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The Rogue Scientist Who Rescued Our Climate Data Has A Plan To Defend The Planet, Too

For starters, meteorologist Eric Holthaus recommends hope—not fear

Back in December—before all references to climate change had been stripped from the White House website and government agencies were banned from publicizing their findings—meteorologist and veteran climate journalist Eric Holthaus had a premonition that environmental science would no longer be safe under the new administration.


Eric Holthaus

To prepare for the disastrous data purge he was certain would come soon, Holthaus engaged Twitter in a mad scramble to compile and protect as much vital climate data as possible, eventually passing the project off to a team at the University of Pennsylvania. He says thousands of datasets were preserved.

“People were worried that all the climate data would be scrubbed from the EPA’s website,” he says. “I wasn’t too upset about that piece—we already saved it. We saved the data.”

Of course, protecting old facts and figures about global warming is a far cry from actively slowing climate change, or even adapting to its effects. As the newly anointed head of the EPA is a friend of Big Oil who tried to sue the agency more than a dozen times, the threat of abandoning the Paris Agreement looms large.

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]We had a 30-year window to get on the fast track for emissions reduction. That window is now closed.[/quote]

“We had a 30-year window, from the ’80s until, well, really until the election,” says Holthaus, “to get on the fast track for emissions reduction. That window is now closed. We need to start envisioning a future that is consistent with our environmental reality.”

Holthaus says that some scientists who have devoted their lives to raising public awareness of climate change are refocusing on new fears—say, the threat of WWIII. It’s like triage; true climate disaster may not hit for two or three decades, and there’s plenty to worry about in the here and now. Holthaus deadpans that “it’s hard to worry about putting in new bike lanes when you’re actively being shot at.”

Don’t mistake a little hard realism with giving up, though. Holthaus has certainly struggled (his recent thread on entering therapy is quite poignant), but he is a vocal opponent of defeatism. He references the sour picture of a “second kind of climate denier,” one who believes climate will destroy our planet post-haste and “we’re all screwed so why bother trying?” This is not a helpful—or realistic—take.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]In a sense, it’s a blank slate, which allows a bit of room for hope.[/quote]

For Holthaus, happily married and raising a 4-month-old infant, the future must still bear fruit. He feels a duty to help reimagine the best ways to live in the face of a rapidly changing planet. Curiously, this prospect sustains him—he sees it as a new beginning. “We are poised at a moment where so many different things might happen, where brand new ideas can really take hold,” Holthaus says. “In a sense, it’s a blank slate, which allows a bit of room for hope.”

To that end, Holthaus will continue writing about climate change, now with renewed purpose. At a moment when the public is being assaulted with losses in many spheres, he feels a duty to keep drawing attention to environmental calamities. Writing stories about, say, climate refugees and how closing world borders will exacerbate their crisis. Or about coastal cities such as Miami, that require some tough love assessments on their future viability. We may not be able to avert climate change, but adjusting to it is vital.

It remains to be seen what can be accomplished in the face of a hostile administration, but Holthaus takes hope in resistance from the scientific community. He looks back to the Cold War, when a group of dedicated scientists made it their mission to educate people on the dangers of nuclear warfare. Holthaus compares this movement to the upcoming Earth Day March for Science, potentially the largest gathering of scientists in U.S. history. He thinks this show of unity will build strong connections that will continue to coalesce long after the march is done.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]There’s a power that comes from knowing you are on the right side of history.[/quote]

For his own sanity, Holthaus is currently traveling with his family and taking an extended Twitter break—something he suggests for anyone drowning in news. He doesn’t want to live in denial, but has experienced a toll from near-constant peak levels of stress. Holthaus intends to come back with renewed vigor for the work ahead.

“There’s a power that comes from knowing you are on the right side of history,” he says. “We were on the path to building an inclusive global society—with 70,000 votes in three different states, we would have been telling a totally different story. Our election was so close; you can’t just give up on your values.”

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