INTERVIEW WITH DR. JENNIFER FRANCIS
Conducted by Linda Gross and Sonya Landau, LCG Communications, July 2013
How did you first hear about this project? Did you know anything about Karen Malpede or Theater Three Collaborative?
Karen contacted me. I didn’t know anything about her or TTC beforehand.
Why did you agree to participate? Have you ever collaborated in art projects in the past?
It sounded like an interesting project and possibly a way to connect with a new audience on climate change issues. Karen sounded very genuine, smart, and down-to-earth. No, I’ve never done anything before that linked my work with the arts.
What do you think the connection is between science in general, or climate science in particular, and the arts? What role do you think they could play for each other? Have you seen any other such partnerships?
Some people who may not be “reached” through normal media channels may respond better to a message about science and the natural world, when it is conveyed through art. Science provides some compelling stories that arts can then capture and deliver to a new audience. I’ve seen photography and art exhibitions depicting polar regions and change, and there have been several novels based on realistic science. I’d be interested to see more examples in the future.
You are an ice scientist; what are the tasks associated with your job? Do you go to sample the ice yourself? What does the ice tell you about the current and future state of our world? It’s been a record scorcher of a summer; does that reflect in the ice data? Is this different from previous years?
I have been to the Arctic several times, but only once was to actually measure something in the field. Most of my work involves analysis of data that already exist – either measurements or output from computer simulations – so I spend a lot of time with a computer, either doing calculations, graphing the results, preparing presentations, or writing about the findings. I travel quite a bit to attend various conferences and meetings, give presentations, and talk with the media.
The ice is an excellent indicator of the changing climate system. I think of it like an annual report for a company. After all the revenue and expenses are tallied, you get a number at the end of the year that tells you how your business is doing. Ice does a similar thing for the climate system. After all the warm and cold events, snow falls and melts, swings in ocean currents, and passing of storms, at the end of the summer we can measure how much ice is left and see the sum of all these effects. The fact that the sea ice, for example, has been disappearing so dramatically in recent decades tells us that the climate system is disrupted, and the only explanation is the extra heat trapped by the rapid increase in greenhouse gases caused mostly by our burning fossil fuels. If we were in a business, we would be in the red.
The 2000s was Earth’s hottest decade since measurements began. The summer of 2012 was the hottest year on record for the US, and 2013 is shaping up to be in the same ballpark. July 2013 is on track to be the hottest July. These events are completely consistent with the outcomes to be expected in a world with higher greenhouse-gas concentrations. Has it happened before? Yes, but not for a very long time, and we know that these heatwaves, along with both their frequency and breadth, are becoming ever more likely as we continue to emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at an accelerating rate.
How accurate is Extreme Whether when it comes to portraying the science involved? Were there specific elements or facts that you wanted the play to emphasize?
The section that relates directly to my work was right on the money. I was pleasantly surprised at how well it was handled.
The play’s character, Rebecca, is loosely based on you. Does her theory on ice melt and its effects on the climate reflect your own? What has been the response to that theory?
Yes, I think Karen captured the basics of my theory well. It is much more complicated than could be included in a play for general audiences, of course, but the basic ideas are correct.
The response to my work has been so much broader than I expected. I knew it was important and novel, but I didn’t foresee the wide interest by the media and public. Some scientists are still unconvinced that my theory is actually playing out in the real world, but the pile of evidence in its favor is growing by the day. A lot of other scientists are also working on it now.
The play takes a harsh view of Climate Change Deniers. What do you think of them? What does the science community as a whole think of them? Why are they getting so much attention?
I take a harsh view of Deniers, too. In fact, I’ve renamed them, and I’m hoping the new name will start to catch on: “Climate Misleaders.” I differentiate between true skeptics – those who are still unconvinced that humans are causing climate change (I’m not sure how anyone with a truly open mind can be in this category anymore, though!) – and the Climate Misleaders. These are people who deliberately ignore and/or misconstrue the science in an attempt to convince the public that humans aren’t affecting the climate system or that it’s nothing to worry about. They are well funded by organizations that stand to lose a lot if our economy shifts away from fossil fuels, and those funds are used to buy air time to shout their misleading messages. The scientific community as a whole thinks they’re doing a huge disservice to society, and that one day they will be recognized for who and what they are and the damage they are doing.