To acquire wisdom, one must observe

An interview with former UCS Chief Climate Scientist Peter Frumhoff

During his recent visit to Brandeis’ campus, former Chief Climate Scientist and Director of Science and Policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists Dr. Peter Frumhoff sat down with The Brandeis Hoot for an interview. He spoke about his work in the field of climate science, what tomorrow’s answer to climate change may be and more. Dr. Frumhoff’s time at Brandeis was for the Richman Distinguished Fellowship in Public Life, and he’s currently on sabbatical from his role as an associate at the Harvard University Center for the Environment.


A BrandeisNow article says that “Frumhoff informs the public understanding” on climate science. If there was one thing you could tell the general public about climate science, what would it be?


That the time to act is now. That the science is clear. That the risks that we face … are really quite daunting, and that the choice of what kind of future we’ll have is in our hands. … Sometimes people feel a lack of agency. Like what can I do? It’s this big global problem. I can change my light bulbs, but what the heck does that matter? … What I like to say is: the most important thing you can do about climate change is just talk about it. Talk about the fact that it’s real, that it’s human caused, that the evidence is clear, that it’s bad and that we can do something about it. Just getting people talking about it so it’s not a hidden issue and it’s not a polarized partisan issue is … [how] good decisions get made.


How do you think conversations on climate change should be started?


The challenge is how to avoid triggering the immediate shutdown of the conversation because it runs into someone’s filters. One of the poorly understood truths about climate change is that the fraction of Americans that are adamant deniers of the science is actually quite small, maybe about 10 percent. It used to be larger, but it’s a lot smaller now. The best way to engage people is to kind of take account of what they care about, start from where they are. Don’t come in and say … “I’ve got all these facts to share with you, and you’ve gotta sit down and listen to me [and] you’re not hearing how important this is.” Start by a conversation that says “let’s talk about the things you care about.” Find the things that it’s obvious people care about, [like] their kids, public health and their communities, and then connect the dots to those concerns. … Let climate change be the second or third paragraph of the conversation. … I think for some communities, people want to start by [saying], “I agree, it’s really serious. What can we do about it?” So that’s the other place to start if you’re on a different path. Starting with an understanding of your audience, knowing who they are [and] what they care about is really essential.


Your arrival to this campus is a preview of “Brandeis’ Year of Climate Action.” What steps do you recommend that Brandeis and other educational institutions take against climate change?


I am thrilled to see the fossil fuel divestment movement begin to really gather steam. It was a decade ago that [the] divestment [movement] started from student activism on college campuses. Today we have … assets being divested from fossil fuel, including here at Brandeis. Has Brandeis done full divestment? No, it’s a step towards divestment. I know there’s a lot of frustration among many in the student body … about the limitations of the commitments that Brandeis has made so far, but they are a start and they can be built upon. So I would encourage Brandeis and others to lean into divestment as fully as possible. I think there’s a lot included in the Brandeis Vision 2030, … which I encourage people to read, which I think is quite thoughtful and, and, uh, impactful [even though] only some of its recommendations were taken up. I think Brandeis could do more [and] should do more. Frankly, a year of climate action is a fabulous concept and what I think we really need is a decade of climate action. A year is a starting point, right? The state of Massachusetts has committed to, in policies passed by the [state] legislature and signed by Governor Baker a year ago, reducing emission statewide to 50% below 1990 levels by 2030. It would be exceptionally valuable if thought-leading institutions like Brandeis committed to reducing emissions on at least that scale as well. So I’d like to see Brandeis take that kind of action as well.


What did you learn from working on the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report team?


Consensus is hard. The IPCC operates through a consensus process. Scientists gather from around the world [from] developed and developing countries in ranges of expertise to work through their understanding of the published literature at the time they’re writing [the report]. [They] try to address questions about the state of the science, what we know about impacts and what we can do about it. Sitting down with experts from different vantage points, from different disciplines, from different lived experiences and trying to read the same literature and say, “what can we say effectively and forcefully that’s also aligned with what we know to be true from peer publications?” It’s a really worthwhile process. Another thing I would say as a kind of learned outcome is [that] it’s also a conservative process. Consensus by its nature, isn’t necessarily the lowest common denominator because it’s based on published literature, but it’s definitely not where the cutting-edge science gets published. The IPCC has traditionally understated the risks of climate change. It’s traditionally characterized by more… “colorless” terms. … So in the IPCC Summary for Policymakers, the document that policymakers agree to and sign off on, the term “fossil fuels” never comes up, it’s “human-caused emissions”. … So one might point to the IPCC as an essential-but-conservative baseline for our shared understanding of what we face.


How do you deal with the feeling of doom that climate news so often brings?


