Educating the highest office in the land about the perils of climate change

By Tanya Ishikawa

When Dr. Warren M. Washington started working at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in 1963, it took computers roughly one day to simulate one day of climate. Today, computers can simulate a century of climate within 10 days.

Washington retired last year as one of the nation’s top climate-modeling scientists after six decades of pioneering accomplishments. He advised five U.S. presidents about climate science and contributed to the research used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. He was presented the National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama, among many other awards over the years. This past May, Washington and colleague Michael Mann were together awarded the 2019 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement.

Dr. Warren M. Washington working at NCAR early in
his career researching climate change. (photo courtesy NCAR)

Washington shares stories about NCAR’s contributions to climate science, as well as his unusual path to innovation in his autobiography, “Odyssey in Climate Modeling, Global Warming, and Advising Five Presidents.” In addition, he says it’s imperative to recognize his NCAR colleague Akira Kasahara whenever writing about climate modeling advances.

One of Washington’s most memorable career moments was in 1990 when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made a special stop at NCAR on her way to meet Ronald Reagan in Aspen. She was there to learn about climate change from a one-hour lecture by Washington.

“When time was up, her science adviser stood up and said, ‘It’s time to go.’ She pointed at my slides (there was no PowerPoint at that time), and said, ‘I’m not leaving here until I’ve seen every one of those,’” he says. “Afterward, she sent me a nice autographed picture and letter from 10 Downing Street.”

He later installed a simple climate model at the White House for John Sununu, chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush. Washington felt there was a need to educate about, rather than sensationalize, how climate models work.

“Scientists like myself were concerned about climate change very early on—even in the late ’70s and early ’80s. We have turned out to be mostly right. Also, satellites and instruments on the ground and above the atmosphere put together a good picture of how much change has occurred and what causes the changes. It turns out the burning of fossil fuels and increases in the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere explain a lot of the warming happening now,” he says.

Washington believes the National Climate Assessment is a critical tool for understanding the impacts of climate change, and developing plans and policies for reducing those impacts. Though he is discouraged with the current administration’s policies and actions related to climate change—namely its attempts to reduce funding for the assessment—he is hopeful about technological innovations that will reduce fossil-fuel use and sequester carbon dioxide.

He drives a Tesla and recycles as much as he can. He and his wife, Mary Washington, are worried about plastic’s long-term negative environmental impacts, so they are reducing their plastic use. With 16 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, they are concerned about future generations.

As an NCAR Distinguished Scholar, Washington now volunteers weekly on research, reviewing reports and publications, and mentoring colleagues. As the first African American to earn a doctorate in meteorology, he continues to focus on increasing diversity in the field. He is setting up fellowships at the American Meteorological Society and at his alma maters, Pennsylvania State University and Oregon State University.

“At 83 years old, I am hoping something will happen more quickly by addressing climate change. I’ve seen the attitudes have changed,” Washington says. “I’m always encouraged by young people, who I enjoy working with.”