Got Science? Podcast | Episode 35 From Ozone Fixer to Presidential Speech Writer

June 12, 2018

Atmospheric scientist Don Wuebbles discusses ozone recovery, all-nighters at the White House, and communicating climate science

In this episode Dr. Wuebbles talk about:

  • The hole in the ozone layer
  • The time he pulled an all nighter to help former president Barack Obama
  • The importance of science communication
  • His optimism about the future of the environment

Timing and cues:

  • Teaser quote (0:00-0:22)
  • Opener (0:22-0:59)
  • Introduction (0:59-2:58)
  • Interview Pt. 1 (2:58-16:10)
  • Break (16:10-16:31)
  • Interview Pt. 2 (16:31-25:56)
  • This Week in Science History throw (25:56-26:00)
  • This Week in Science History (26:02-28:34)
  • Outro (28:34-29:20)

Related content:

Full Transcript

Although they may seem like distant memories… many times in our recent past, we’ve come together in this country around environmental challenges. Through a combination of robust science, strong, informed advocacy, and smart policy, we’ve been able to address these challenges, and implement solutions that protect ourselves and the planet from further harm.

Remember acid rain? Burning rivers? These aren’t things in the United States anymore, thanks to science and our collective action.

And remember the hole in the ozone layer? That’s another success story, made possible in part by our guest today, atmospheric physicist Don Wuebbles. Dr. Wuebbles was among the scientists who worked to determine the cause and policy solutions of the damage to our stratospheric ozone. His expertise and advocacy on the subject have led to the gradual recovery of the ozone layer, which is undeniably awesome. Another awesome thing about Dr. Wuebbles is that he’s still a passionate believer in our power to use science to tackle our most urgent crises—namely, climate change.

Dr. Wuebbles is the Harry E. Preble endowed professor in atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He served as assistant director of the federal Office of Science and Technology Policy for two years under President Obama. He’s a fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Meteorological Society. He’s been lead author on reports for the UN’s intergovernmental panel on climate change. And he joined us on the podcast to talk about fixing the ozone layer… effective science communication… and that time he pulled an all-nighter to rewrite a presidential speech for Barack Obama.

Matt: Thanks, Colleen. And thank you, Dr. Wuebbles. Thanks for joining us on the Got Science podcast.

Dr. Wuebbles: Oh, I'm happy too.

Matt: Great. So, you were instrumental in discovering the hole in the ozone layer. Can you tell me a little bit about that work?

Dr. Wuebbles: I started out my career studying stratospheric ozone, first got started in 1970 studying the potential effects of then proposed supersonic transport aircraft on the ozone layer, and with colleagues, that no one developed one of the very first models with chemistry and physics to study the impacts of that. In 1974, Molina and Rowland then discovered that chlorofluorocarbons could affect ozone. And soon after that, that was at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, by that point, I started doing some papers with them. Then around the early 1980s, the British Antarctic Survey discovered that there appeared to be a decrease occurring during the springtime in Antarctica. And many of us, were speculating as to, you know, what might be causing this?

And Sherry Rowland had suggested that there's some reactions they had been looking at the laboratory that appeared only to work on surfaces, but nonetheless, we should try to take a look at those in our model, that we had at Livermore. And I and one my colleagues looked at those. We found that, if they were gas phase, that they maybe could explain some of the ozone hole but maybe not sufficiently. But we didn't have a clear connection to particles that would explain these reactions occurring on surfaces. We were at American Geophysical Union meeting that December, and had lunch with Susan Solomon. And Susan got very interested in what we were looking at, and she said could she look at it as well. And we said, "Sure."

And a few weeks later, actually, I think she was writing the first draft of our paper on Christmas Day, actually, we had concluded that maybe these heterogeneous reactions on polar stratospheric clouds, which were kind of unknown up almost to that point, that could be the cause of this stratospheric ozone hole. And then that was substantiated by further observations. Actually, Susan led one group going to Antarctica, and then there were several other series of observations that kind of backed up what we were concluding. Mario Molina, then kind of hammered it at home by finding that the chlorine dimer reactions could further destroy ozone, connected with those heterogeneous reactions. So, it just kind of all kind of fell together through interactions with others in the science community.

Matt: Great. And once the science was confirmed, what was causing the hole on the ozone layer, what did you do? Were you involved in the policy work that eventually banned CFCs or was your work done at that point?

Dr. Wuebbles: Oh, no. Well, at the same time, I had been looking at metrics for potential effects on ozone from different chemicals, and I developed a concept called Ozone Depletion Potential. So that became a vital part of the Montreal Protocol and the US Clean Air Act. So, those contributed to the policy development. So, I was trying to look at the questions of how one kind of has to connect science with policy making, because I quickly found as I would talk to the agencies about policy that they were mostly...the policy side, was always led by lawyers who really didn't understand the science. So, how can I kind of simplify the science to help with the policy making? And so, that was one of the concepts I came up with. Later on, for IPCC, I helped in development of a similar concept called Global Warming Potentials, which is now part of the Paris Agreement.

