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Don Wuebbles: A Farm Kid Leaves His Mark on the Sky

Don Wuebbles

Don Wuebbles’ career has taken him from academia to the corridors of the White House and the United Nations. But he always ends up in Illinois.

One of the most prominent figures in modern climate science, Wuebbles grew up in the downstate town of Carlyle. He’s now headed back to the University of Illinois after a stint in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, where he helped guide Obama administration efforts to address climate change.

“I’m the son of a farmer. My dad had a fifth-grade education,” he said. “So in my rural community, it was unusual to even go to college, let alone become a scientist. But from the time I was very young, I wanted to be a scientist.”

Wuebbles, the Harry E. Preble Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at Illinois, was elected a AAAS Fellow in 2007. He has been hailed as one of the scientists who helped save the ozone layer, and he shared in a Nobel Prize as part of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Texas Tech atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe says her onetime thesis adviser has mastered a complex and increasingly politicized issue.

“It takes an exceptional mind to be able to translate obscure and abstract concepts into accurate and actionable information,” said Hayhoe, who is working with Wuebbles on a new National Climate Assessment. “Whether it’s working with industry experts, city managers, or federal agencies, Don excels at generating sound, policy-relevant science. That’s why I chose him as my adviser so many years ago, and that is why I am still learning from him today.”

When Wuebbles first went to college, he was drawn to applied sciences and got a bachelor’s in electrical engineering. But in the summer before starting graduate school, he got a summer job helping analyze atmospheric data for a project backed by the U.S. Navy. That piqued his interest in the study of the skies, leading him to a visiting professor named Tatsuo Shimizaki.

“He was one of the very first modelers of atmospheric chemistry, combining physics and chemistry and developing numerical models of the atmosphere,” Wuebbles said. When Shimizaki went back to work at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Wuebbles went along to help him study how plans for supersonic airliners would affect the atmosphere. A Nixon-era hiring freeze at NOAA kept him from being hired permanently, however, so he moved on to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley.

At Livermore, Wuebbles was working on models of the planet’s protective ozone layer. He helped show how chlorofluorocarbon gases, then widely used as coolants and propellants in spray cans, were destroying atmospheric ozone. That work eventually helped governments design the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which banned CFCs and halted the decline.

Around the same time, other researchers at Livermore were trying to craft computer models of the Earth’s climate system. Wuebbles was increasingly interested by that work, and in 1989, he was asked to join the newly organized IPCC.

“Sir John Houghton, who was leading the first IPCC assessment, was captivated by the idea that a metric like I had developed for ozone could be used for greenhouse gases,” he said. But climate was more complicated.

“We said, ‘Oh, that’s really hard,’” Wuebbles recounted. “He said, ‘I don’t care. You guys are the best in the world, and if you don’t do it, somebody else will.’”

The result was the first model for calculating the effects of the buildup of heat-trapping carbon dioxide and other gases driving climate change—a model that’s still used today and underpins the 2015 Paris accord on warming. But he said the increasing ability of scientists to understand how climate change is affecting severe weather “really changed the whole ballgame.”

“I talk to farmers in the Midwest, and there’s this attitude that because many of them tend to be conservative Republicans, that maybe they shouldn’t believe in this thing,” he said. “But I don’t have to talk about climate change. I can talk about the changes they’re observing. They’re observing changes in severe weather. They’re observing, particularly, changes in large rainfalls, and how that has changed over the last four or five decades and how it has changed their farming.”

Those kinds of connections help keep Wuebbles grounded in a common-sense approach to science even as he’s marshaling sweeping reports like the IPCC or the White House’s National Climate Assessment, said Ken Kunkel, a longtime friend and colleague.

“People there are kind of laid-back, and you learn not to take yourself too seriously,” said Kunkel, a senior scientist at the NOAA-affilliated North Carolina Institute for Climate Studies and a researcher professor at North Carolina State University.

Kunkel also grew up in Carlyle and worked on the 2104 National Climate Asssessment. He said as a convening lead author, Wuebbles had to corral various high-powered experts who usually contributed to the project in their spare time.

“They’re successful people, and they usually get things done, but not always on the exact time frame you’d like everybody to do it,” he said. “But I enjoyed working with him. He’s quite organized and has the big picture, and he usually has sound judgment on how to address issues.”

Wuebbles went back to the University of Illinois in 1994. He’s still technically on loan to the National Science Foundation through June and is working on getting a new National Climate Assessment through review. He has been the convening lead author for two previous U.S. reports and on three of the five IPCC assessment reports to date.

Meanwhile, the new administration has yet to choose a science adviser to replace John Holdren, now back at Harvard. Wuebbles said the Trump administration should be looking for someone whose expertise spans “a broad range of fields.”

“John had a great deal of experience in climate science and published a lot himself,” Wuebbles said. “But he might be talking to the White House and the president about climate one day, and then a few hours later be talking about health issues like the Zika virus, or talking about some aspect of computer technology or other aspects of science or technology.”

Wuebbles added, “It’s a major role, because if one looks at our nation and what’s happened in the past and I think what’s going forward, science and technology is what really led us to where we’re at, and why we’re the leaders around the world that we are.” 

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