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Tyler Prize Awarded to Climate Scientists Washington and Mann

Prestigious award recognizes Warren Washington and Michael Mann for efforts to advance climate change knowledge through their research and in public policy.

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Climate scientists Michael Mann and Warren Washington are corecipients of this year’s Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement for their efforts to advance knowledge about climate change, for their “exceptional courage” in working on the issue, and for their commitment to public policy, the prize’s executive committee announced today.

Washington, a distinguished scholar at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and Mann, a professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University, are eminent climate scientists who are also experts at communicating the issue to policy makers and the public, the Tyler Prize executive committee stated in its selection of this year’s laureates.

The committee cited Washington’s groundbreaking efforts on climate modeling, which he began working on in 1960 when clunky computers were much slower than today’s computers. The committee stated that “the impact Washington’s climate models have had on improving our understanding of the climate is huge.” Washington, the second African American to receive a Ph.D. in meteorology, “has become an inspiration and a leader to minorities in not only his field, but within the larger science community.”

The Tyler committee applauded Mann for pioneering statistical techniques to reconstruct past global temperatures and for graphically demonstrating through his “hockey stick” graph that “the increase in temperature since the 20th century was both anomalous and historically-unprecedented.” The committee also mentioned attacks on Mann’s science by governments, individuals, and fossil fuel companies and noted that Mann has defended his science and climate science in general while also receiving several awards for his skills in climate communication.

A “Particularly Timely” Recognition

“These two men have done a huge amount to further the science of climate change, to help the public understand the global-scale impact of human actions, and educate the next generation to be interdisciplinary and to tackle this issue so that a sustainable planet can be had,” Tyler Prize executive committee member Rosina Bierbaum told Eos. “We were very happy that the prize has been given to two people who have spent their lifetimes trying to both explain and communicate the short- and long-term impacts of climate change on society.”

The Tyler Award, which comes with a $200,000 prize shared equally between laureates, is considered the premiere international award for environmental science. In 1973 conservationists and philanthropists John and Alice Tyler inaugurated the annual prize, which the University of Southern California administers.

Bierbaum said that “because of the confluence of public interest and attention to climate change,” the award “is particularly timely” this year.

“There has been a genuine tipping point in public opinion in the United States about climate change,” said Bierbaum, who is professor and dean emerita at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, which is now the School for Environment and Sustainability. Bierbaum earlier served as acting director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. She said that recent polls show that the American public is growing more concerned about climate change. She also said that recent reports—including the U.S. government’s Fourth National Climate Assessment and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report on “Global Warming of 1.5 °C,” both issued in 2018—have helped to crystalize the urgency of dealing with climate change.

Recognizing the Laureates and the Urgency of the Issue

Both laureates told Eos that the prize is important for recognizing not only their own work but the urgency of dealing with climate change. Both also blamed special interests for trying to block action on dealing with climate change.

Washington, who served as the chair of the U.S. National Science Board from 2002 to 2006 and received the National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama in 2010, told Eos that climate modeling has made amazing progress since the late 1950s and early 1960s. Back then, “it took one day of computer time to generate one day of simulation,” he said.

With his many years of studying climate change, Washington said that he is worried about the effects of climate change. Washington said that “people are learning that [climate change] is a serious problem” but that the issue “still hasn’t affected policy makers” as much as he would like.

“We understand that some of the oil and gas and coal supporters have been trying to influence the public about how climate change is not real or it’s a minor effect or that sort of thing,” he said. “We’re making progress [about climate change] but we’re still, on the political side, not solving the problem.”

He said that “it seems like under our system, policy makers are heavily influenced by people who give them money for their campaigns and I think are affecting the resultant policies that come out of Washington and so forth. It’s unfortunate. I think there is a distortion of the priority issues that is actually taking place.”

Washington also expressed concern that President Donald Trump thinks that climate change is fake. “I think that we’ve got to keep pushing back at people like Mr. Trump, unfortunately,” he said. Washington said that if he had an opportunity to speak with Trump, he would tell the president “that climate change is real and happening” but that it’s not too late to take action.

Shining a Light on Climate Change

Mann told Eos that the Tyler Prize not only recognizes his scientific and communication efforts but helps to shine a light on climate change, which he called “the challenge of our time.” Mann said that he, too, maintains hope that there is still time to slow or mitigate the impacts of climate change.

“By some measures, dangerous climate change has arrived,” and there is a certain amount of damage “that has already happened,” he said. However, Mann emphasized that “it’s not a cliff that we go off” if temperatures increase by 1.5°C or 2°C. “It’s much more like a minefield that we are walking out onto and we have to stop walking further out onto that minefield,” he said. “Every bit of carbon that we don’t burn helps avert further climate changes.”

Mann said that “the only obstacle” to moving forward in dealing with climate change “is political will.” He castigated President Trump for having an “unholy alliance” with “polluting interests” in matters related to energy and climate. Trump “has appointed to cabinet level positions throughout his administration a sort of dream team of fossil fuel lobbyists and climate change deniers who have implemented a deregulatory agenda,” Mann said.

He added, however, that the public’s increasing awareness about climate change coupled with renewed activity in Congress and elsewhere is bringing more focus on climate and is laying the groundwork for action on the issue.

“Dark money outfits”—which contribute money to politicians and others without disclosing the funds’ sources—“have gotten away for too long with very underhanded methods of trying to influence our politics, and I think that they are going to have something to answer for now,” Mann said.

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2019), Tyler Prize awarded to climate scientists Washington and Mann, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO116127. Published on 12 February 2019.
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