The Daily Tar Heel

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Thursday January 21st

Q&A with environmental sicence professor Jason West about extreme weather and climate politics

Jason West, UNC envrionmental science and engineering professor. Photo courtesy of West.
Buy Photos Jason West, UNC envrionmental science and engineering professor. Photo courtesy of West.

The extreme nature of recent storms like Hurricane Maria has led more scientists and experts to speak out on the potential damages of climate change. Staff writer Charlotte Harris spoke with UNC environmental science professor Jason West about the current nature of climate politics in the United States.

The Daily Tar Heel: What is climate change?

Jason West: Climate change would be changes in the climate of our planet, where climate would be reflected in parameters like precipitation and temperature specifically caused by human emissions and greenhouse gases — if we’re talking about modern climate change.

DTH: Despite scientists and experts speaking out on climate change and its potential dangers, climate change remains a controversial political topic. What is responsible for the divisive nature of climate politics?

JW: It’s clear that lots of people aren’t listening to the science, but I think that’s not just a problem of one camp politically. It’s a problem that’s common in Washington now that people seem to gravitate to science and experts that support their positions and their preconceived notions and don’t evaluate the facts presented by modern day science to the extent as we would hope our elected officials would.

DTH: Is there anything that could be done on a policy level or within the community to unify climate politics?

JW: A majority of Americans think that humans have already had an important role in changing the climate around us, and it’s clear also that a majority of Americans would support regulating carbon as a pollutant and would support our participating fully in the Paris Agreement — so there is actually a clear majority on one side of the issue in favor of taking action. There’s a lot that can be done, but the way things work in the United States, we need all three branches of government — at least the Senate and the House and the White House — to see eye to eye on this, and we haven’t been able to get that. 

DTH: Is there anything scientists can be doing to unify climate politics?

JW: We at UNC and me as a scientist, I think it’s our role to do what we can to talk with the public. It’s not just politicians that aren’t listening to the science, but too many people in the public are distrustful towards scientists. I think if we can get out of the lab time to time, talk to people, let them see us as one of them who just happen to spend our lives and our careers doing scientific research instead of other things, maybe they’ll listen to what we have to say with a little more credibility. 

DTH: Is there anything you’re not seeing in the media about climate change that you think should be reported?

JW: A lot of people in the press are just reluctant to talk about climate in general. We just had these big hurricanes happen, and it’s natural to ask what the role of climate change might have been in these big hurricanes, and most press just didn’t want to go there. Yes it should be front page news what the damage of the hurricane is, how are people dealing with it, who needs what kind of help, how is the government responding — that is the first issue of the day. But somewhere I would hope that newspaper or TV news would pick up the question that people are interested in: What’s the role of climate change here as climate continues to change what might we expect from these hurricanes in the future? 

DTH: How have you remained optimistic throughout obstacles facing your research and your work?

JW: Climate’s a big issue, and it can be difficult to stay optimistic. One thing that gives me hope is that it’s a long-term issue, so the fact we don’t have a strong solution in place today doesn’t itself mean a lot if we can get our act together and have a good solution tomorrow. 


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