Interview: Michael Oppenheimer

Recently I had the unique opportunity to interview renowned climate scientist Michael OppenheimerWe met at the Hubbard Brook Annual Conference following his motivational speech. Dr. Oppenheimer is not only a professor of Geo-Sciences and International Affairs at Princeton, but also is a former member of the Environmental Defense Fund, and has an active role in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). He attained an undergraduate degree in Chemistry and a PhD in Chemical Physics, but is also versed in Atomic and Molecular Astrophysics and has even taught Astronomy at Harvard. Oppenheimer is able to speak about climate change in such a way that he has been a guest on several significant shows such as Oprah Winfrey, ABC News, and the Colbert Report. Aside from his credentials Dr. Oppenheimer is actually a very humble and inspiring person. Once you speak to him you will find he is quite delightful.

michael oppenheimer
Dr. Oppenheimer is an astute climate scientist, but was also very warm and welcoming to undergraduates Jessica Turner (left) and Brandon Colon (right)

1.      Are you ever overwhelmed by the amount of organizations, universities, or other duties that you face day to day?

Yes, sometimes I feel overwhelmed, especially when teaching – which is the single most important responsibility I have. I hate to let students down because their future engagement in these issues is the most powerful way I have to influence the solution to the climate problem. But the feeling of having too much to handle usually passes after a couple of days.  Overall, I manage things fairly smoothly.

2.      How do you keep a positive outlook when working on climate change impacts and policy?

Problems like this are never solved overnight – it’s all about the long game.  Once you recognize that, you can roll with the punches and learn to use your energy efficiently.  There are always gains and losses but over the long term, I remain convinced that we are gaining, if rather too slowly for comfort.  The current political situation will not endure.

3.      What motivated you to start working at Princeton and leave the Environmental Defense Fund?

I felt I had done as much as I could within the context of an advocacy organization.  I wanted to teach and I wanted to have more time for research on the climate problem. EDF was and is a terrific and influential organization and I continue to help them out with scientific advice.  But joining Princeton allowed me to recharge my batteries, refocus my efforts, and have a greater impact on policy-relevant aspects of climate science while helping to train the next generation of science and policy leaders.

4.      When did you develop an interest in geo-science and astrophysics?

Ah – this goes back to my boyhood. Who isn’t interested in astronomy, the origin and nature of stars and galaxies?  Then later, I discovered that the basic skills I had developed in getting a PhD in chemistry could be turned to solving astrophysical, and ultimately atmospheric problems. That ultimately led to climate change.

5.      What advice would you give to young students with a passion for the environment or going into environmental science?

Become the best scientist you can and once you have demonstrated your skills in science, turn at least some of your research effort toward environmental problems. Pick a context for working, whether academia, government, NGO, or a firm, that suits your favored professional environment.  Don’t be afraid to cut across disciplines and maybe even spread out beyond science eventually.  It’s terrific fun and very, very satisfying to contribute even a little to solving some of the world’s biggest problems.

To learn more about environmental policy or Dr. Oppenheimer’s work click on the links in the introduction! Sincerely, Jess 🙂

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