Matt: Can you talk a little bit more when you talk about simplifying the science communication or translating some of the work that you're doing in a way that's helpful and makes sense for policy makers?

Dr. Wuebbles: Well, it's always a key aspect as a scientist is how do we translate the science in a way or communicate it to people so they can understand the complexity of what we're talking about but yet grasp why that's important to them. And so, one of the things I've always worried about was the whole question of communication. Some of my students actually came to me specifically because I was worried about communication. Katherine Hayhoe, who has since become very well known as a communicator, came to me, as one of my first graduate students in Illinois, because she was concerned about that aspect, and knew that I was someone that was worried about that.

Matt: Okay. Yeah. We can circle back a little bit on the science communication piece at the end.

Dr. Wuebbles: Sure.

Matt: And can you tell me a little bit about what the current state of the Ozone is, after all of these efforts?

Dr. Wuebbles: Just in the last few years, we have some indication that the stratospheric ozone is beginning to recover very, very slowly. It took longer than I expected it might be, actually, before we start really seeing real signs of recovery. But, you know, it's hard to get enough... Given natural variability, it's hard to get clear science of a turnaround in the ozone, but now we appear to be there. There's been several independent studies now suggesting that. So, gradually, over the, you know, next four or five decades, the ozone layer should recover, particularly with the focus being on what's happening in Antarctica, because that's where the biggest changes are, to gradually, you know, return to the state it was back in the 1980s. It never will quite return there, because meanwhile we've been increasing the amount of carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide, and methane in the atmosphere, and that's gonna impact the ozone layer as well. But the total ozone, in terms of the amount of ultraviolet, may be comparable to by then to what we had back at that time period.

Matt: Great. So, if we could shift gears a little bit and talk about your time, and work at the White House, I'm curious to hear more about your role there and your experiences?

Dr. Wuebbles: Sure. Well, I had been one of the leaders in the 2013 IPCC Assessment, I led chapter one for that. And then in 2014, I was one of the leaders in the US National Climate Assessment. And I served a similar role in the 2009 National Climate Assessment. I expect those things prompted John Holdren to call me one day. I think it was in March of 2015. I suddenly got this phone call, and John asked me if I could come to the White House. The funny thing is, I think I'd always kind of avoided D.C because it's got all these political creatures there, and I'm not that political. I'm more in science. But, nonetheless, I felt that was service to my country, and I needed to do that. So, I agreed to go to D.C for two years.

And so, I went in early June of 2015, and now I returned back to Illinois, actually, to the University in June of 2017. I was at the Office of Science Technology Policy as an assistant director, responsible for climate science, which basically means I was the primary person that the president would call upon in relating to any questions related to climate science. And I passed any memos up forward through John. Well, I sent John's name on them rather than mine. But nonetheless, when I did meet President Obama, he acknowledged that he knew about my memos. He was very interested in science, and so, you know, by our keeping him up on what was happening, I think it was really helpful to the country as it was looking at what we should be doing with both the Paris Agreement and in developing our own climate action plans back in that time period.

Matt: Are there any memorable moments or anecdotes from your time there that jump to mind when you remember that period?

Dr. Wuebbles: Yeah, several smiles come to the mind there. Because the first thing, the first August, particularly, the president was, and John, and several other people from the White House, were going to Alaska for a meeting with the ministers from all the different countries that have some connections to research in the Arctic. And this was being held in Anchorage. I got home late Friday afternoon, early evening, from the Old Executive Building where my office was next to the White House, and within half an hour, I get a ding that an email had arrived from the White House that I needed to look at. And it was the President's speechwriter sending out the speech for the talk that he was gonna give on Monday to the ministerial, and they need my response by 6:00 or 7:00 AM in the morning.

So, about 6:30 PM or so, I started reading it. I realized quickly that the science, from what was happening to the climate, what was happening in the Arctic, was just not properly done at all. And so I started rewriting. I finished at 6:00 AM. I hadn't pulled an all-nighter for many years, probably since I was a student, but, nonetheless, I did that night. And there were several since then, actually, as well. But I essentially rewrote the talk, all of it relating to the science. There were other parts that, you know, weren't pure science, and I had very little impact on those. But most of the talk was about the science, and it was President Obama's really first coming out about the details of the science and why this was concern to humanity.

And so, I think I didn't think too much about it because I thought between Saturday morning and Monday morning, the President's writers would totally rewrite it again, and, you know, I probably wouldn't recognize it, but hopefully the science would be okay. On Monday, I went to the office and got to hear the president speaking. And I was rather shocked that even the intonation that the president used was like I had written it, you know. Like, because I wrote it the way I talk. And I was rather shocked to find that he was giving my talk, at least about the parts about the science. And that was quite exhilarating.

