Todd Sanford – Climate Scientist

William A. Liggett — May 8, 2020

Bill: For someone who is concerned about climate change, I am fortunate to live in Boulder with its large number of scientists working for agencies based here including the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), and several environmental research departments at the University of Colorado. Todd Sanford is a neighbor and one of those climate scientists who I was introduced to recently. He graciously agreed to be interviewed for my blog and review the geoengineering elements of my upcoming novel, Panic Peak, the sequel to Watermelon Snow.

1. What training is required to become a climate scientist?

Todd: One of the really exciting things about climate science is there are many different pathways into the field.  I guess traditionally one would have training in the physics and chemistry of the atmosphere.  But our understanding of climate has really evolved into an Earth System perspective that encompasses physics, chemistry, biology, geology, ecology and other pure sciences.

But also there is growing importance on the social sciences as so much about adapting to present and future climate change, choices on reducing emissions, and developing climate policy depend on what society values and how they make decisions.  Those questions reside firmly in the social sciences.  But it’s becoming more the case that multi- and interdisciplinary scholars who can talk across fields are needed.

2. What is your educational background?

Todd: My educational background is in chemistry and physics.  My doctoral work was in physical chemistry and dealt with quantum mechanics and spectroscopy (the study of how light interacts with matter).

3. What climate-related work experiences have you had?

Todd: I’ve worked in many aspects of climate.  I first started at NOAA in Boulder where I built aircraft instruments to measure the chemical and optical properties of aerosols in the atmosphere.  Aerosols are very important for the climate system and big source of uncertainty in the amount of climate change to come.

I then worked in global climate modeling using computer simulations.  I ventured into the non-profit world working on topics such as the public health impacts of climate change, connections between climate change and extreme weather events, and ecosystem impacts of climate change with a focus on wildfires and drought.

I was also heavily involved in how climate science informs public policy and general science communication on climate issues.

4. What are the biggest risks from climate change here in Boulder, Colorado?

Todd: I am particularly concerned about the availability of water (both too much and too little, i.e. floods and droughts), wildfires, and impacts to our already generally poor air quality.

But as the coronavirus has shown us the world is a highly connected place with events in one area of the globe potentially affecting many other areas.  So I worry about climate’s impact on the growing regions of the world and the implications for food availability and prices in Boulder, for instance.  Basically, climate disruptions and impacts can potentially be felt everywhere.

5. Are we approaching irreversible global warming?

Todd: We are actually already there in terms of warming we’ve already experienced.  Carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas and agent of climate change, has a very long lifetime in the atmosphere once emitted.  It’s in the atmosphere where it causes our climate to warm.  Some portion of carbon dioxide emitted today will be there in 1000s of years contributing to warming.  So scientists have shown that even if emissions went to zero tomorrow temperatures would remain elevated for a very long time.

In the timeframe of any human lifetime we’re stuck with the warming so far.  That is unless some forms of geoengineering take place that could reduce temperatures faster.  So cutting emissions today is about limiting ongoing climate change in the future and not reducing already elevated temperatures.  We’re basically locked into those.

6. What actions can we take as individuals to limit global warming?

Todd: Choices on how we get our energy is what has led to our current climate predicament.  So obviously seeking out sources of clean, renewable energy that have low to zero carbon emissions are a helpful step.  This can be what sort of car you drive, purchasing energy efficient appliances, utilizing public transportation, limiting flying, smart home thermostats, etc.

But the availability of clean energy is heavily dependent on policy.  So supporting policy or candidates that drive transitions to clean energy could be useful.

Finally, talking about climate change with family and friends is probably an underappreciated action.  It’s one of the major global issues that often take a backseat to more immediate issues like disease outbreaks or extreme weather events.  It definitely falls into the category of a chronic rather than an acute issue and can be hard to keep attention on it.

7. When should climate researchers become climate advocates?

Todd: That is really up to the individual researchers and where their comfort levels reside.  Some want to stick only to the science and stay very clear of policy and advocacy discussions.  Others craft their lines of inquiry to support climate action.

While I spent time as an advocate my personal comfort level is carrying out policy-relevant science, but not policy-prescriptive.  I’m happy to talk with a policymaker about the implications of a new wildfire study, but I stop short of saying that this science means you need to support policy x, y, or z.

Over the 20 or so years I’ve been in climate science, I have seen a shift towards scientists becoming more vocal overall in how the science they are doing impacts policy.  The separation between science and policy seems less of a clear line in the sand now and this is probably indicative of the sense of urgency many are feeling in managing climate change now.

8. What will it take for the majority of Americans to demand climate action?

Todd: I think continued extreme weather events that can be linked scientifically to a warming world will start increasing awareness and the demand for solutions.  I think we’re already seeing this to some extent.

My personal opinion is that action will come more from the side of energy economics.  At some point renewable energy will become economically more viable than fossil fuels and zero emission energy generation and availability will become the norm.  So I see climate action happening more with a shift in energy sources than people in the streets demanding climate-friendly policies.  It could be a combination.

The challenge, though, is that unlike many problems humanity has faced in the past, managing climate change and its impacts gets harder to deal with the longer we wait.  So time is really of the essence.  Will it be enough in time?

9. How might the response to the coronavirus inform our response to climate change?

Todd: I haven’t thought about climate-coronavirus connections a whole lot, yet.  I guess the first thing that jumps out is we’re seeing the limits that large groups of people are willing to sacrifice, especially when it comes to the economy.

Some estimates have the global lockdown leading to a reduction of about 10% in carbon amounts in the atmosphere compared to what was otherwise expected.  And this is likely to rebound as emissions in China are already increasing.  This will be the case all over the world as economies come back online.  Now compare this to needing to reduce emissions globally by essentially 100% and stay there to have temperature increases level off.  This is to say that the coronavirus pandemic has shown that reducing emissions by limiting economic activity is really not at all feasible.

I think the lesson is that emissions reductions need to come from transitioning to other sources of energy with zero emissions and with minimal economic disruption or many people just will not support it.  Especially in the case of a problem like climate that plays out over longer time scales, impacting people in different parts of the world to differing degrees, making it much less of a clear and present danger to everyone than something like coronavirus.

I would also say that the pandemic has shown how critical a properly functioning health care system is (and unfortunately its many current limitations) in dealing with a major global issue like a pandemic.  Climate change will have numerous health impacts, so hopefully lessons learned and improvements from this pandemic will help manage the health impacts of climate change and extreme weather.

[Featured Image: Todd Sanford conducting field research for NOAA in Costa Rica with aircraft instruments he designed and built to measure the optical and chemical properties of atmospheric aerosols.]

Bill Liggett writes fiction that blends behavioral and earth sciences in the new literary genre “cli-fi,” or climate fiction. In Watermelon Snow, his first novel, a long-frozen virus melts from a glacier, threatening a pandemic. His second novel, Panic Peak, (in process) entails a plot to geoengineer the earth’s climate. The planned third novel in the trilogy paints a hopeful future, based on solutions to global warming.

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Howard Weiss
Howard Weiss
May 10, 2020 1:11 pm

Excellent interview. Powerful statement that we are already past the point of making significant climate impact in our lifetime.But switching to zero emission energy is best pathway. He steers clear of policy conclusions, but combination of federal incentives and lower costs vs fossil fuels will be necessary.

I hope our pandemic experience will yield increased community/societal/world level perspectives rather than increased nationalistic competition. U.S. should lead the world in collaborative international efforts. That will take change in presidential leadership.