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Our Best Defense Against Climate Change, According to Climate Scientist Julie Snow

Julie Snow
Dr. Julie Snow

When an opportunity to help shape the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD) climate strategy presented itself, Julie Snow – a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow – answered the call.

“I wanted a seat at the table,” she says. “And being in a position where you are advising or providing analysis to federal agencies allows your voice to be heard at that level.”

Known for its large environmental footprint, the DoD accounts for more than 50% of the federal government's carbon footprint and electricity use. Snow helped write and advise the United States Army Climate Strategy during her time at the Pentagon as the Army’s Climate Science Advisor. In this plan, the Army commits to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions and deploying fully electric tactical vehicles by 2050, among other targets. For Snow, it was the perfect opportunity to draw on her years of experience as an oceanographer and atmospheric scientist “to help the Army make really smart decisions about climate change.”

Born to botanist parents, Snow grew up exploring Rhode Island’s wetlands and searching for lifeforms in the intertidal zone of Narragansett Bay. She initially had dreams of a career in architecture but fell in love with the physical sciences at school, earning her undergraduate degree in chemistry from Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio.

Returning to the Ocean State for her post-graduate studies, Snow completed her master’s and Ph.D. degrees in oceanography at the University of Rhode Island’s Bay Campus in Narragansett. When Snow wasn’t in the library writing her thesis, she was on a NASA airplane searching for the world’s cleanest air in places like Fiji, Tahiti and Chile’s Easter Island. Leaving her aerial laboratory in 2002, Snow eventually took up teaching, becoming a professor in the Department of Geography, Geology, and Environment at Pennsylvania’s Slippery Rock University in 2004.

In the later years of her 18-year career at Slippery Rock – during which she taught the next generation of scientists and built an air quality tower on campus – Snow felt increasingly drawn to the world of science policy.

“I was starting to feel that while I was teaching a lot of people about climate change, and that's incredibly important, I wanted to be in a position that was more impactful,” she says. “One where I was using my expertise to help advise and help steer decision-making.”

An opportunity to help the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) make smarter climate decisions presented itself. As chair of the system’s Sustainability Development Task Force, Snow led the effort to develop climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies across 14 universities, wrote a climate action plan for PASSHE, and designed campus and community resilience plans.

Today, the Navy’s Senior Climate Resilience Specialist helps America’s maritime defense operations tackle one of the biggest and most existential threats of our time: climate change. “It’s so incredibly important that organizations like the Army and other federal agencies have climate science expertise,” Snow says. “And inviting more climate scientists heading federal operations is our best chance for gaining ground.”  She adds that, without climate science experts who can clarify or anticipate climate problems, federal operations suffer. But collaboration between many stakeholders is key. Climate scientists inherently think systematically and see connections between a changing climate and the critical components needed to maintain mission readiness and resilience, according to snow. Yet, when other expertise is needed – for example, from the energy, water, or health sectors – she does not hesitate to reach across a variety of departments or agencies to bring together the experts needed to solve a climate-related problem. “We need that type of thinking right now to build strategies and implement them,” she says.

In 2021, Snow won a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship (STPF), a one-year, funded opportunity to work within a federal government office and advise policymakers. Now having completed the program — through which she was assigned to the DoD’s Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Installations, Energy and Environment, Army Climate Directorate — the climate resilience specialist will continue to bring climate solutions to the Pentagon through her work with the Navy. When asked to describe her fellowship experience and subsequent work in defense, she says it has been nothing short of “empowering.” The prestigious program is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

While Snow says she never imagined she would end up in the Army, she always envisioned doing work that would serve the places and passions she has cared about throughout her life.

“I never knew how the work of scientists helped shape decisions in the federal government,” she says, having previously come from the world of research and publishing in peer-reviewed journals. “And now, not only do I understand that process, but I’m one of the scientists that is helping shape the decisions in the federal government, and that’s pretty amazing.

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