Kevin Trenberth, an internationally recognized expert on climate change who has been sounding the alarm on its effects and potential future impacts for decades, is retiring from Boulder’s National Center for Atmospheric Research.
Trenberth, a 75-year-old native of Christchurch, New Zealand, will officially be retired as of Tuesday, and in October was also appointed a Distinguished Scholar at NCAR, an honor only previously bestowed on five of its members.
“That gives me a number of privileges, such as keeping my email and website, and library privileges and some travel money and stuff like that,” Trenberth said. “Basically, what it means is I get to continue to be able to work but they don’t pay me anymore.”
As befits a scientist who, in contrast to some of his peers, has paired prolific professional publication with a willingness to be outspoken at times on the policy implications of his research, was not planning to be slipping away quietly.
He was to have been the centerpiece of the 2020 Trenberth Symposium at NCAR on Monday, celebrating his scientific contributions over half a century, including his role as lead author on the 1995, 2001 and 2007 Scientific Assessment of Climate Change reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — which earned him a share of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize that went to the IPCC. Monday’s event, however, was canceled on Thursday due to concerns over COVID-19, the coronavirus.
By one of the key metrics by which scientists’ achievements are measured, Trenberth has few peers. On the so-called h-Index, which tracks the number of citations their professional publications receive from peers, Google Scholar gives a stratospheric score of 121, meaning 121 of his papers have each been cited 121 or more times, with a current citation total of 94,201 citations. An h-Index score half that high would be considered exceptional.
And according to his own website, in a recent paper exploring citations for scientists in all fields in the category of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Trenberth ranks first out of 223,246 scientists with five or more papers to their credit.
Trenberth’s reputation is well earned, said Gerald Meehl, a senior scientist at NCAR who heads up its Climate Change Research Station in the Climate and Global Dynamics Lab.
“Kevin is not only well known to people in Boulder and Colorado through his many media appearances, he also is widely acknowledged by his colleagues as one of the most highly respected climate scientists nationally and internationally,” Meehl said in an email.
“His efforts in communicating all aspects of climate variability and change have set a standard that we all aspire to.”
In a statement, NCAR Director Everette Joseph said, “I heartily congratulate Kevin on his much-deserved retirement. In a distinguished career spanning more than 50 years, he has made landmark contributions to our understanding of Earth’s climate system and worked diligently to advance public understanding of climate change. His expertise will be greatly missed.”
Scientist as ‘detective’
Trenberth, who arrived in Boulder to stay in June 1984 — but first spent a summer at NCAR in 1969 as a student from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — will head with his wife back to Auckland, N.Z., in a few days.
“One of the reasons for going back to Auckland, is that my daughter and her family including my grandkids (girls, 5 and 7) are living in the area. In fact they are living in a place a full-minute walk from where we are living now,” Trenberth said.
Perhaps in character for someone who has worked well past the point where many call it quits, he has five more papers being published this year — Trenberth’s retirement will not mark the end of his professional activities.
“I have an affiliation at the University of Auckland,” he said. “They don’t pay me anything, and I have been going in there from time to time and I will be able to work with some students and maybe some of the faculty there, maybe a little bit, so that is part of the plan.”
Trenberth addressed the fact that like so much science, his area of focus concerns phenomena and systems that evolve over broad expanses of time, where the full picture won’t evolve and some answers won’t be known in the space of one career, or even just a few generations.
“The wonderful thing about the science I have been doing is it’s like being a detective and finding out what’s going on and why and what it implies for the future. And it’s exciting to do science from that standpoint,” said Trenberth, who sees his role as having been “like a detective,” who then educates not only other scientists but the public too, of his discoveries.
“One of the things I did before I cleaned out my office was, six months ago, I had a whole bunch of VHS tapes that had been recorded of programs I had participated in, and I digitized some of them,” he said. One was a nine-minute appearance on the PBS News Hour with Jim Lehrer in 1997.
“And this was all about climate change,” he said. “And if you look at that, you will find that pretty much everything I was saying then, is true, and still applies.”
Which doesn’t exactly make him happy.
“I actually found this quite depressing, that I had been passing a message on about the concerns of climate scientists for more than 20 years, and we hadn’t gotten very far at all, in terms of properly or appropriately responding to it,” he said.
“There was a glimmer of hope with Obama and the Paris Agreement at the end of 2015,” he said, alluding to the historic international accord from which the Trump administration has now moved to remove the U.S. “But with the Trump administration and other things going on around the world, it’s just very discouraging that the words of scientists are not being paid attention to.”
A famous hacking
The veteran scientist tipped his hat to one of the newest voices advocating for the reshaping of global climate policy.
“Greta Thunberg, to give her credit, she has read a tremendous amount, and has basically followed what scientists have said, and is trying to point out to politicians, why don’t you follow what the scientists are saying?” he said. “That has been one of her major messages that has been somewhat discouraging. But there are an increasing number of people who now recognize climate change is a problem.”
Trenberth earned unwanted attention in 2009 when hackers breached a computer service at the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in England and published about 1,000 emails, some of which mentioned, were written by, or were sent to prominent researchers at NCAR and the University of Colorado Boulder, including Trenberth.
The vast majority of those emails appeared benign, but some correspondence, by Trenberth and Tom Wigley, now at the University of Adelaide, drew criticism from people who were concerned that climate scientists have tried to stifle dissenting views about global warming and manipulated data to bolster their agendas.
At that time, climate change sketpic Myron Ebell, then and now still the Director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute — and not a scientist — told the Reuters news agency the emails would hasten the end of “global warming alarmism” and research that had been relied on for official reports had been rendered “now very suspect.” Ebell went on to lead President Trump’s transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency.
Trenberth — described by Wigley in an email on Friday as “By far the climate scientist I respect most” — defended his hacked emails as having been taken out of context.
“It’s actually close to the 10-year anniversary,” Trenberth said. “There was a whole lot of blogs on a community blog under the AAAS — the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I didn’t read them. The perpetrators of that were never caught, but it was suspected to be a hacking by some Russians, and it certainly had some consequences. The person who suffered the most and was not able to handle it well, was Phil Jones (then-director of the CRU). It was his computer that was hacked. He had a nervous breakdown, in the process.”
Trenberth is not saying goodbye to Boulder by any means. As an NCAR Distinguished Scholar — a four-year appointment — he will be delivering a presentation during a “Trenberth Symposium” next January, coronavirus permitting, at the annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society in New Orleans.
“What I will probably try to do is come by NCAR after that, and spend a couple of weeks here — although it’s not the best time of year to go from summer in the Southern Hemisphere to winter in the Northern Hemisphere.
“That will be a little bit of a shock to the system.”