My answer is simple: When it comes to science-laden topics like climate change, the messenger is as important as the message.

Take Dr. Kim Cobb, an all-star climatologist from Georgia Tech. Her work routinely takes her to far-flung destinations 10,000 miles away from her husband and kids in Atlanta. Viewers will meet her this Sunday, when my “Years of Living Dangerously” episode (the third in the series) debuts, and they will love her.

Kim is smart enough to have any job in the world. Instead, she has chosen to travel for weeks at a time to tropical Pacific atolls, where she dives on remote coral reefs and takes core samples with a gigantic drill. She told me that she originally started out studying medicine but switched to climate when she realized climate change may very well kill more people than any disease out there.

Like any parent, she struggles to balance work and family. From a thatch roof hut that serves as her lab on Christmas Island, I watched her try to Skype with her kids back home on her birthday — a celebration she would have to spend with us rather than her family. When she told me that it “breaks her heart” to work on a beautiful atoll that is disappearing beneath rising seas, I believed her. (Watch a clip of Sanjayan and Kim Cobb in Sunday’s episode below.)

Then there’s Dr. Paul Mayewski, a senior climate researcher who runs the University of Maine’s famed “ice labs.”

Paul literally risks his life exploring some of the most forbidding corners of the Earth to gather climate data. I know this because he risked mine as well when we filmed a sequence with him (for the series’ final episode) climbing up to almost 20,000 feet [6,100 meters] to collect ice cores from glaciers on top of an Andean volcano called Tupungato. For me, it was a near-death experience, with boulders the size of basketballs careening down the mountain.  For Paul, it was a brisk commute to work.

But Paul isn’t just, as I like to call him, the Indiana Jones of climate research. He has a comfortable home by the water in Maine, a soft spot for his boisterous labs and a dinghy he likes to sail with his wife. He oversees a large group of graduate students whom he is clearly proud of and in whom he places an enormous amount of faith in tackling the big challenges of climate science. He’s the sort of guy you’d want to call up on a Wednesday afternoon to leave work early for a beer on an outdoor patio.

Google Kim Cobb or Paul Mayewski and you’ll discover lots about their credentials, their publications, extended honors for their work. Chances are, though, you’ll find very little about who they are as people. That’s typical for scientists. We tend to hide behind our data — that’s pretty much the nature of being a scientist. It’s drilled into our heads from an early age.

For climate change science, that’s a huge problem. See, people don’t believe data. They believe people.

Look at Atul Gawande’s brilliant 2013 New Yorker article on how good ideas take hold: It’s never because the data was just that good. Vaccinations, antiseptic practices, even simple, lifesaving maternal care solutions all took hold because of empathy and human interaction, not because the data was so convincing or because the rules demanded it. “Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process,” Gawande writes.

In my “Years of Living Dangerously” episodes, we tried our best to show climate researchers first as people, then as credible scientists. We wanted to see them in the field rather than in a lab. We forbade white coats.

Once upon a time, being a scientist was automatically equated with trust — but for some groups of people, that time has passed. Today’s culture demands more in terms of seeing professionals such as doctors, nurses, teachers and yes, scientists, as people.  When we show scientists as human, with all the frailties, foibles and opinions humans have, it makes them more like one of us, more authentic and more trusted.

Don’t get me wrong — good data is of course supremely important, but it’s no longer sufficient.  When scientists are seen as human, they are more likable, and when they are likable they are believed.

M. Sanjayan is an executive vice president and senior scientist at CI.


  1. Dipanjan Mitra says

    If I was asked “What have you learned about climate change from working on this series?”, I would have said, mankind should think of protecting themselves first rather than thinking about saving the planet. A hurricane, tornado, tsunami, earthquake or a flood does not hit an area thinking about the the hundreds and thousands of people. They just thrash us with raw power in front of which we are helpless absolutely. If nature thinks that she will hit us hard, she WILL. So I feel personally, we need to think about saving ourselves more than thinking of saving the earth. The earth will still remain to be round even if we are wiped off. Thanks.

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