Science Notes

Reflections on Science-Informed Decision-Making and CO-LSEN Panel

By Christina C. Willis

August 2, 2021

In August of 2020, I was a fresh transplant to Boulder from Washington, DC. I was excited to see old grad school friends who lived in the area, and we met up for a pandemic-friendly picnic. As we sat in the grass on our respective blankets (carefully spaced at least 6 feet apart), chatting and eating take out, it began to snow.

Snow? I thought. In August? I have heard crazy things about Colorado weather, but—

That’s when I realized it was…ash! Floating down from the sky were grey clumps of debris generated by a distant wildfire. They landed softly on the grass, the blankets, in our hair. And as the sun began to set, smoke in the sky turned the world an eerie, warning-sign orange. It felt like the apocalypse; so much of 2020 did.

silhouette of tree during sunset

David Smooke via – Edwards, CO

My move to Colorado was a product of the two-body problem: my spouse found the perfect job in Boulder, and I told him to take it. It was only fair. I had hauled him to DC twice, first for my perfect laser-development job, then for my AAAS Congressional Fellowship. At the time, I was serving in the United States Senate as the 2019-2020 Arthur H. Guenther Fellow (co-sponsored by optics professional societies OSA and SPIE). He moved to start the new job in late 2019, and I followed eight months later.

In preparation for my move, I reached out to my AAAS Fellows network and made some connections in Boulder. Among them was Fellow alumnus Matt Druckenmiller, Colorado Local Science Engagement Network (CO-LSEN) project co-lead, and it was through him that I learned about CO-LSEN and began attending their virtual events.

Once I moved, I continued my fellowship remotely. As the days ticked down until my time as a fellow ended, I searched for local policy-related work and watched the skies out my window turn orange from the record-breaking wildfires raging across the state. And I got an idea.

I decided to volunteer as a firefighter.

I found a nearby department with a robust volunteer program, and after a positive call with the officer in charge of training and volunteers, I submitted my application. The pandemic slowed many things down, and this was no exception. It was almost five months before I got called for an interview. By that time, I had found policy work as a legislative aide in the Colorado General Assembly, so I began to take shifts at the fire station on the weekends around the busy legislative session.So when I attended the CO-LSEN Legislative Event on climate-informed decision-making, it hit me hard: as a scientist, as a legislative aide, and as a volunteer firefighter.

I’ll confess; I came into it with the erroneous expectation that I would hear the panelists discuss how to use climate data to stop or reverse climate change. As though it was already a solved problem and we just needed to implement the fixes. In my naïvete, I was surprised to hear the discussion revolve around how we can adapt ourselves to live with climate change.

Wrestling with the resulting cognitive dissonance allowed me to change my perspective. What I came to understand may already be obvious to others, but it was an existential shift for me: climate change is already upon us. It’s not something that will happen in the future; it has happened and it is happening now. While slowing and ultimately reversing climate change is a vital long-term battle we must fight, we also need practical solutions to its effects today. This is a problem that requires both a near term strategy and a long term solution.

And viewed from that lens, the panel gave me hope. Humans are deeply adaptable and creative. The panelists discussed some excellent applications of climate data to create practical, immediate solutions. Kelly Mahoney of NOAA spoke on a successful update of engineering standards for dams to account for the effects of climate change on rainfall and thus keep people safer. Laurna Kaatz shared how Denver Water integrates climate data to develop future scenarios, which enable them to provide water efficiently to customers in the face of increasing temperatures, droughts, and wildfires. And Sarah Jones spoke to how the day-to-day operations of Steamboat Ski and Resort are affected by climate change, whether it is air quality or snow fall, and how that impacts their decision making processes.

But as an experimentalist, I still wanted a practical action plan to follow. What are the fixes that we as individualscan implement to mitigate and adapt to climate change? The answer is: something, anything. It will be a different answer for each of us. For me, it means getting trained to fight wildfires and using my scientific background in a policy setting. There are a myriad of viable, concrete solutions that—in aggregate—add up to a lot. Things like walking or riding a bicycle instead of driving a car, calling your legislator to express your concerns and ideas about climate change, or participating in events and discussions like the ones hosted by CO-LSEN. This last has most certainly changed my perspective in a significant way.

Christina C. C. Willis

Legislative Aide to Senator Joann Ginal

Timberline Fire Protection District


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