True Story: I’m A Climatologist

What's it like to work as a climatologist? How can we, normal citizens, slow climate change? How do you deal with climate deniers? Click through for a not-as-depressing-as-you'd-think interview!

What’s it like to work as a climatologist? What do you do on a day-to-day basis? Do you spend all your time crying? Or just some of your time crying?

In honor of Earth Day, I landed an interview with the smartest, funniest, kindest, most handsome climatologist I know – my husband, Dr. Kenny Blumenfeld. Read on!

Tell us a bit about yourself! 

Sure! I am a 43 year-old climatologist who works for the state of Minnesota, where I am basically the state government’s climate change science point-person. I really love weather and climate stuff, and as a conversation ninja, I will make sure that whatever we’re talking about eventually turns that way.

You will be thinking, “I could have sworn we were discussing my upbringing, but this conversation about tornadoes feels so natural, I’ll just go with it.”

Outside of weather-y stuff, which really does dominate my consciousness, I like biking and adventuring with my kids, and having in-depth conversations with people. Of course, I love spending time doing weird things with my wife, the creator of this blog. (Readers, did you get that? I am married to the owner of this blog and am therefore the least far-flung of all True Story subjects!)  

How does one become a climatologist? 

Well my path wasn’t exactly normal. I was actually such a terrible student who barely graduated high school. I got to college pretty well geared up to be thrown out on academic grounds, which of course happened. Twice. I got it together after a few years of painful lessons and then some hard un-learning and re-learning. But most climatologists are wise enough to skip over the self-sabotage, so in that way, my story isn’t representative of my peers.

In any case, climatology is an atmospheric science, so virtually all climatologists have had extensive training in meteorology, although many came into the field via related disciplines like geography, geology, or environmental science. All routes in are pretty mathematically intensive.

These days, there isn’t a tremendous amount you can do in our field with an undergraduate degree only, so most people need more study. Virtually everyone on the research side has a Ph.D., and I would say at least 75% of all working climatologists have some graduate training. I studied climatology in geography departments and ended up getting a doctoral degree.   

What does your job entail? Do you have an average day on the job?

I spend a lot of my time staying up-to-date on scientific publications in my field, preparing data, making engaging charts and graphics, and putting together together presentations for non-expert but interested audiences. Basically, I am trying to help the people of Minnesota get an evidence-based sense of what the climate of Minnesota is doing and what it is expected to do going forward.

When I started in 2015, I noticed that a lot of very well-intentioned communities, agencies, and organizations were using generalized information about global climate issues for their planning. But some of things happening elsewhere aren’t really issues in Minnesota.

We have two very specific symptoms–we are losing our cold weather extremes rapidly, and our biggest rains are getting bigger and more common. Other states or regions have their own symptoms too, and all of us vary from the whole global story in some important way. Considering that most of my audiences and users are managing natural and recreational resources that are sensitive to climatic changes, helping them see what is and what is not changing here helps them focus their efforts better.

During the summer, I am busy with a new network of climate monitoring stations in Minnesota that I oversee. I get up on ladders, turn pipe wrenches, try not to injure my aging body, troubleshoot programming, and do whatever I can to help get the instruments installed and data flowing.

Lastly, I spend a varying amount of time analyzing and summarizing important weather events for our website, the media, or for anyone who calls our office. We are a public-facing office, and we get 5-10 phone calls per day from people wanting data, more information on some storm, something fact-checked etc. Every so-often we get a stumper, or a question from outer space. We try to serve everyone, and try to resolve every inquiry same-day.

A significant portion of the American public that doesn’t believe in climate change. What are the common arguments climate deniers make? And how do you respond to those arguments?

Belief is actually irrelevant here. Temperatures and sea-levels will keep rising, even if you believe they’re not.  

When someone leads with their beliefs, I ask them to tell me what they understand. And when they’re done, I will tell them what I understand. Advantage: me.

Along the way, I try to tell them that I can see where they were coming from, but here is what I have learned, and here is what some really solid research has confirmed. I have found that when I am open about what we don’t know, or what we’re really not seeing here (for example, Minnesota is warming rapidly but is not getting hotter during the summer–not yet anyway), they trust me enough to keep the conversation going.

My job is apolitical by mandate, and I think that really helps. We’re not going to talk about how you vote or what car you drive. We have our hands talking about what is and is not changing climate-wise in our region. My job is to get you to see that this graph here slopes upward, but this one has been flat for 80 years. So it might be good to focus your planning on the one pointed up.

