My Climate Story
I have always been curious about how things work. I remember the game Mouse Trap when I was a kid. It is kind of like a Rube Goldberg Machine for kids and I was fascinated by how the action of each part would trigger the action of the next one and so on down the line until the mouse was trapped in the little basket. I’ve come to realize that climate change is just a more complicated version of this game and if we can find appropriate places to change the way a piece moves, we can influence climate change for the better.
I was always destined to be an engineer. My dad worked in the aerospace industry and I remember asking him one day, when I was probably 8 years old, what he did in his job. He was excited because the company he worked for had just gotten a big contract from Boeing to develop the inertial guidance system for the new 747 jetliner they were building. He explained to me that it was his job to take a gyroscope the size of a large breadbox and make it the size of an orange juice can. I was in awe. I had a gyroscope that I loved to play with and I kept trying to imagine how I could get it to squeeze into a juice can and keep spinning. I never did figure that out but I remember my dad saying a few years later, when the 747 started flying passengers, that he would never fly on one. He must have done something right because the 747 was a popular jetliner and, despite his initial reluctance, he eventually flew on one.
As a kid, I never dreamed of being a fireman or policeman. I do remember being interested in dinosaurs and fossils and, when I was a little older, I became enamored with Dr. Louis Leaky, the famous anthropologist. That’s what I wanted to do when I grew up! I had joined the fossil club at school and we spent many afternoons trudging through the rocks of the Pierre Shale formation exposed in the road cuts along the highway that made its way along the foothills near Boulder. I was so proud when I found an odd looking fossil one hot day after school. I took it home and cleaned it up with an old awl, chisel and some hydrochloric acid my dad gave me. It was a Hamites Ammonite and I still have that fossil and many others I’ve collected throughout my life.
When I was 14 years old I remember begging my mom and dad to take me to see Dr. Leaky speak, on Halloween night, at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where we lived. We were way in the back of the auditorium and he looked about the size of a postage stamp on stage but I took in every word he said. The next semester in high school I signed up for a Geology class. I loved it and my teacher nurtured my interest by giving me extra assignments to do. From there, I set my sights on the Colorado School of Mines because it was the “World’s Foremost School of Mineral Engineering” and they had a Geological Engineering degree program. Many Mines graduates went on to careers in the petroleum industry and that’s what I figured I would do. They made great money and traveled the world looking for oil and gas reserves. It sounded great!
So many things in life happen by being in the right place at the right time, much like one of the pieces in that Mouse Trap game. I had worked since I was 10 years old, mowing lawns, babysitting, delivering newspapers, anything to make money for my college fund. I saw a notice on the counselor’s office about the Junior Fellowship Program. All I knew was that it said I could get a job while going to college. I filled out an application and promptly forgot about it. About a week after I graduated high school I was sitting at the dining room table trying to figure out what I was going to do for the summer when my mom told me I had a phone call. It was from someone with the Junior Fellowship Program. I scratched my head and tried to remember what the Junior Fellowship Program was about but I took the call and was invited in for an interview.
Three days later I showed up for my first day of work at the Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). I was to work in the office that was responsible for maintaining one of three worldwide databases of historical and present day earthquake and tsunami data. My new boss sat me down at a table with a large map of the earthquake faults of California and a giant piece of translucent Mylar. He told me to trace all of the faults from the map onto the Mylar. I was thrilled to have a job making money for college. The arrangement was that I worked full time during all of my breaks from college, summer and spring breaks as well as Christmas break and any other times I was off. It was a great opportunity that I had stumbled on just because I had noticed a small piece of paper hung by the counseling office and decided to take action on it.
About an hour into my arduous task of tracing California fault lines, which was only broken up once when I had to make 10 copies of a report for my boss, he literally threw up his hands and said, “I can’t do this!” Fearing that I had messed up on the copies I made for him, I asked what was wrong. He explained that the powers that be had assigned him two Junior Fellowship employees to free him from the drudgery work and let him do more important things. He was feeling guilty about taking two young people, just starting out, and making them do drudgery work rather than something which would enhance their careers. As I said, I was just happy to have a good paying job to help pay for college. I would have happily done drudgery work in exchange for the good pay and job security they offered me. Once again, right place, right time. There were several others who had started work that day, in other offices and for other bosses, but my interest in geology had lead me here to a man who cared about me more than he cared about making his job less boring.
The next day when I showed up for work, my boss found me and the other Junior Fellow and gave us a box. Inside the box was a FORTRAN manual and the rule book for a simple guessing game called Mastermind. He told us to let him know when we had created a computer version of the game using FORTRAN which was the computer language used to maintain the large databases of earthquake and tsunami data. Neither of us had ever programmed any software before and neither of us knew how to play the game. The feeling I had is very reminiscent of how I am feeling now, at the start of Climate Reality Leadership Training.
To shorten this story, we did program the very large and very powerful computer to play the Mastermind game. It was probably the most important work assignment I have ever had. I learned so much about problem solving when the problem seems impossible. Much like my father’s job of building an inertial guidance system that fit into an orange juice can. I learned how to not panic or give up, as well as how to break a problem down into small enough pieces that it is no longer intimidating or impossible. I figured out how I could take a task that I did not understand very well and had no experience with and conquer it. It’s not always easy and there are many paths I start down but have to abandon but it is a learning process so that the next time I come across a similar task, I have more confidence and fewer false starts.
I never did work for an oil company or actually do any geological engineering. The division manager at my NOAA job was a captain in the NOAA Corps and had some connections (right place, right time). He helped me find a job with a company in Florida where I used my new found programming and geophysics skills. I eventually ended up working with a group of PhD meteorologists who amplified my interest and background in climate science, which I have never lost. I went on to become a systems engineer and designed and installed the weather forecast facility at Cape Canaveral where they do the forecasting for all of the launch operations at Kennedy Space Center and all of the down range landing spots for the Shuttle. My life has been like the Mousetrap game. One thing has sparked another and so on down the line to where I am today, learning to be a Climate Reality Leader. My biggest take away from this is:
It does no good to be in the right place at the right time
if you are not prepared
to take advantage of the opportunities
that drop into your lap.
I knew nothing about the Climate Reality Leadership Corp until a few months ago when I saw an ad for it on Facebook. It sounded intriguing and I had some time in my schedule since we are all stuck at home during the pandemic. The more I researched it the more excited I became, so I applied. I didn’t really expect to hear back from them. I’m just a retired scientist/engineer doing volunteer work at the local extension office. The exciting part of my career has passed. But, I did hear back and I jumped at the opportunity to learn and contribute. I plan to take every advantage I can of the Climate Reality Leadership Training and to be ready for the next opportunity that drops into my lap and lets me make a difference in the world.
If you've gotten this far I want to thank you for indulging me. The story you just read was an assignment we had during my training to become a Climate Reality Leader. We were asked to write our climate story, something that would describe what made climate change personal to us. I would challenge each of you to find what makes climate change personal to you. Like it or not, climate change is something we are all going to have to deal with. The time for ignoring it or telling ourselves that it is something that future scientists will figure out how to address has past. My hope is that, by finding your personal connection to climate change, you will find a way to make a difference and be part of the solution rather than just letting climate change happen and waiting for someone to tell you what to do about it.