Matt: Wonderful. And in your time at the White House, and your work in the IPCC, and National Climate Assessment, you know, I'm curious, what are some of the significant changes you've seen over the past decade with regard to climate change, about the science in this political environment?

Dr. Wuebbles: Well, I think our understanding has greatly improved the climate change over the last decade and, you know, no question of that. I mean, the observations, and understanding of those observations, and even annual trends in what's happening with the weather systems, and how that relates across the entire system, not just the atmosphere but also the relationship between the atmosphere and the oceans and the biosphere, are so much better understood than it was a decade ago. The net effect is I think a lot more people do get that this is a very important issue. And I think most Americans really understand that this is one of our most important issues. At least some of the polls done by Yale University and others suggest that.

And so, I think the time has been ripe for us to really be taking strong policy actions. I was happy that while I was there, President Obama was aiming at doing that, was trying to do that, the Paris Agreement still going forward towards putting us on the right pathway. It's not sufficient to do what we need to do over the coming decades, but it's certainly on the right pathway, and I think society itself is kind of getting it. We're already seeing a transition in energy and transportation systems that I don't think would've happened so easily without the push from acknowledging the fact that the climate is changing and we need to be concerned about that as human beings.

Matt: Right. And when you look forward to the next 10 years or the decade ahead of us, in climate science, are there any areas that you're particularly excited about or you feel are going to be groundbreaking in some way similar to what we've seen in the past decade?

Dr. Wuebbles: I think we've already seen a very significant increase to understanding of extreme events, particularly. We talk about that in the Fourth National Climate Assessment, which I just led the volume one on the science of climate change. That, I think, will really hammer that home during the next decade. And that's so important to humanity because it isn't the small change in temperature that really matters too much, all that much. It's really what impacts does it have on our lives, and the resulting changes in extremes and increases in sea level, those are the things that really impact us. So, getting a better handle on those things, I think, is really exciting as a scientist. My concern is what we're learning on many of them is that it may be even scarier than we had thought previously. So, you know, for example, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, some studies have suggested that might go much faster than we had thought originally. And if that's the case, then by the end of this century, we could be seeing a much larger sea level rise than our current estimates of one to four feet.


Matt: To shift gears a little bit again, and sort of get back to some of the science communication questions. So, I understand you grew up on a farm, became a scientist, and have gone back to farming communities to talk to farmers about global warming in particular. I'm curious, how do you bridge the gap between your scientific knowledge and the farmers real world experience on the ground? Their on the ground observations, sort of, how do you effectively communicate with those audiences?

Dr. Wuebbles: Yeah. I am the son of a farmer. You know, it's funny, after all these years of education, it's kind of hard for me to go back to the community and talk to them because I'm so caught up in all the words we use for science, the scientific language that it's hard for me to talk to them in the same way that I probably would've many years ago. But, nonetheless, I generally find now that farmers are getting it. They're seeing changes, particularly in extremes, you know. In Illinois, you know, I don't have to talk too much about the changes in the springtime, more rain coming as larger events, about the fact they're having more trouble getting the crops in the field because of that, on and on. You know, the drying in late summer because of the increase in temperature leading more evaporation, and all the other aspects of what we're really seeing in terms of climate change in the midwest, farmers are very sensitive to that. So, they're really beginning to catch on, and even though they may have political viewpoints, and many farmers tending to be conservative that, you know, kind of you shouldn't believe in this thing climate change, they're kind of getting the climate is changing anyway. So, the next step is explaining to them that the only explanation we have for that change is because of human activities. And I'm still working on that with the farming community.

Matt: And when you talk about translating some of the scientific terms that you're so used to using in the field, and with your peers, and colleagues, do you have any advice or recommendations for scientists doing similar things? If you were to share a single tip or recommendation for more effectively communicating science to non-scientific audiences, what that might be?

Dr. Wuebbles: Yeah. I think it really comes down to thinking about the science in a way you would tell your parents or your grandparents. Try to put the outcome of the science into simpler language. You know, those people don't need all the details of what we do and why we do it. They need to hear what the results mean and what it means to them, and why it's important to them. You know, as a scientist, I'm, you know, I recognize the importance of these issues. I know how it's important it's gonna be to our children, our grandchildren. And I'm always striving, can I figure out some way of getting that message across? I'm not as good at it as someone like [Katharine Hayhoe], but I work at it almost daily to try to improve that.

Matt: All right. And in the same vein, are there sort of common mistakes you see with science communicators make that you encourage people to address, or if there were one thing you could change about...

