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Dr. Warren Washington, pioneering scientist, on the birth of climate modeling and advising six presidents

Paula DiPerna, CDP North America Special Advisor

President Barack Obama presenting Dr. Warren Washington with the Medal of Science, one of the nation’s most illustrious scientific awards.
President Barack Obama presenting Dr. Warren Washington with the Medal of Science, one of the nation’s most illustrious scientific awards.

“You gave my talk!” Dr. Warren Washington teased Barack Obama, then a U.S. Senator, who had invited Dr. Washington to speak on climate science to the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus. Obama had so carefully studied Dr. Washington’s pioneering work on climate modeling, he referenced it expansively when he introduced the scientist. Dr. Washington was pleased. As he said, “it’s a great thing when your work is remembered by a President.”

In fact, Dr. Washington advised six U.S. Presidents during his career at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), where he is now a Distinguished Scholar. Just recently, Dr. Washington was awarded the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, adding to his numerous other honors including being a key member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 with former U. S. President Al Gore, and receiving the U.S. National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific recognition.

The years of steady, painstaking research of Dr. Washington and his colleagues have led to the indispensable, and now virtually irrefutable, climate modeling on which the world relies. Though imperfect, climate modeling provides the data basis for all climate risk-related decisions being made by businesses, investors and policymakers, enabling them to project and gauge hidden risks, demands of resilience preparation, pace and intensity of erratic weather events, and the credibility of emissions reductions targets over time.

Dr. Washington began his work with his first scientific love, physics. But at Oregon State University, where he studied, meteorology was also part of the physics department. The young Washington gradually became fascinated by the forces of weather and the laws of physics, and their interplay became Dr. Washington’s intellectual passion, driving him to earn a doctorate in meteorology – at the time, only the second African American in America to do so. His thesis was in the groundbreaking area of using atmospheric data for weather forecasting based on physics theory.

In the United States, NCAR was just being formed, and Dr. Washington began his long career there right after his doctoral studies. At the time, climate science was barely known, and using computers to simulate trends was brand new. Dr. Washington says that in the early days, “our basic question was: could we simulate the observed winds and temperature, etc. with a computer model based on theory?”

At the time, CO2 was not a focus. Washington says, “Our first objective, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, was to build an atmosphere computer model…but in 1978, program managers from the Department of Energy visited and gave us funds and more computer time to investigate climate change associated with increased carbon dioxide.” By then, Dr. David Keeling of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography had begun his famous measuring of CO2, showing a constant rise, known now as the Keeling curve. Washington worked with colleagues to test how climate change would warm the Earth with increasing carbon dioxide concentration, which had become of scientific concern. “Before Keeling, there was a general understanding that buildup of CO2 could heat up the earth, but Dave found a good way to measure it continuously because if you measure it randomly, you may not see a trend.”

Dr. Washington and colleagues continued to improve their modeling, calibrating math and physics to integrate weather phenomena and predictive analyses. Climate modeling was born.

Dr. Washington’s love of science had begun in secondary school and he says, “education was a family tradition.” He adds, “what really got me started was I had a chemistry teacher in my 3rd year who knew how to explain science. And one day I asked her, ‘why are egg yolks yellow?’ She said, ‘why don’t you find out?’” This led Washington on a quest for information. He recalls, “I thought how neat it was to be able to find out about how something in nature works.”

Dr. Washington has also been a social activist. As Dr. Washington told the oral history archive, HistoryMakers, he grew up hearing stories of lynchings of black people, especially educated African Americans, from his father, Edwin. To leave behind the racism of the South, Edwin Washington moved to Oregon, but still spent some evenings sitting on his porch with a gun by his side to ward off those to whom his family was unwelcome.

When Dr. Washington finished his bachelor’s degree, he was one of only ten or so African American students in the student body of 4000. Meanwhile, in Oregon, accommodation laws still barred African-Americans from certain hotels, motels and restaurants. To fight this discrimination, the young Washington became vice chair of the junior National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Gradually, as Washington’s scientific work progressed, his climate research came to the attention of various U.S. Presidents, including Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and both Presidents Bush. All sought more information on the possibility of climate change and atmospheric and ocean science. Washington says that the key to his ability to help educate Presidents was to take all questions seriously, even if the science community already knew the answers. “At one White House briefing, an advisor to President George H. W. Bush asked if the warming up of the planet could be due to the sun getting warmer. We knew that couldn’t be the answer and we had satellite data that showed that solar radiation hadn’t changed and we showed it to the President himself. One by one, the skeptics lost their arguments.” Washington noted, however, that it was the same President Bush who set up America’s first global climate change research programs. “He took it seriously,” says Washington.

Over the decades, Washington recalls, “we’ve gotten better models and can track events around the world. The IPCC coordinates and once you put all this together, you have an idea where the world’s environment is headed.”

At CDP we’ve seen steady growth in the number of disclosing companies setting science-based emissions reduction targets, which derive from climate modeling. Climate science is also increasingly relevant to our signatory investors, as fiduciary policies evolve such as newly announced guidelines by the EU for investment benchmarks based on IPCC findings.

Reliable climate models provide the core rationale for action and even though it has been decades since Dr. Washington first took up the climate change question, his work remains a critical bulwark of the ongoing hope that we can meet the climate change challenge in time.

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