Pioneering Black Scientist Wins Nobel Prize for Fighting Climate Change


Warren Washington can connect at least one of the origins of his extraordinary scientific career – more than fifty years of breakthroughs in computer climate modeling – to a juvenile curiosity about the color of egg yolks .

"In high school, I had great teachers, including a chemistry teacher who really got me started," he says. "One day, I asked him," Why are the yolks yellow? "She said," Why do not you find out? "" So he did it. He still remembers the answer: the sulfur compounds in the chicken's diet are concentrated in the yellow, becoming yellow. "I also had an excellent physics teacher," he explains, explaining why he became a physicist of the atmosphere.

These teachers would be extremely proud of him today. Before the evolution of sophisticated computers, scientists knew nothing about the atmosphere other than what they could observe. Then a young black physicist arrived, eager to use the first computers to understand the functioning of the Earth's climate. He collaborated on the creation of the first computer climate models and then advised six presidents: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama – on climate change. Washington was one of the pioneers of climate modeling. Working with Japanese scientists in the early 1960s, he was one of the first to build computer-based atmospheric models using the laws of physics to predict future weather conditions. Despite his accomplishment, he avoids any appearance of personal promotion and seems satisfied with his low public profile.

"I am silent, but not at the extreme," he says. "I'm just not as vocal as some people on the ground, but it's okay. [Some] people say that I am a legend, while others joke about the fact that I am still alive. "In relation to the subjects of the film Hidden figures, the black mathematicians who worked for NASA in the 1960s, he laughs. "You know, I think I met these ladies," he said, pausing. "It was just a little world then."

In 2010, President Obama awarded Washington the National Medal of Science. He recently retired after 54 years at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, even though it 's not really a retreat. At age 82, he continues his research as a distinguished researcher.

There is no Nobel Prize for climate change, the most pressing environmental problem in the world. But if there were (and there is an ongoing campaign to create one), Washington would almost certainly be on the short list. He will soon receive the next best thing, the Tyler Award for achieving the environmental goal, often called the Nobel Prize for the environment. He will share this honor with climatologist Michael Mann, director of the Earth Systems Science Center at Pennsylvania State University.

In addition to recognizing their innovative climate research, the award also sends a message to climate skeptics who have pursued Mann and Washington. Mann has suffered many public attacks and Washington, despite his discreetness, sometimes utters death threats, that he has "not really had any effect on me". Washington applauded Mann for standing up to critics. "He handled the situation very well," he says

For his part, Mann is delighted to share the award with Washington, his longtime idol. "I had a habit of reading his papers when I was a graduate student, and he is a real hero," said Mann, pointing out that Washington had received his doctorate in science from the University of California. atmosphere, the only second African-American to do so, at Penn State. "He is one of our most distinguished alumni," Mann said. "He is such a great model, who speaks of the fundamentally important contribution of diversity for the advancement of science."

Washington's father, Edwin, was raised in Birmingham, Alta., And attended Talladega College, a historically black college. After graduating in 1928, he left south for Seattle, then a year later for Portland, where Washington was born and raised. During the Great Depression, jobs were scarce and so Edwin took the only job he could find as a server on the Union Pacific Railroad. "He was bitter about it," said Washington.

Washington's mother, Dorothy, attended the University of Oregon for 18 months, specializing in music. "She could not stay in the dorm because they did not allow black women," he says. "She had to work as a stay aide so that a family could have a place to live in. She left the university after two years because she was upset."

In elementary school, Washington read books about George Washington Carver and other black Americans "who make interesting science". In high school, he decided on a career in physics. But the racism that his parents encountered was still alive at Oregon State University. "My freshman told me that I should not stay in physics because it was probably too hard for me," he says. Ignoring these tips, he earned his Bachelor's degree in Physics in 1958. He then obtained a Master's degree in Meteorology in 1960, also at Oregon State, and finally a Ph.D. in Atmospheric Sciences in 1964 at Penn State.

The first computer he used (he thinks it was in 1957) was an old model vacuum tube, the size of a room, and terribly slow. "At that time, it took a day to generate a day of simulation," he says. Today, "for the highest resolution, we can probably do 10 years a day.For the weakest, we can probably do 100 years a day.Today, I probably have more of computing power in my smartphone than in the very first computers. "

Most of the presidents he advised, with the exception of Obama, were more interested in supporting climate research than mitigation, he said. President Obama, for his part, defended the Paris climate agreement and developed numerous climate protection measures.

Washington met him for the first time in the fall of 2007, when Obama was still a senator. "We were both invited to talk about climate change in the Congress Black Caucus," he recalls. "He spoke before me, and it was clear that he had read the IPCC report [a major UN report on climate change]. I was the next and I teased him a little: "You gave my speech. He's laughing."

It is therefore not surprising that Washington has not been asked to inform President Trump, who is considering breaking out of the Paris Agreement, and is trying to cancel many climate protection measures. the Obama era. He does not receive advice, as most presidents [do]"Washington says." He has no interest in reading reports on any subject, not just science. In his speech on the state of the Union in Congress, he did not even mention [climate change] once."

Nevertheless, Washington is encouraged by climate action outside the federal government and still has hope for the future. "I think we just have to suffer another two years with this president," he said. "But I did not lose my optimism."

Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a sub-contract newswire covering the climate, energy, politics, art and culture.