Three Steps to Changing the World: an interview with Climate Scientist Dr Andrew Weaver

For anyone who thinks that they can’t make a difference in the world, Dr. Andrew Weaver will convince you otherwise.

As a lead author on four Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, a professor at the University of Victoria for 20 years and Deputy Leader of the Green Party of British Columbia, Canada, just one of Weaver’s accomplishments would be enough to keep you reading.

But what really makes the Canadian climate scientist so inspiring is his ability to communicate effectively across sectors and give science a voice in real world decisions.

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From climate science to policy

“I always liked physics and math…but I also felt that physics and math should be relevant,” says Weaver, who traded particle physics for physics and math of atmosphere, ocean and climate systems.

When the first IPCC report emerged in 1990, Weaver was surprised to discover citations to papers he had written. His work has since earned him numerous academic honours including Steacie and Guggenheim Fellowships. He is also a strong advocate for bringing science to life through communication and community service (creating a school-based weather station network in Canada as an example). Now Weaver has taken science communication one step further by shifting from climate science straight into policy.

“I thought, here you’ve been doing science and the science is relevant and you’re informing policy makers. And you realise that people aren’t listening to this science, they’re ignoring it. So what do you do? Do you keep throwing stones from the outside, or do you try to make a difference and get engaged?”

On 14 May, 2013, in what Weaver describes as the highlight of his career, he was elected as the first Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) for the Green Party of British Columbia. “It showed that a nerdy science guy who used to hang around with the Big Bang crowd and talk about Cauchy theorems … could actually get into politics. And once you get in there, you can do something.”

The biggest climate challenge

Whether you take ocean acidification, species extinctions or extreme weather events, the biggest challenge in the field of climate change can be summed up in two words, says Weaver: political will.

“The technological solutions are there, the behavioural solutions are there, it’s the political will.” What is needed, Weaver explains, is to elect people who will stand by the issues they bring forward in an election campaign who will say what society needs to hear, rather than what it wants to hear – whether or not they are re-elected. “There are too many people out there who run to simply run again and politics becomes a career path instead of a sense of civic duty.”

Getting youth engaged in the democratic system can be powerful too. When you’re older you don’t vote for change. But when you’re young, your whole life is before you.” This means youth will vote for leaders that have their interests at heart, rather than uphold the status quo.

Three steps to changing the world

For young scientists seeking environmental careers, Weaver offers three pieces of advice: expertise, communication and engagement.

Expertise requires training in one of the basic sciences – whether physics, chemistry, biology, earth science, math or a specialisation. “You’ve got to have expertise that you can actually bring to environmental issues. I’m a huge fan of environmental studies minors, but I’m also a huge fan of attaching those to majors in science.”

Communication is the next step. Science that is not effectively communicated is ineffective science,” says Weaver. You could have the best discovery in the world, but if you can’t tell people about it, it’s useless.”

Weaver has found that getting young scientists to explain complex ideas to kids in accessible and exciting ways is a highly effective means to train science communication skills, such as those used in the University of Victoria’s Science Venture programme.

“It’s actually great training for learning how to express complex ideas to diverse audiences,” says Weaver. “If you can get a grade four kid to understand a complex [idea], you can probably get a politician…to understand that complex idea.”

Lastly, Weaver encourages young scientists to engage in social issues. “Often we hide in our labsand

we think that the world happens around us and we’re focused on a molecule. Getting active outside of the lab setting is critical because it humanizes the science.”

Getting involved in a environmental movement or getting engaged in a political campaign can help people realise how science can influence society, says Weaver.

What’s next for environmental careers?

We don’t need more science focused on the consequences of climate change, says Weaver. Instead we need people who can work on impacts and adaptation, help large businesses manage their environmental impacts and engage in policy.

Weaver expects to see a demand for people to carry out environmental assessments of large or multinational businesses’ impacts on the natural environment. We have a lot of that in North America, but as other jurisdictions like Asia, India and Africa start to…demand the same environmental standards, then you’re going to see a global demand for this.” These jobs generally require expertise in a science – such as chemistry, biology, earth science, physics or math – and the ability to apply that expertise to real world problems.

We need people who can bring evidence into policy-making,” who have undergraduate training in math or science and enter into policy at the graduate level.

“People often say, ‘Okay, you’ve got a master’s in public admin, okay great, you’re perfect for policy.’ But maybe you’ve got a master’s in public admin and you’re doing energy policy, but what’s your expertise in the actual engineering aspects of energy or the physics or chemistry of it?”

I would love to see more [scientists get engaged]. We don’t do that. We go into science, we do more science. But if you go into science and then you go into, say, energy policy or you go into, say, energy conservation or some aspect of policy, I think that would be very useful.”

Putting it all in perspective

Working in climate science and politics together is bound to stir up intensely opposing views. But Weaver – who is quick to point out the irony in supporting the Edmonton Oilers as his favourite hockey team and joke about Earth’s birthday (as determined by science or the Bible) says that humour is the key to staying grounded.

Credit Michelle Watt

Credit Michelle Watt

For Weaver, engaging in politics, rather than writing more papers on climate science when the evidence is already abundantly clear, is how he chooses to make a difference. For others, it might mean taking on a role in an environmental movement or raising awareness through communication.

As environmental issues slowly gain traction in politics, communities around the world could be poised for change if people with the right values step up to the challenge. We – the young scientists and professionals – have the power to create that kind of change if we engage.

“The solutions are all out there. And this is entirely a solvable problem. It could be overwhelming if you think about trying to change everything yourself because you can’t. But what you can do is you can take solace in the fact that you can do what you can do.”

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Kristi Foster.

About the author – Kristi Foster is an environmental and travel enthusiast with a Bachelor of Science in Earth Science from Canada. She has conducted biodiversity surveys in Chiapas Mexico, acted as a consultant for the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya and worked as a Communications Officer for Fauna & Flora International in the UK.


Careers Advice, Interviews, Celebrating Diversity in Conservation, Climate Change