Putting Climate Science into Perspective

By Christina NunezPortrait by Heather Perry ‘93
September 6, 2018

Atmospheric Science

Jim Fleming
Jim Fleming
Charles A. Dana Professor of Science, Technology, and Society

Climate change in today’s terms can often feel like a precipice: a 2°C limit for warming; 410 parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; 100-year weather events.

Carbon budgets. Thresholds. Milestones. Tipping points.

James Fleming tends to look beyond the immediate moment. People “often think of climate change as a static thing,” he said. “Things are more complex than we might imagine.”

The Charles A. Dana Professor of Science, Technology, and Society, Fleming holds the line for history in a culture that seems relentlessly future oriented. Currently, he’s “totally inspired,” he said, working on a book about Joanne Simpson, the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in meteorology.

Simpson, among other accomplishments, made the first computer cloud model and became an expert in field projects in the tropics, furthering our understanding of how the tropical atmosphere affects global weather patterns.

“History absolutely matters,” Fleming said. “You can’t really understand science unless you take a serious look at its history.” He points out that today’s discoveries will be tomorrow’s material for science history students.

Fleming began his career as a meteorological aircraft observer, measuring and modeling clouds. “It was a short-term employment because of the danger,” he said. “We only flew in bad weather, and we did have a near-accident.”

He decided to switch fields and earn an M.S. in atmospheric science and a Ph.D. in the history of science. At the time there wasn’t much written on the subject, and Fleming felt he had found a niche. “Doors just opened up for me to publish,” he said. In addition to teaching, he has written and reviewed for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and he’s authored five books, including Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control and Inventing Atmospheric Science.

As Fleming’s book title suggests, climate change has prompted lots of ideas about how to “fix the sky,” or alter the atmosphere to avoid the worst. In 2015 he served on a National Academies of Science panel to evaluate two concepts: reflecting sunlight to cool the earth and removing planet-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

While these efforts are often called geoengineering, a label the panel planned to use on its reports, Fleming argued “engineering” was the wrong word.

“It’s tinkering,” he said. “The people who want to control the Earth tend not to be the most sophisticated in their understanding of atmospheric science.”

The panel concluded that reducing human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to our new reality were far more sensible measures than trying to exert control over the planet. Fleming prevailed on the word choice, convincing the panel to title its two 2015 reports Climate Intervention instead.

Rather than trying to bend the atmosphere to our will, he says, we should focus more on “changing ourselves and changing our hubris about that stuff.”

Recently, Fleming was elected to the council of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest multidisciplinary scientific society. It’s a fitting position, given his response when the conversation turns to how we can fine-tune our understanding of the changes taking place.

“We need a whole bunch of disciplines, not just the technical,” he said. “Atmospheric science is an umbrella term that covers a lot of different disciplines, and I think we need them all.”

Bringing themes together is one of Fleming’s roles as head of Colby’s Science, Technology, and Society program. He thrives on getting students into the archives, showing them actual records of the past, and working with them to put history into context. From momentous data landmarks to outlandish schemes for controlling the environment, he finds many parallels between science conversations today and those decades ago.

“Everything’s unprecedented,” he says, “if you don’t study history.”