As an undergraduate student, Timothy Lenton got a broad education in math, physics, chemistry, materials science, ecology, and the history and philosophy of science. It was the early 1990's at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, and Lenton was “part of a generation of students who were ... sensitized to the idea that humans were changing the world, and they were probably changing the climate as well,” he says. “I got a little bit disillusioned with my degree course because it didn't seem to be channeling us in the direction of studying the Earth or studying the climate.”
After reading James Lovelock's books on the Gaia theory, which views the living and physical components of Earth as a single, integrated system with a self-regulated climate, Lenton got in touch with Lovelock, who soon became one of his mentors. The Gaia theory was and remains controversial, but it prompted Lenton to develop the skills needed to establish a career in Earth systems modeling and climate change research.
Since Lenton's student years, universities have begun to offer an increasing number of formal training programs that help traditionally trained scientists tackle climate change. Such formal training–specifically, Ph.D. training with a climate change specialist–is almost certainly essential. But also needed is a unique blend of skills that must often be acquired informally.
Choosing your grounding
There is broad agreement among climate change education specialists that before you can do meaningful work in the climate change realm, you need a good foundation in at least one discipline. But which one? There are many ways to enter the field, depending on your particular interests and the related research questions you want to tackle.
Even climate modelers–a subgroup of climate scientists–bring to the field a wide range of backgrounds. Myles Allen, a climate dynamics modeler in the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic, and Planetary Physics at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, recommends a degree in a rigorous core discipline such as maths or physics. “People need to have the disciplinary skills, and then they need an ability to translate them and apply them in a wider context,” he says.
Also in this feature …
- Careers in Climate Change Research. Opportunities are expanding for natural and social scientists willing to tackle climate change.
- Climate Change Research Broadens to Meet New Challenges. New programs are emerging to help prepare scientists for the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of climate change research.
Lenton's work, too, involves computer modeling, but it puts a premium on “trying to see the connections between previously very separate fields.” For Earth systems modeling, Lenton found his broad undergraduate science training essential–and preferable to the sort of narrow focus Allen advocates. Pick a first degree or a master's program “that broadens your mind, broadens your knowledge, broadens your skills,” suggests Lenton, who is today a professor in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. Likewise, when choosing a Ph.D. lab, “Look for the problems and the supervisors ... that are going to force you to look at a whole lot of different things,” he says.
Judith Curry (pictured at top), a climate researcher and chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, sees many opportunities for scientists interested in doing modeling on the seasonal to decadal time scale and helping governments and private-sector institutions adapt to climate change. For this kind of work, “some knowledge of either statistical or dynamical methods of prediction and actual experience in forecasting” is essential, Curry says. Also needed, she says, are information technology skills, knowledge of the regulatory environment, and management and business skills. “Taking yourself a little bit outside the mainstream atmospheric science or climate sort of academic program could be useful for these kinds of careers,” she adds.
Whatever background and research interests you have, how do you decide where to study? “One way to proceed is to look what are you interested in, who is doing those interesting things, and then as a student, to adopt those individuals as mentors,” says David Blockstein, a senior scientist at the National Council for Science and the Environment in Washington, D.C. Students also “need to look for which are the institutions that are on the cutting edge and creating new and innovative programs.” But, he advises, make sure the cutting-edge program you choose can provide solid training in foundational skills.
Reaching out to social scientists
One of the challenges of doing research in climate change is that it increasingly forces you to work outside your natural science comfort zone. The implications of climate change cannot be appreciated from a purely physical perspective; human systems matter too, both as cause and as consequence. That means natural scientists need to figure out how to work with social science, and social scientists. “It's very important for young scientists not just to look at their own field but also to interact a bit with researchers and scientists from other fields,” says Jørgen Olesen, a researcher in mitigation and adaptation practices in agriculture in the Department of Agroecology and Environment at Aarhus University in Tjele, Denmark.
Finding the right social scientists to work with may not be easy, especially given that you won't know that field as well as you know your own. When Lenton needed to consult with economists, he found little overlap between mainstream economics and his field of research. “The great body of economics is still concerned with this sort of general equilibrium theory, which doesn't help you at all if you want to understand transitions. So you find yourself [working] with a subset of economists who are probably a beleaguered minority,” Lenton says.
Effective interdisciplinary collaboration depends on learning to respect and transcend the methodological, linguistic, and cultural differences that divide different disciplines. “In social science, the way that natural science acquires knowledge is not viewed as the only legitimate” approach, Lenton says. Methodology should be carefully discussed and agreed upon. Systems and their boundaries should be clearly defined, and terminology explicated; a farm, for example, will not represent the same thing for an economist and an agronomist, Olesen says. “There are tons of examples of one word meaning something different in different sciences,” Olesen adds. Altogether, “There is a need for quite some dialog,” Olesen says, and the learning curve can take years.
Seeing the forest for the trees
Climate change research poses unique challenges due to the complexity of the topic, the breadth of disciplines involved, and the by-definition global scope. “In the early stages of a Ph.D., it's very easy to get very frightened and panic really because there is so much to learn,” Lenton says. “You have to have a kind of faith that ... you'll be able to see some elegant simplicities through all that complexity.” Start tackling simple things and build on them, he advises. Also, “be willing to learn new subjects and treat learning as a kind of lifelong process.”
Confronted with such a flood of details, it can be hard to stay focused on the big picture. But a big-picture focus will help you identify the important questions as the field develops. “The climate field is changing so that the people who will be most successful are people who have some sense” of the most relevant questions, Curry says. Furthermore, climate scientists “need to be aware of the overall context of what they're doing” so that they can help each other, Allen adds. For example, climate modelers analyzing uncertainty need to reflect on the implications of their findings for ecologists studying the impact of climate change on ecosystems and vice versa.
Entering the public debate
Many climate scientists see interacting with society as an important part of the job, even a moral responsibility. But beware the pitfalls.
When talking to the public or policymakers, “We basically want to give the best possible information and help people develop ... their ideas of what they can do or should do and then help them assess the risks and the costs of various actions,” Curry says. “You can discuss policy options, and you can discuss the consequences of policy options, and you can help expand the number of policy options,” she adds. But climate scientists should never advocate a particular policy option, Curry warns. If it looks like you're “becoming a political animal,” your peers may “feel that's somehow violating the objectivity of the scientific process,” Lenton says.
A certain amount of media savvy is essential, Curry believes. “There is a lot of political controversy, and a lot of this goes public,” she says. In particular, “There's a well-established Internet industry banging away at climate scientists,” Allen says. “Students and young researchers can get drawn into that and very much to the detriment of their scientific research.” Allen's advice: Limit how much time you spend on this and develop a thick skin.
Try to gain media experience in small bites. “One of the ways that young people can really both be involved, make a difference, and gain that personal experience is to be involved locally,” where the stakes and risks are not as high as on the national or international stage, Blockstein advises.
Formal communication training is another good place to start. “I think that any scientist should take specific courses in effective communication and learn how to communicate in normal, non-jargon language, respect and be sensitive to their audience, and recognize the importance of doing that final step of ... communicating to the public,” says Jonathan Patz, the director of global environmental health at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Gaining all the skills you need to enter climate change research “is a challenge, but it's also a time of great opportunity,” Blockstein says. “Those who can get that strong grounding but then apply it to a number of areas, those are the people who are going to be really successful individually and who also are going to provide great services to society.”
Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South Europe.