New Public Outreach Prize Goes to Earth Institute Climatologist

by | 10.18.2011 at 11:06am
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Schmidt, in his neighborhood

A major new international prize for public communication on climate-change issues has been awarded to Gavin Schmidt of the Earth Institute-affiliated NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. The $25,000 Climate Communications Prize was announced today by the American Geophysical Union (AGU), the world’s largest organization of earth and space scientists.

Schmidt, an influential climate modeler who has authored more than 80 scientific papers, has also in recent years become a high-proifle figure in the often contentious public discussion of climate.

He is the driving force behind RealClimate, an authoritative blog on current climate topics aimed at both scientists and public. Founded in 2004, RealClimate provides a weekly discussion forum fueled by plain-language articles authored by Schmidt and other scientists. Widely praised for its objectivity and accessibility, it is currently ranked the fifth most popular science blog in the world, and is the top-ranked one on climate.

In 2009, Schmidt and photographer Joshua Wolfe created and coedited Climate Change: Picturing the Science. The book frames essays by Schmidt and others with climate-related photos from around the world taken by leading photographers for National Geographic, Smithsonian and other magazines. Popular Mechanics called it “the first book anyone seeking a layman’s understanding of the science of global warming should read.”

Schmidt is often called upon by the media to provide a scientist’s perspective on climate studies and issues, and has become a seasoned commentator, making appearances in newspapers, TV, radio and magazines. In addition to straight commentary, he has shown himself willing to do more offbeat appearances, such as a David Letterman Show comedy segment that made gentle fun of climate scientists. In the last couple of years, as the politics surrounding climate science have become more polarized, he has frequently dealt with hate mail, and faced off with self-declared climate skeptics in public.

Schmidt was nominated for the award by four separate ad hoc groups from about 20 different institutions. One letter, cosigned by colleagues at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and journalists at major publications among others, said Schmidt “has proven an articulate, rigorous and resolute defender of research and the scientific method. ….  providing a scientific context that is sometimes missing in the mainstream media.” Noting a stark disconnect between the growing scientific consensus that humans are influencing climate and declining U.S. public acceptance of the idea, the nominators said, “There has never been a more important time for truthful, dispassionate, factual and accessible communication. … There is no other scientist with the combination of intellect, agility and plain-speaking sensibility than Gavin Schmidt, who educates, not alienates, the public.”

In a 2009 interview, Schmidt told the website The Edge, “I don’t advocate for political solutions. If I do advocate for something … my advocacy is much more towards having more intelligent discussions.” 

“AGU created this award to raise the visibility of climate change as a critical issue facing the world today, to demonstrate our support for scientists who commit themselves to the effective communication of climate change science, and to encourage more scientists to engage with the public and policy makers on how climate research can contribute to the sustainability of our planet,” said AGU president Michael McPhaden in a press release.

The award, to be given yearly by the American Geophysical Union, is sponsored by Nature’s Own, a Boulder, Colo., company that specializes in the sale of specimens of minerals, fossils and decorative stones. As the inaugural recipient, Schmidt will be presented with the prize at the union’s fall meeting in San Francisco, Dec. 5-9.

See Schmidt discuss his work with PBS NOVA.

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