Every fraction of a degree matters. A lot of people have this, I think misinformed notion that we have a decade left before the world collapses. You kind of hear various versions of that a lot, which is a misread of the state of the science. We are a long way away from the path we need to be on in order to bring emissions down enough to keep temperature rise within the limits of the Paris Climate Agreement’s 1.5 degrees Celsius increase. We are already facing serious harm at about 1.1 or 1.2 degrees, and 1.5 will be even worse. But every fraction of a degree matters, and it’s not a cliff we’re heading towards; It’s an opportunity to transition as swiftly as possible [to a greener world]. … I can’t tell you where we’re going to end up [in terms of warming], but I can tell you that finding ways to … transition to clean energy and to limit the damages of the impacts that we’re facing is a central challenge of our time. So feeling doom or despair is understandable, but I try to find ways to let the things that we face be motivating rather than disheartening. It’s both a challenge and an opportunity.


Antarctica recently hit 70 degrees Fahrenheit above its average temperature for this time of year. What other climate-change-induced abnormalities do you expect to see in the future? 


We’re going to see more surprises, right? No one, even the people who’ve been studying Antarctica for a long time, expected to see 70 degrees Fahrenheit above typical temperatures for this time of year. So we’re definitely only going to see more things that are going to surprise us because we’re heading out of the range that our climate models [can predict]. We know that we’re going to see an intensification of heat waves and more periods of high precipitation and associated flooding and drought. The southwestern United States is in a historically unprecedented period of extended drought, a “mega-drought,” as we call it. … The other thing that is going to drive uncertainty is what our responses to it are. That’s also uncharted territory. I think we’re going to see more explicit interaction of climate impacts with other changes. To use an example that we’re all facing now: the war in Ukraine. Among the many other impacts that we’re facing is a dramatic decline in global grain supply. Ukraine is a major source of grain to portions of north Africa and large areas of the Mediterranean. That by itself could be a driver of significant food scarcity, and who knows how [to] respond to that in places where people are already vulnerable [to food insecurity]. … If we see climatic changes affecting agricultural productivity, those two could work in a kind of negative synergy. So I think we’re going to see an interaction between climate change and other factors in a [more explicit] way. But I also think we’re going to see significantly accelerated advances in technologies and opportunities to deploy them. We need to transition to clean energy. [Therefore,] the expansion of battery storage [is needed] so that we can put wind and solar on the grid at scale. The continued decrease in the cost of wind and solar [is allowing it to] outcompete coal and natural gas. This is going to continue to accelerate as well.


What policies do you think we need to mitigate climate change and adapt to the effects of climate change?


So let’s focus on the United States for a moment. It’s a global problem, but the U.S. is a major actor. We are literally one vote away from the passage of a historic piece of legislation which grew out of the demands for a Green New Deal and transformed into a policy package called Build Back Better. [It includes] half a trillion dollars in investments in clean energy infrastructure, adaptation and financing support for highly vulnerable communities and extension of electric vehicle chargers around the country. … That set of policies is absolutely essential in order to bring the U.S. onto a path that moves us towards the 1.5 degree target and our commitment to reach it. … That’s going to require political will and it’s going to come from people telling policymakers and legislators, not just in Massachusetts where people are already supportive, that they demand change. That’s in my mind by far the most significant essential policy advance that we need, and time is running out. 


Do you have anything to say to students who want to “save the world” from climate change?


Vote. … The undergraduate population in the United States in 2016 … turned out abysmally poorly in the presidential election. Something like 45 percent of eligible undergraduate voters voted. I’m personally ashamed to say that the lowest proportion of eligible voters among undergraduates came from students in the sciences. … There was a big effort to get undergraduates and graduate students to vote in 2020, without saying “vote for who this person or that person,” just vote. … [After that campaign] the student vote shot up to about 60 percent. You can say it should be a lot more, but that’s a substantial improvement. If I could say one thing to undergraduates here at Brandeis about what they can do to make a difference, it’s to vote. Vote in every election. Vote at local levels, at state levels and at national levels especially in the November 2022 [midterm] elections, where a lot is on the line even though there’s no presidential candidate.


What is your role at the Harvard University Center for the Environment? 


Most of my focus right now is on building a community of practice among scientists, legal scholars and lawyers. [I want] to get them to speak to one another across disciplines and across areas of interest, so that scientists can better support and inform the evidentiary basis for a growing number of lawsuits that are coming before the courts. In the United States and elsewhere, [there are lawsuits] seeking to hold governments and fossil fuel companies accountable for their action on climate change. The lawsuits take a number of different [approaches], but all of them require good science. Very few scientists know about the legal system. [There’s so much they need to know, like] what are standards of evidence? How does that differ between science and law? What kinds of information do lawyers or judges need? What’s it like to be an expert witness? So I’m really trying to acculturate the relevant scientific community to recognize this as an opportunity to weigh in.

Get Our Stories Sent To Your Inbox

Skip to content