All of my public speaking is request-driven, and I am often warned that  “these guys are card-carrying deniers.” Lately, I have gotten some invitations on the recommendation of some of those former-doubters. That is, obviously, exceptionally gratifying.  

How do you think the current administration’s behavior with the EPA will affect us and the climate?

Well, they put together a wishlist from hell. “Let’s deregulate backwards by 20-50 years, let’s prevent scientific discussion about the climate, let’s de-fund essential monitoring programs, and let’s yank away vital research funding.”

What makes these new and proposed policies so absurd is how profoundly last-century they are. Inertia is carrying much of the world away from them. Many states and many big players in the private sector are already committed to moving forward, and I hear from communities all the time that are very conservative but for economic reasons have started being more conservation-minded.

Electrical utilities have started embracing clean and competitively cheap alternatives to coal and oil. These throwback policies are very unpopular, and hopefully won’t make it very long.

I imagine some people have a hard time caring about climate change because it seems so far away and incremental. Like, what does two degrees matter? What are the real, day-to-day changes we’ll see as temperatures rise?

Yes, how can I care about a slow-motion global problem when there’s a video of a someone’s pet turtle humping a bucket?

We have already seen things we never thought possible with our slightly-less-than 1-degree C of warming, so I don’t think we can really picture what’s to come. What it means where you live really depends on where you live. Coastal areas have to face inundation, erosion, and other direct impacts.

For those of us mid-continenters, we may see far more indirect impacts than direct ones: landscape changes, new invasive pests, shifting resource availability, and altered recreational opportunities. The changing climate is already affecting everything we know, but not always directly.

Are you afraid of losing your job? Are you afraid of speaking about these things publicly?

As a state employee funded entirely by state revenue, the current administration has no bearing on what I do. But we are sensitive to changing political landscapes at the state level, and who knows what the future holds in that regard? Speaking about climate publicly is part of my job, and I absolutely embrace it. If I get to a point where I can’t, then we’ll really be in trouble.

You’re dealing with a hostile federal administration, seemingly impending doom, people who don’t believe in the work you do – how do you keep your spirits up?

We serve a lot of people, and most of them are very happy with us. That helps. I also have great colleagues and am surrounded by dedicated people who work hard. It’s also really encouraging to see so many communities, even ones with no money, that are trying to soften their impact and become resilient.

So even though things can seem bleak, I often see all the things that are working well. It’s hard to get too bummed out when you have a bunch of happy customers who are working hard to address their own roles in the changing climate.  

Lastly, what do you think the next generation of climate change scientists and problem-solvers should focus on?

Ooh, that’s a good question! I hope that in my lifetime we will see an important technological innovation that does not come at the expense of the natural world. We have not seen one yet, so the result of every breakthrough has been some sort of damage. But if we get to the point where we can innovate with no collateral damage, that will be special and will mean we might have a chance at doing this whole people-on-earth thing without destroying our environment.

Also, I think we need a new communication model. Let’s stop talking at people and start talking to them. And let’s listen. Just like we insist that we should be basing our policies on the best science, we probably need to admit that communication professionals and social scientists who understand human behavior better than physical climatologists do, are going to be critical partners in understanding and communicating climate and other scientific issues to the rest of the world.

Thanks so much for sharing, Kenny! Do you guys have any questions for him? What are you doing to reduce your carbon footprint? 

P.S. Two more interviews to restore your faith in humanity: a social worker who finds homes for ‘hard to adopt’ kids + a teacher in a low-income, urban school

photos by Margo Brodowicz and Sasha Landskov 

11 Comments

Lindsey

Great post! I would love to know some resources that would help the layperson understand climate change. (And by layperson I may be speaking of someone who avoided as much math and science during her undergrad and grad years while still getting a viable degree. Ahem).

Reply
Kenny Blumenfeld

Hi Lindsey. You can get a really nice overview of what’s going on from the National Climate Assessment, which is a comprehensive summary of the science written for non-expert audiences. Go here and choose “Explore Highlights,” and I think you’ll find some good stuff that gets you up to speed without a single equation! http://nca2014.globalchange.gov/

Reply
Stephanie

Sarah, thank you for this post! I LOVE it! And thank you, Dr. Blumenfeld, for agreeing to this interview. I have a MA in environmental writing and stewardship, so I really appreciate reading something about climate change that is so easy to understand. I’m going to be sharing this article for sure.

Reply
Kenny Blumenfeld

Thanks Stephanie! The questions were not necessarily easy to answer, so I’m glad you think it worked!