Dr. Wuebbles: I think sometimes we get too caught up in the details, and trying to discuss things that really excite us about the uncertainties and resolving uncertainties. To the common person, uncertainties suggest you don't know anything. So, how do we get around that? And so, we need to talk about what we know and what this means to people, and why that's important. You know, when it comes down to policymakers and needing to know about more of that detail about uncertainty, then we can discuss it.

Matt: I was hoping to hear a little bit about the urban sustainability work you're doing, but first, can you give our listeners a definition of what urban sustainability is?

Dr. Wuebbles: So, if we look at urban environments, and I have kind of a broad picture of urban because, to me, even a city, the size of Champaign and Urbana, which are twin cities, is really an urban environment, even though it's sitting amongst all the cornfields of central Illinois. Cornfields and soybean fields, I gotta be careful, but the... By mid-century, 70% of the world is going to be urban. In the US, it's already kind of at that level, and it's probably gonna be a whole lot higher by then. And so, we need to be thinking about the cities of the future and the many different stresses that they are dealing with. How do we ensure that a city is prepared for that, the changes that are occurring and those stresses? How do they prepare for climate change being one of them, but there's many other stresses they face as well, growing populations in many cases, etc. So, being sustainable to me, it's being prepared for that, being resilient, being ready to deal with the optimal capability of the city of the future.

So, when I came back to the University in June, I immediately got a phone call that President Colleen, Tim Colleen, who's our University President, himself an environmental scientist. He then asked me to be a presidential fellow with the idea that I would work on new initiatives relating to urban sustainability. There's already been, for a long-time, concerns about the university interacting with the city of Chicago, even though we're two hours away from Chicago, but also lots of connections with other cities. And maybe we needed to have more of a focus in that direction. In 2008, I had led an analysis of the effects of climate change on Chicago called the Chicago Climate Action Plan, which in turn has had an impact on making the city much more resilient to things like heat waves and large rainfalls, etc. And so, President Colleen was well aware of that.

So, when asking me to do this, I needed to broaden my horizons and think more generally about all of the issues cities are facing, and I immediately thought that one of the things we should be doing is how could we form a new research center at the university, not just on our campus, but all three University of Illinois campuses. And perhaps combine those capabilities with partners that we got from other major institutions that are still to be defined. To have a new center that would become the go-to place for cities, to really look at their sustainability issues, help them be ready for that, for those coming decades.

So, I'm still in the process of designing what that might look like, I'm working with the faculty in all three campuses right now, towards defining what the center might be. I can't say it's well-defined yet. And of course, one of the big things we're gonna be doing is figuring out, you know, how we're gonna get this thing funded and, you know, probably going with foundations or, you know, large companies to help support it. But I think there's a lot of potential there. I think there's still a lot of need. There are various other universities working on various aspects of urban sustainability. I'm looking at this being much more comprehensive, being not just in Illinois, but nationally and internationally. And if we can do this right, then I think it could be a great resource both for our nation and for the world.

Matt: And given the number of challenges that cities face, the stressors, as you put it, are you hopeful, optimistic for the way cities will evolve over the coming century?

Dr. Wuebbles: I think we're seeing a lot of positive things in cities, you know, cites like Chicago and, you know, Portland, Seattle, and a few others are really already thinking about these issues. There's always limitations because of resources and many other aspects, but just by the fact that they're thinking about them, and putting it on their plate of things that they need to be concerned. That's why I'm really interested in this because I think the cities are ready for it, and I think we have capabilities that they could use. So, we're, you know, already beginning to look not only in Chicago but also some other cities around the world towards, you know, how we can help with them and be there as a resource for them.

Matt: So last question for you, you know, given all the challenges we face with climate change and some of the other issues and challenges facing cities, what gives you hope personally as you look forward in the years ahead?

Dr. Wuebbles: I remain optimistic that we as Americans can solve these environmental issues before us. I got asked at the third National Climate Assessment, we had a press conference at the White House, and I got asked by one of the reporters, you know, how could I be optimistic about this? Because everything sounds so dire when you listen to the potential impacts on society and the impacts we're already seeing. I mean, we already have over a trillion dollar impact on the US economy, and most people don't recognize it. But Americans, and people in general, have long been very good problem solvers. And this is a major problem, and we need to deal with it, and I think we can. And it's not gonna be perfect. We're gonna have to adapt to a certain amount of climate change, but I think we can mitigate and stop, slow it down enough, that we can prevent the largest impacts from occurring. You know, it still remains to be seen, but that's, you know, my big concern. And, you know, most of those impacts are gonna are beyond my lifetime, but I'm concerned about, as I said before, our children and our grandchildren, and trying to leave the right kind of legacy for them.

Matt: Thank you, Dr. Wuebbles. It was a pleasure talking to you.

Dr. Wuebbles: Thank you, and was wonderful being able to do this process.

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This Week in Science History: Katy Love
Editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald