The pandemic pushed us into virtual offices following the northern hemisphere’s warmest winter on record. It’s a surreal coincidence. Eventually businesses worldwide will re-open and society will limp back to work, scars and all. But climate change will not have gone away. The reported decreases in air pollutants owing to social distancing and online commuting signify an interesting data point, not a real turning point. Covid-19 and climate change contain interrelated impacts and lessons that need to be understood by experts and taught to the masses.
It was a hard decision, but in the end Dr. Leslie Field and her husband listened to their son. He’d listened to the experts and argued that he should remain in Boulder, CO after university courses went virtual, to protect his parents in the Bay Area. It was strange having the intellectual tables turned on her.
Dr. Field had recently returned from the World Economic Forum in Davos to update world leaders about her climate change research and the progress of Ice911, the organization she founded around her engineering solution for slowing polar ice melt via hollow glass microsphere technology. Convincing people of the reality of an invisible, existential danger was not new to her. And she was good at it. Davos was a success. But having her own son persuade her of the acute danger Covid-19 posed to her and her husband was new. As so much in the post-Covid-19 world is.
“It was just the most disappointing and loving conversation,” she said, explaining how the whole family of scientists and engineers convened for a virtual brainstorming session like those she has often held at Ice911 and her technical consultancy, SmallTech Consulting and their client Xinova. “I guess I’m the slowest learner in this new reality.”
She’s humble, of course. Dr. Field for several weeks had been writing impassioned letters to local schools, churches, choirs and other community leaders to close down and go virtual to help flatten the pandemic’s curve. The leadership team had already done as much with Ice911, even at a critical phase with the hiring of a new Executive Director. As one place shut its doors after another, it seemed people had listened.
“I have no idea if I helped turn the tide, but so often it’s like that Dr. Seuss story, ‘Horton Hears a Who,’ where it’s that last tiniest voice that makes a difference,” she said. “I often think that we should all consider that by speaking up, perhaps we can provide, at critical times, that last tiniest voice to make a needed change.”
Ice911, like the rest of society, is weathering the Covid-19 pandemic from the virtual office environment, following the northern hemisphere’s warmest winter on record. It’s a surreal coincidence. Eventually businesses worldwide will re-open and society will limp back to work, scars and all. But climate change will not have gone away. The reported decreases in air pollutants owing to social distancing and online commuting signify an interesting data point, not a real turning point.
Covid-19 carries parallels to, and lessons on, climate change. Like climate change, this viral pandemic signifies an existential threat that was long-discussed and largely neglected despite a chorus of warnings from experts. The dire proportions of Covid-19 achieved reality seemingly overnight as the evidence reached critical mass. Its danger was finally made understood to the world once its impacts became directly felt; the chorus of experts’ tiny voices became a cacophony.
The existential threat of climate change, meanwhile, remains abstract to most and rejected by some.
“Many of the drivers of climate change are invisible, but the Arctic is the most visible thing you’ve got because at this point it’s far enough gone that people are suddenly noticing, and feeling the urgency of, ‘Oh my god, climate change!’ In contrast, when you consider CO2 levels, you can’t point to the sky and say, ‘Oh no, it’s over 400 ppm!’ We have to take the experts’ word for that and a lot of people aren’t prepared to do that.”
The impacts of Covid-19 on climate change are both direct and indirect. Recent reports have indicated that air pollution actually spreads Covid-19 more effectively and makes it more deadly. The shutdown has directly resulted in decreased fossil fuel consumption and thus less air pollution and greenhouse gases. Indirectly, the pandemic has impeded scientific research with lab shutdowns and funding freezes and cuts; and it has shifted attention away from long-burning environmental challenges. The voices warning of climate change have been overwhelmed, understandably, by the focus on the global pandemic.
“It’s hard to take in, for instance, that you’re in the middle of a continuous horrible drought when you’re looking out at a beautiful sunny day. You’d rather not drink it in… In times of crisis more people listen to experts because now the problem is right there in front of you.”
Fortunately, the eco-innovators of Ice911 are continuing their mission of slowing polar ice melt with sunlight-reflecting silica-glass spheres. Dr. Field and Ice911’s message on climate change was well-received at the World Economic Forum. While the Covid-19 pandemic occurred at a pivotal moment in Ice911’s trajectory, Dr. Field is looking at this global disruption as, potentially, a new normal that needs to be factored into models of how we get future work in climate change done.
“We are working hard on incorporating an Action at a Distance principle for our climate modeling, biological characterization, and field testing, by increasing our collaborations at a distance to get the work done. It’s safer for everyone – and actually saves a lot of travel, and all of the travel’s planetary impact,” she said, continuing, “Perhaps we, and many others, have a chance to be more thoughtful in what we do and how we do it, as we are forced to be more creative in doing our work and forging our collaborations, across counties, state lines, and national borders. Perhaps, for those of us lucky enough to not yet be directly affected by the tragic pandemic-related devastation and losses, there’s a chance for a thoughtful reset and creative rethinking on how, when, where, and with whom, to accomplish our urgent mission’s work.”
Part of Dr. Field’s success as an innovator and entrepreneur is due to her being an inspirational communicator of science. She relates to non-technical people well, and she manages to remain optimistic without ever sugar-coating hard facts or cheerleading hard work. A born introvert with a nerd’s passion for details, Dr. Field is accustomed to countenancing grim climate change data while winning hearts and minds with honest yet positive messages.
“Climate change is this fiery pit of hell that I’ve been staring into for years, but I choose to be optimistic. Optimism is a choice that empowers positive action, rather than despairing inaction. Sometimes I feel like Gandalf pounding his staff into the bridge and saying, ‘You shall not pass!’
She explains that she is a problem solver by inclination and by trade. When faced with a dire situation, she takes an approach that considers, “What the hell can we do about it?” That’s what can lead to actual solutions.
“There’s just so much more joy in doing the thing you know how to do to best, to solve a problem, rather than just get depressed. Taking positive, well-considered action is what keeps me going.”
Dr. Field has learned that effective communication is the lever experts like herself need to push to make their work persuasive. She experienced her own climate change epiphany after watching Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.” The language, visuals, and narrative were all so powerful, yet low on technical jargon. It’s never about showing people how smart you are as an expert; it’s about letting them feel included in the conversation so they trust your expertise. Otherwise no one will listen.
“Scientists need to get past that snobbery some have, of talking over people who don’t understand their jargon, and need to be able to reach people on a human-to-human level,” she said.
It’s possible that Covid-19 will help climate change expertise be listened to more in the future. Perhaps people will be better attuned to all the tiny voices. Or perhaps not. Regardless, Dr. Field has learned from this experience. She and her team are finding ways to work and live that can maintain productivity and boost energy levels while lowering personal stress and environmental impact.
“If you’re technical, you know that gravitational and electromagnetic fields work through action at a distance. As our team works through how to get our important work done in these challenging times of sheltering in place so as not to spread the risk of infection, I’ve realized that this field, this Leslie Field, and our team, can work by using action at a distance as well.”
About Ice911 Research
Ice911 Research is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to restoring the Arctic ice and polar habitat. Its mission is to develop, test, model, and evaluate for safety, and then prove to the world that it can preserve and restore Arctic ice in a safe and cost-effective way. The team is working to establish international policy, governance, and funding for the adoption of its solution by local communities, governments, and global institutions. For more information, please visit www.Ice911.org. Follow Ice911 Research:Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter.
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