Reply
Leah

Thank you so much for the work you do! I’m a science teacher, and I just taught about climate change. Wish I had the time to get a speaker in, because I think that would help my students. We did do a data analysis lab on ice-out on Minnesota’s lakes (love the data set available — from the DNR). Sadly, because of weather fluctuations, some of my hardcore deniers weren’t convinced, even though we calculated trend lines of earlier ice-out.

I’m a transplant to Minnesota and came here because I love the four seasons, and I am so nervous about the future of this gorgeous state. Know that I will continue to support you and your office! And I will look into doing a better unit next year 🙂

Reply
Kenny Blumenfeld

Well, if it’s in Minnesota, we can probably help with speaking, if given enough notice. Just send a note to climate@umn.edu, and we can hook you up! Welcome to Minnesota, BTW! 🙂

Reply
Katharine

Thanks so much, Sarah and Kenny, for a post on such an important topic!

As someone who is deeply concerned about the climate but non-expert, it can feel really difficult to know what actions I can take that actually make a difference. Everyone’s heard the “turn off the lights and avoid signle-use plastics” advice, but that really doesn’t feel like enough!

On an individual basis, what do you think best way for a person to focus their time/energy/money that will actually impact the rate of climate change? Not eating meat? Buying fewer clothes? Purchasing carbon offsets for air travel? Donating to environmental protection groups?

Reply
Kenny Blumenfeld

All of the above!?! I certainly can do better in some of these categories myself. I try to bike whenever possible. Sarah is really good about making her life walkable, and that makes a huge difference. We try to be conscientious about how and when we use energy, and how many resources we are using/wasting.

Reply
Calluna

Hi! I’m a government air quality scientist from a southern red state so I am feeling a lot of cross-over here. 🙂

I completely agree that this is a case where belief does not matter, and I actually address climate change most easily in my work by… not addressing it. That is, almost everything that can be done to address climate change is multi-beneficial. For example, one can address climate change through energy efficiency, renewable energy, cleaner fuel technology and retrofits, etc… most of these things benefit the national security, the national economy, and public health. So if they also address climate change, call it a bonus, and who cares if you believe in climate change or not – because doesn’t everyone believe in national security, using the newest and most appropriate technology, and public health? So let’s focus on those things we agree on, and everyone wins… even if you don’t say the C word (shh, climate). At least that’s where we have the most success down here in the red areas. (I am sure the two of us could gossip for days about these topics)

Outside of that, if you have never been to the BECC conference… it’s amazing! I’ve only been able to go a few times over the years (since it contains the C word in the title), but the focus on communicating scientific and technical messages as well as the social psychology research in regards to these issues is very astute. The conference is huge. I learned a ton. I recommend it to everyone. Maybe you’ve already been. It’s so good…

OK BUT I have been tossing around this question for years, and seen various takes on it from different experts. I am curious on your take. It is this: Natural gas power generation, compared to oil or coal power generation, in regards to climate change specifically. YES it produces significantly less CO2 and moderately less NOx, but it also produces more CH4… which I understand is a more potent greenhouse gas… and aside from stack emissions, natural gas also has line loss emissions which are much more quantitatively ambiguous. So: is natural gas generation really that much better for climate change, or is it not, assuming all the facilities in question are in compliance and using current emission control technologies and methods?

General consensus seems to have settled out to be yes, natural gas generation is more climate-friendly than other fossil fuel generation, even taking into account methane’s 25 CO2e and line leaks. Would you agree with that?

Reply
Deb

The thing I don’t understand about people’s responses to climate change is that it is fact that the fossil fuels are running out. Don’t we need to be preparing for that right now? So that when they do run out we can keep the lights on? In order to do that we need to invest in green energy. It’s an investment that absolutely has to be made and I would rather do that now, before it’s a problem and we have time to figure it out properly, than when there’s no gas/coal/oil left and it’s panic stations.

The research I’ve done leads me to understand that humans are contributing to climate change and that the single biggest contributing factor is livestock farming BUT even if someone disagrees, they cannot disagree that climate change is occurring and we’re going to have to deal with it.

With regards to energy companies, I feel like they haven’t realised that people will still need to consume energy when there are no fossil fuels. Surely the energy companies would want to have the right technology and infrastructure in place so that they can continue to profit in the way they do now? Unless they invest in green technology they won’t be able to.

I believe in looking after people and the planet because it’s the right thing to do, but there’s an awful lot of profit to be had in the future green energy market so it confuses the hell out of me why people aren’t going after it.

Reply

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.