Yesterday I found myself in an interesting conversation with a biologist regarding climate change. We were talking about how the loss of permafrost will be particularly devastating given the positive feedback loop that will lead to warmer temperatures. The subject was carbon emissions…
And that’s exactly where I was focused when I started seriously studying climate change. I was a graduate student at the University of Maine in the School of Marine Science interested in ocean acidification – the way all of our excess carbon is changing ocean pH and the marine environment in ways we cannot yet predict. (A topic that has yet to make a dent in the mainstream media, but soon we won’t be able to ignore as easily).
From there I moved into the political realm, working for Senator Bill Nelson on oceans, environment, and energy. It was the year of An Inconvenient Truth and emphasis was on whether cap and trade might pass. On the Hill, climate was inextricably linked to policy discussions that would ultimately fail, setting us back at least 10 years.
Next came Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment where climate is on everyone’s mind. I was part of The Pimm Group, which is interested in the conservation of biodiversity by saving forests. And since deforestation contributes tremendously to our GHG problem, reforestation would not only trap carbon, but also protect hotspots for threatened species.
Four years later I moved to UT’s Austin’s School of Engineering. Same topic, different language. Climate, after all, is really an energy conversation. Engineers are a more optimistic generally, but very practical as well. At The Webber Energy Group, we were focused on finding solutions through new technologies and more efficient practices.
Now I work at the McCombs School of Business as Director of UT’s Project on Energy Communication. It’s an initiative to understand public attitudes and perceptions of energy topics like hydraulic fracturing, the Keystone Pipeline, renewables, and more–which in turn, will be extremely useful in related policy discussions.
I don’t expect many people spend time in as many academic silos as I have–and with each step I’ve come to appreciate a different way of thinking about the same problem. The language, expertise, interests, and motivations change along the way, but they are all players in a much larger symphony that tells the story of, perhaps, the greatest global challenge we face: A changing planet.
I still have much to learn. But that’s just the point. We all do. So while it’s easy to barricade ourselves off from other compartmentalized departments by presuming we’re the ones who truly understand the arduous road ahead, that’s a losing strategy.
Instead, keep an open mind and talk to colleagues in other fields. You might begin to perceive your own questions in a myriad of new ways. And if we work hard at understanding each other – we might actually make progress.