Dr. Marcia McNutt
President of the National Academy of Sciences

On this edition of the Columbia Energy Exchange podcast, host Bill Loveless is joined by Dr. Marcia McNutt, the president of the National Academy of Sciences. 

Bill visited Dr. McNutt, not long after the release of the recent report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to learn more about the latest findings in climate science and the challenges of conveying that message to the public. The mission of the Academy is to promote the use of science to benefit society and inform policy debates.

Dr. McNutt was named president of the Academy in 2016, becoming the first women to hold the position. Previously, she was the editor in chief of the journal Science, director of the U.S. Geological Survey during the Obama administration, and president and CEO of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. She holds a BA in physics from Colorado College and a Ph.D. in earth sciences from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Dr. McNutt and Bill discussed the new UN report as well as the overall state of climate science. They also touched on the public response to warnings about climate change and new steps the Academy is planning to inform the debate. Finally, they addressed one of Dr. McNutt’s top priorities: diversity at NAS. In short, she wants to change the face of this renowned institution.

View the transcript


Bill Loveless:  A new report from the United Nations warns that unprecedented action is needed soon to avoid a catastrophic increase in global warming.  Without a doubt, it’s another urgent message based on the consensus of scientists around the world.  But how well is it understood by the public and by policy makers.  Hello and welcome to the Columbia Energy Exchange, a weekly podcast from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.  From Washington, I’m Bill Loveless.  Our guest today is Marcia McNutt, the president of the National Academy of Sciences.  An institution whose mission is to promote the use of science to benefit society and inform policy debates.  I visited Dr.  McNutt at the academy’s headquarters in Washington not long after the release of the report from the U.N.  intergovernmental panel on climate change.  I wanted a better understanding of the latest findings in climate science and the challenges of conveying that message to the public.  After all, it’s her responsibility as president of NAS to help inform such discussions.  Dr.  McNutt was named president of the academy in 2016.  The first woman to hold the position.  Previously, she had been editor in chief of the journal science, director of the U.S.  Geological Survey during the Obama administration and president and CEO of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.  She holds a BA in physics from Colorado College and a Ph.D.  in earth sciences from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.  We talked about the new U.N.  report on climate change as well as the overall state of climate science today.  We also discussed public response to these warnings and the lingering scepticism in Washington over the findings from sciences as well as new steps the academy can take to inform the debate.  Finally, we touched on one of her top priorities at NAS.  Diversity at the academy.  In short she wants to change the face of this renowned institution.  Here is our conversation.  I hope you enjoy it.  Dr.  Marcia McNutt, welcome to the Columbia Energy Exchange.



Marcia McNutt:  Thank you.  I’m very happy to be here and thank you for having me.



Bill Loveless:  You know, before I came, sat down with you here we’re at the headquarters for the National Academy of Sciences here in Washington.  I walked through an exhibit here in the building by the artist Dianne _____ [00:02:35] who’s exhibit endangered from glaciers to reefs documents dramatic disappearance of glaciers with paintings and photos that she developed in collaboration with glaciologists and it reminded me of the tremendous risks of climate change and of the need to communicate it effectively.  But it isn’t easy to do, is it?



Marcia McNutt:  You’re so right.  And communicating scientific concepts has never been easy.  But particularly something like climate change and the risks we face as a society from climate change have particular problems that are becoming increasingly known.  I have been very impressed by the explanation given by Dan Gilbert of Harvard University who expressed it in this way.  He said that it is a problem that is hardwired in our DNA as a species taught to survive in the face of threats all around us.  And we had to learn which threats to react to and which threats not to react to.  And therefore we are wired in our brains to react to things that come at us quickly.  The example here is a pouncing saber tooth tiger.  The problem with climate change is that it’s happening too slow.  It’s not coming at us fast enough that it triggers that quick response from us.  We also react with revulsion to something that we find abhorrent and that just we find, just we can’t stand because our sensibilities react negatively to it.  The example you used was vivisection of puppies and yet the release of CO2 is a clear odorless, tasteless gas.  If instead, we had coming out of the tail pipes of our cars horse manure, we would have society up in arms over the pollution of our cars and instead cars replaced horses very quickly for exactly that reason that they were viewed as less harmful to pollution and to the our sensibilities in terms of the cleanliness of our cities and society.  And another example, he gave as to why we aren’t reacting to climate change is that we are taught to see changes that are, we can’t see these is subtle changes that are happening.  It’s sort of like the fraud boiling in the water.  And that’s exactly what’s happening.  We don’t see these relative changes that go on and therefore we are just not reacting to it.



Bill Loveless:  So here, with the National Academy of Sciences, the purpose of the institution is to promote the use of science to benefit society and inform critical policy debates.  How is the academy doing in this regard when it comes to climate science?



Marcia McNutt:  One thing that we are doing is we’re trying to understand how we can communicate the science of climate change.  For example, one clear connection is that climate change does have aspects of it that are fast.



Bill Loveless:  Such as.



Marcia McNutt:  Hurricanes.  We’ve seen a series of devastating hurricanes strike the U.S..



Bill Loveless:  Including one just recently in Florida.



Marcia McNutt:  We had one just recently, Michael that hit the panhandle.  We had Florence.  We had Houston destroyed last year.  I calculated that the rain that fell in Houston when the hurricane stalled over that city was equivalent to the flow of 13 Mississippis of water pouring into that city and when you look at the topography of Houston, it is as flat as the tabletop and water had nowhere to go.  And so many impermeable surfaces.  13 Mississippis pouring on to a tabletop with nowhere to drain.  I mean, no wonder, that city was destroyed.  And we know from climate science that the intensification of hurricanes and the extra moisture that’s going into them is all a direct consequence of climate change.



Bill Loveless:  And does that have some, that’s an immediate impact, do you think people are seeing this now and it’s having some sort of effect on their own view of the subject of climate change?



Marcia McNutt:  I think people are seeing that.  I think people are being swayed and in addition, they are seeing that the storm surge that comes with these hurricanes is hitting them harder, hitting them farther inland and that’s also an effect of climate change because of the sea level rising.  So there are many connections that can be made and people are starting to connect the dots.



Bill Loveless:  As we sit here the U.N.  intergovernmental panel on climate change has released a report saying that unprecedented action is needed over the next 12 years to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.  What do you make of that report?



Marcia McNutt:  So, it is yet one more in a series of IPCC reports each one increasingly concerned in the language that it’s used.  I don’t think there is anything surprising in this one.  Because of the fact that the clock continues to tick down in terms of the point at which, the impacts of climate change becomes so catastrophic that society along particularly along the coastline and in the more tropical regions becomes intolerable in terms of the conditions for humanity to survive.  One issue that doesn’t receive nearly enough attention is this problem of the _____ [00:10:24] temperature where in hot humid areas, the, because of climate change, the temperature gets so hot and but the humidity is so high that literally people can’t sweat enough to cool their bodies to a temperature that’s low enough to prevent serious health problems from occurring.  So their bodies warm too much.  They can’t sweat to cool it because the humidity is too high and so sweat won’t leave their body and the only hope will be to find some place with air-conditioning that they can go to.  Many of these countries are too poor.  They don’t have air-conditioning and the more they use air-conditioning, the worse climate change gets.  So it becomes a runaway problem.



Bill Loveless:  Right.



Marcia McNutt:  And this is a very, very serious situation.



Bill Loveless:  Yeah.  In reaction to the report has been to some extent there are those who are hopeful, they feel as though, it strikes a promising note in some sense.  I read a former U.N.  climate envoy _____ [00:11:50] felt that you know, now we all have the information we need and a better understanding of the overwhelming aspects of this and it gives us as opportunity to move forward, another opportunity to move forward.  But others like the Eurasia Group say it will fall on deaf ears.  I mean, what do you think?



Marcia McNutt:  Well, of course we have to give people hope.  If we don’t give people hope, then the only thing they will do is throw their hands up in the air and say, let’s eat, drink and be merry because tomorrow, we die.  So, the most positive thing we can do is give people hope and say, we roll up our sleeves, we deal with this problem and we have to do it because we have to do it for our children, our grandchildren and the last thing we want them to do is to look back and say, you could have saved us, but you didn’t.  You didn’t care.  You knew, you knew what the risks were.  You knew what the threat was.  And you ignored it.  You ignored it for your own, your own good.  You didn’t care about us.



Bill Loveless:  Right.  You know, to be clear because questions do crop up.  We hear it in the public debate over climate change and climate science.  But to be clear, how sound is the science related to climate change?



Marcia McNutt:  So, it’s perfectly fair to say that there are questions that we still have and things we don’t know.  We have issues that still have to be answered in terms of some local effects.  For example, my home is in Monroe, California.  Monroe is on this dividing line between when there is an _____ [00:14:13], is Monroe going to get a lot of rain, no rain, you never know where that jet stream is gonna go and where you’re gonna be in terms of being flooded out or being in a drought.  And so there are still and that’s just for _____ [00:14:34].  When it comes to climate change, there are still questions we have about some regional patterns.  And those questions are important to get right because that has to do with how local communities are going to adapt to that part of climate change for which the die is already cast.  We are already committed to having to cope with a certain amount of climate change that we can’t undo at this point and so how hot, how wet, how dry it may get in certain areas is still to be worked out.  The fact that climate change is happening, that it is anthroprogenic, that the southwest and west of the U.S.  is going to get drier.  That the east of the U.S.  is going to get wetter.  That the global overall is going to get hotter.  That the poles are going to get much, much, much, hotter.  All of that is absolutely certain and that does not need to be debated.



Bill Loveless:  So getting back to the point you were making earlier which is that people don’t necessarily respond to things to risks that are most obvious to them.  How do you convey this perhaps more clearly than has been done in the past, these risks from climate change because there is still some skepticism and some and considerable disinterest even in the general public?



Marcia McNutt:  Yeah, so this is part of the problem because I believe that people would react more aggressively if you could make everything local.  For example, take a community like Alexandria, Virginia.



Bill Loveless:  My home, where I live.



Marcia McNutt:  Perfect.  Suppose, you had an app on your cell phone that before you bought a house in Alexandria, before you bought a 30 year mortgage, you could play forward on that app.  What your home looked like in ten years during a typical storm event for what the storm has predicted to be.  And what the high tides are expected to be.  And for what flood types are expected to be and imagine that, that app would also have GIS data in it that would work for Miami beach and for Fort Lauderdale and Galveston and for Del Mar California and for _____ [00:17:52] and all over the country.  Something like that could really spur changes in things like the flood insurance program.  How mortgage companies went about their business.  How homeowners made decisions as to what to buy, how to rebuild after disasters.  So, so something like that could be very useful.



Bill Loveless:  Do you see, do you see things like that under-development any where or promising new approaches that could help convey what the situation is?



Marcia McNutt:  So, there are some localized GIS based apps that have been developed for things like people who are in areas that flood frequently so that they can understand what are their evacuation routes and what regions have flooded things like that.  They’re mostly based on historical data not on future predictions.  So, I think that the real innovation here would be to use climate science to play the tape forward.



Bill Loveless:  Right.  Yeah, thinking back to another disaster a few years ago, the deep water horizon spill on the gulf in Mexico.  You were the head of the U.S.  Geological Survey at the time and you were, you know, leading efforts among those leading efforts by government and by industry to plug that leak from the BP well and I’ve read, you said at the time that science in crisis is special because it teaches people to pull together as a team.  Is that happening today when it comes to climate change?



Marcia McNutt:  I think there are some stakeholders who are truly playing as a team and some stakeholders that have yet to sign up for the team.  So and some people who are part of the team who have left unfortunately.  So, yeah, that’s a problem.



Bill Loveless:  Yeah, I mean, you also said back then, I’ve read that for science to have the greatest impact, scientists need to communicate with decision makers, produce actionable science, consider strategic approaches and act quickly and thoroughly.  I mean, we look around us here in Washington DC right now is that possible today within administration, it is openly skeptical of the climate change and the prevailing climate science and you know, we’ve seen a reverse policies from the administration that you’ve served in.



Marcia McNutt:  Well, we forget that the federal government isn’t the only game in town.  There are very, there are a variety of levels at which government can take action and I’m seeing amazing work being done at the county and the state and the local level.  And in fact, I think that’s almost the level at which some of the best action can and should be done because that’s where, that’s where the granularity is in terms of the zoning.  That’s where a lot of the infrastructure is built and maintained.  And I think that’s where people feel they had the most control and personal input as to the decisions that affect their homes and their schools and their hospitals to make sure that they are gonna be there on the future.



Bill Loveless:  Right, right.  And we’ve seen quite a bit increasing corporate commitments to act on climate change as well as among cities states, local governments around the world has become much more aggressive and focused recently with better resources.  But still national policy matters.  I mean, how much of a concern is it to someone like you that there has been a change in national policy?



Marcia McNutt:  Right, so I think that in terms of climate change adaption, things can be done at the county and local level.  I think in terms of mitigation that really, it really is accelerated when there is federal policy that encourages things like the move to more renewable energy and that sort of thing.  So I do see some states that are pushing very hard for mitigation.  Hawaii has set a goal of being a 100% renewable and so have several other states, California and I don’t doubt that they’ll make it.  But you know, it needs to be more than just a handful of states.



Bill Loveless:  Right, right.  As I understand it and I maybe wrong.  Please correct me, if I am.  But the academy tries to stay out of making, you know partisan statements that appear to be partisan in anyway and stick to science.



Marcia McNutt:  Right.



Bill Loveless:  And but occasionally, there have been times when the academy has stepped out and said something that seems strong, strong statements.  I think it happened with the over discussions of the center for disease control when there had been instructions therefore staff to avoid terms like evidence based and science based in budget documents.  I mean, can you envision the academy making some sort of a strong statement on climate policy?



Marcia McNutt:  Well, I can’t imagine us making a statement on climate policy.  I can imagine us making a statement on climate change that, you know, we have made many statements about climate change.  We view policy as being the purview of policy makers.  In the case of the CDC one, we felt that to consider evidence based a band word was setting a very bad precedent.



Bill Loveless:  Right, right.  Well, there have been some discussions in terms of the language used regarding climate change in government agencies these days as well.



Marcia McNutt:  Yes, and we pushed back on that as well for example when there were reports of attempts to edit documents to remove references to anthropogenic climate change and in some of these cases what was shocking was that there had not been direction from political appointees for this to happen but rather that this was almost self-censorship at lower levels by non-scientists, editing science documents because they thought that their supervisors would have wanted them to do that.  Which shows the danger that happens when employees are working in what they view as a highly politically charged environment about climate change that they are overreact beyond what their supervisors would have wanted.



Bill Loveless:  Right, right.  And you have seen some of that happening.



Marcia McNutt:  Yes, yes.



Bill Loveless:  Which, we look to for the academy these days in terms of public studies or discussions on climate change.  What can we learn from the academy in its work on the subject in the coming days?



Marcia McNutt:  Well, I’d love to put a plug-in for our new climate change clearinghouse which we’re just setting up and the idea behind it is that normally people consider the academy as some place, you come to for a thoughtful, well reasoned, consensus on issues such as climate change which is hard wrought from the academy after much contemplation.  But we recognize that very often someone needs an answer quickly and they need it right now.  So this new center we’re setting up will be a place where we will have resources available so that when someone needs an answer about a topic on climate change and they want it to be authoritative, they want it to be clear, they want it to be written for a layman not for science nerds.  They have a place to come and get that answer and get it now.



Bill Loveless:  And this will be available sometimes soon?



Marcia McNutt:  Very soon.



Bill Loveless:  I’ll look forward to that.  Yeah, we, before we leave, I want to touch on a topic that’s, I know, we have priorities here in the academy and that’s diversity.  You know, what are you trying to do and why?



Marcia McNutt:  Well, so diversity is a topic that is very close to my heart ever since I came here to the academy because I look around at the membership of the national academy and I see that it doesn’t represent science in America in terms of our membership nor does science in America even represent the diversity of America.



Bill Loveless:  What do you mean by that?



Marcia McNutt:  Scientists in America are far more white and male overall than is the majority of the American population.  And the academy is far more white and male than even American scientists.  So, my goal is to first of all have the academy better represent science in America and I mean, diversity in all dimensions.  Gender, geography, fields of study, ways of thinking about science, we simply are not representing the richness of American science.  But in addition, I would like to have prominent representatives of the diversity of American scientists that we can use to encourage a more diverse science workforce because if young people can look to those in the academy and say, my God, look at these people, they were elected to the national academy of sciences.  They are the top people in American science and that person looks just like me.  Then that gives them this hope that they too can succeed in that field and there are just aren’t enough role models for these young people who are from diverse backgrounds to think that yes, they can thrive in science.  So that’s my goal.



Bill Loveless:  I know and suggest what your answer will be to this question you’ve been asked before but how would you like to be remembered when your term as the president of the academy is done?



Marcia McNutt:  Well, I would certainly like people to look at the makeup of the national academy when my term is done and say, she changed the face of the academy.



Bill Loveless:  Dr.  Marcia McNutt, thank you for joining us here on the Columbia Energy Exchange.



Marcia McNutt:  Thank you.



Bill Loveless:  And as always thanks to you our listeners remember you can find out more about the podcast and the Center on Global Energy Policy online at Energypolicy.Columbia.edu and on social media at Columbiauenergy.  And if you haven’t done so yet, please give us a rating on your favorite podcast platform.  For the Columbia Energy Exchange, I’m Bill Loveless.  We’ll be back again next week with another conversation.