A Conversation with Dr. Heidi Cullen, Climate Scientist

BY ON July 28, 2016
“This is an exciting time. With hope and action, we can fix this!” ~ Dr. Heidi Cullen

“This is an exciting time. With hope and action, we can fix this!” ~ Dr. Heidi Cullen

I first met Dr. Heidi Cullen, Chief Scientist at Climate Central at Stony Brook University, where I teach and direct the Sustainability Studies Program. On Earth Day several years ago, Cullen was our keynote speaker. She gave a riveting climate science lecture. After, we spoke about her role as a female climate scientist and what it was like to move from the lab into the public eye on the Weather Channel (her first big public gig). Cullen has managed this transition with finesse. She now shares her climate messages to the general public with clarity, simplicity and eloquence.

Dr. Cullen and I met again most recently at the Moms Clean Air Force Play In for Climate Action in Washington, DC, on July 13, 2016. A tall, lithe, blonde, her blue eyes twinkled as she spoke with passion about the responsibility we hold to care for our planet. “The climate problem will not be solved by scientists alone,” Cullen told me. “We have to take this to the families.”

At the Play-In, along with other climate advocates, experts and politicians, Dr. Cullen spoke to the riveted audience of 700 children and parents from all 50 states.

“Yes, there is bad news about climate change,” Dr. Cullen told the audience, but “there’s much good news, too.” This year, she reminded us, countries around the world authorized the Paris climate agreement, and Mexico, U.S. and Canada signed on to the North American Climate, Clean Energy, and Environment Partnership Action Plan.

“This is an exciting time. With hope and action, we can fix this!” (Tweet this)

After listening to Dr. Cullen’s motivating speech, I wanted to hear more. Turns out, Dr. Cullen thinks parenting organizations such as the Mom’s Clean Air Force team are getting it right. Here’s our discussion:

Moms Clean Air Force: What made you want to speak to the children at the Play In?

Dr. Heidi Cullen: Moms Clean Air Force is such a powerful group and having moms and kids be part of the climate conversation is critical. The climate conversation must get out of the Ivory Tower and into homes and communities. Climate change affects all of us where we live. It’s not just about greenhouse gas emissions. It’s about the air we breathe and how safe our communities are from things like extreme weather. These moms and dads are on the front lines. I want to do all that I can to support their good work.

As a scientist, what is your role is in terms of working with the parents and families?

As a scientist, my role is to help explain what climate change is, why this problem is so urgent, and how it impacts people in their communities. I also want parents and children to understand that while there is a lot of bad news, there is also much good news, much positive change afoot and many solutions coming into play — especially with the recent climate agreement that was reached with leaders from all over the world in Paris and the Clean Power Plan in the U.S. I do believe there is tremendous hope and if we all pull together, we can fix this.

What are some solutions that families can participate in right now at home?

Energy efficiency is, of course, the low hanging fruit. Our energy footprint is really important — so anything we can do to reduce energy use is important: turn off unneeded devices and lights and so on, unplug, use LED lights. Carpool. Use the car less, walk and bike more. When big purchases come up, like buying a car, get a hybrid or an all- electric car. Reduce unnecessary consumption. Buy things that last, that can be used again and again. Animal agriculture contributes to approximately 15% of our greenhouse gas emissions — so skipping meat one day a week is good for our health and for the planet. We need to vote with an awareness of what our politicians will do about climate change and clean air. We need to let our policy makers and politicians know that climate change is a top priority for us.

What are some practical things that kids can do? 

Climate change is the challenge of our generation as well as the next generation. We all need to be part of the solution, but it is especially important to inspire kids to be thinking about this issue and talking with their friends about it.

The children will be the future change-makers. If we teach them now to start thinking about pollution and climate change, they’ll become the ones to find the solutions we seek. At the “Play In” I met a ten-year old boy named Carlos, he’s an “Earth Ranger” from New York. He wants to do be a chemist when he grows up. He explained to me how the chemicals from vehicle emissions and car idling cause respiratory problems. He wants to fix this. As I heard him speak, I thought, “Carlos and his peers are the hope of our future.”

Carlos’ story is huge. I think that shows you the exact power of Moms Clean Air Force, because what they have helped do — just like the Pope, they’ve helped nurture the conversation about climate change and air pollution. They’ve helped connect the dots. Because if you care about issues like poverty, equality, clean air, and healthy communities, you also have to care about climate change. It’s all tied together.

I was so excited to speak with children at the “Play In.” These kids were so knowledgeable, and that knowledge moves them to seek answers. And that’s exactly what moves us all forward.

All of us have very different skills and passions and if we plug into those, we can really make a difference. Not everyone is cut out to be an atmospheric scientist or a green chemist, but all skills are needed: Art, writing, film, communication, business, science, engineering, teaching… In your case, you love science. I’m curious, how did you come to be a climatologist?

I grew up as a kid on Staten Island. I was always in love with the ocean. I studied engineering as an undergraduate. Then I decided to go back and pursue a degree in oceanography. Oceanography is the study of our climate system as well. Our oceans soak up more than ninety percent of global warming heat and about a quarter of the carbon dioxide. Our oceans are providing us an enormous service. Yet they are very negatively impacted by global warming, and I began to see how interconnected everything is. My love for the ocean grew into the love I have for science.

So, if we are going to solve our environmental problems, it’s about each of us being mindful as well as our communities banning together to find solutions. Renewable energy — wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal are on the increase. People are less wasteful in their consumption usage. And we have the opportunity in November to vote for the climate candidate.

That’s right. Parents and children need to remember: 2016 has been a really important year across the world. We are seeing so much progress. Let’s keep pushing!


Want more Dr. Heidi Cullen inspiration? You can see her in the environmental documentary, Everything’s Cool among many others, and you can read her book, The Weather of the Future. She was the first on-air climate expert at The Weather Channel. Cullen makes the science of climate change meaningful and accessible to everyone – that’s one her goals. And, as a cool aside, when Cullen’s not talking about the weather, she trains seeing-eye dogs for the blind!




TOPICS: Climate Change, Science