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Chris Field is confident we will solve climate change. We just need to do one thing first.
“We know what the technologies are and what kind of changes are going to be necessary,” he says. “In fact, most parts of the world are making pretty good progress. But the frustrating thing is, we’re not going fast enough. We just need to find the accelerator pedal.”
Field believes that finding that accelerator pedal will ultimately be a consequence of pressure from individuals, governments, and companies recognizing that addressing climate change isn’t about making sacrifices—it’s about heading down the path of building a better world.
Heeding his instincts is a smart bet; Field is one of the most recognized climate scientists in the world. He heads the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, and helped lead the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) from 2008 through 2015. The IPCC is sort of a United Nations for climate and science—members are tops in their areas of expertise, and must be nominated by their governments. Approximately every seven years, the IPCC issues an assessment, which forms the scientific basis of climate agreements like the Kyoto Protocol and, more recently, the Paris Agreement.
“I think the most destructive discord in the conversation about climate change is that it’s often cast as, ‘Well, what do we have to sacrifice in order to solve the problem?’” Field says. He likens it to President Kennedy’s 1961 challenge to put a man on the moon within a decade: It’s not that a sacrifice was required, it’s that as a country we committed to make some important discoveries and some important progress. He sees the fight against climate change in very much the same light.
And when considering action on climate change—be it at the level of an individual, an organization, or a country—he sees three ways to approach it: through the ways we live, the ways we invest, and the ways we vote.
“Lifestyle decisions, like what kind of washing machine to buy, or what kind of a car to drive, are increasingly important from an environmental perspective,” says Field. “And the good news is that, with only a little extra effort, it is now feasible for individuals and companies and whole communities to make environmentally friendly choices. That wasn’t true even a few years ago.” Making investments and engaging in politics with a focus on how they will lead to policies supportive of sustainability have also become not only more practical, but also a deep responsibility in this age of readily available information.
Considering a stepwise approach is what led Field into climate science, too.
He initially came to it through biology—his first love was understanding how plants grow in extreme habitats. In high school and college, Field was a serious mountaineer, and found himself inspired by research being done at the time, mainly at Duke, on comparative adaptations of plants to extreme habitats. “I was just super interested in Arctic and alpine habitats, and used that as an entry into a place that I love, but also as an entry into asking questions that I found super interesting,” he says.
Those explorations led Field to a more integrated view of how a coordinated system works. In graduate school, he studied how the leaves on a plant interact with each other. From there, he considered the coordination of plants in a forest, the forest in a landscape, and the landscape in a continent.
“As the scale got more integrated, the role of a changing climate came more and more into focus,” he said. “And within a few years of finishing graduate school, my primary interest had shifted to the realization that unless we had a handle on understanding climate change and climate change impact, we’re really going to be in trouble in the future.”
Field also feels very fortunate that very early in his scientific career, he was exposed to people who understood how to ask compelling, basic science questions in ways that led to questions that need to be answered for building a sustainable future. “Being exposed to that approach allowed me to make it part of my own scientific framework,” he says.
If Chris Field sounds like a profoundly positive person—especially considering that his field of expertise is often thought of as profoundly negative—he is. “It’s important to recognize that we’re already benefiting from the steps we’re taking to fight climate change,” he says. “And if we do more, if we are more thoughtful and committed in how we live, invest, and vote, we can find that accelerator pedal.”