Rob Davies

Utah State University professor Rob Davies has a unique way of communicating about climate change. Davies will speak at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Center for the Arts.

When Rob Davies was given his first job in the United States Air Force, it was a simple one: providing a four-star general with a daily weather briefing.

“Four-star generals are royalty,” Davies said. “This was like briefing the president.”

When his first day of work rolled around, Davies wanted to impress. He put his training to work and walked the general through all the minute details of his forecast, but the general stopped him short. He didn’t want the details.

“At some point he interrupted me and he said, ‘Lieutenant, I don’t need to know all of that,’” Davies remembered him saying. “I just need to know if it’s going to rain tomorrow.”

Davies hasn’t forgotten that lesson. Now a scientist and climate change communicator focused on creatively educating the public about how dire the planet’s situation is, he carries that with him into talks like the one he’s set to give 6 p.m. Thursday at the Center for the Arts. Davies thinks the public is somewhat like that four-star general.

“He didn’t want all of the nuance and the uncertainty and the ‘It could be this, or it could be this because this chart is showing me that, and this chart is showing me this,’” Davies said. “He needed a piece of information that he could make a decision on.”

A warming planet

The science communicator suggested that policy makers like those bringing him to town as part of Yellowstone-Teton Clean Cities’ Sustainability Series need the same thing: information with which to make decisions. In the case of climate change, Davies offered an example.

“We need to reduce our carbon emissions as a civilization globally,” he said. “They need to be cut in half in the next 10 years, and they need to be essentially down to zero 15 years after that.

“If we don’t do that,” Davies said, “the risks that we face are dramatically higher and the risks we face are in fact transitioning the earth system into a state that is incompatible with an organized global civilization.”

If that sounds dire, it is. Davies is backed up by the International Panel on Combating Climate Change, an intergovernmental body of scientists and policy makers whose 2019 report stated, with high confidence, that planetary warming will reach 1.5 degrees Celsius between 2030 and 2052. At that level of warming the report predicts that a range of risks to human well being — natural disasters like heat waves and droughts, and reductions in agricultural productivity to name a few — will increase. If Earth warms further, those risks will increase.

That might sound like doom and gloom, and Davies recognizes that. He said he won’t pull punches in his presentation, but he’ll also pivot the conversation away from despair and hope.

“When you’re in a burning house, you don’t hope that you get out. You just get out,” Davies said. “The right framing is ‘What’s next?’ If it’s possible to get out of this burning house, what would be the next step?”

Taking action

Energy Conservation Works Executive Director Phil Cameron said Davies fills a unique void. Cameron saw the professor speak at a regional climate conference in Salt Lake City, Mountain Towns 2030, which Jackson Mayor Pete Muldoon, Teton County Commissioner Mark Newcomb and a number of other local officials also attended.

“For me, at least — and I think for several of us — he was one of the most impactful speakers,” Cameron said. “Sometimes someone can make a compelling case for what’s going on, but it’s very rare for them to fill in the ‘Then what?’ piece.”

After the 2019 Jackson Hole Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions showed that Teton County’s emissions had increased since 2009 in all but one category, emissions from electricity production, that “then what?” piece is as important locally as it is nationally and globally.

A few weeks ago the Jackson Town Council and Teton County Board of County Commissioners agreed to sign a pledge that came out of Mountain Towns 2030 committing those that sign to work toward carbon neutrality within the next decade. But Jackson Hole’s electeds tacked on an additional condition to take concrete action to mitigate emissions, not just sign a piece of paper.

Part of that has been inventorying what actions can be taken, and Cameron said officials haven’t identified the official laundry list yet. To bridge the gap, he said, about eight local partners will come to Thursday’s event and provide specific, actionable steps attendees can take to reduce their own emissions. The town and county’s, ideally, will follow.

“People can walk out of that empowered down to the ‘What am I going to do right now?’ level,” Cameron said.

And while those steps are likely to be smaller in scope than Davies’ grand suggestions for combating warming — protesting, moving away from a growth economy, and changing the way we eat and travel, among others — they’ll likely be consistent with his message: It’s time to act.

“I wouldn’t say it’s about giving people hope. It’s about compelling a response,” Davies said. “Our job, our mindset is to forget about hope and focus on action. Meaningful action.” 

Contact Billy Arnold at 732-7063 or barnold@jhnewsandguide.com.

(1) comment

Ken Chison

Poor guy shows up to town and his headline is shared with 2 other stories. All time record low average temperature last year in Jackson, and, all time record snowfall for January at only half way thru the month. I don't know how he did it, but Trump has all but reversed the global warming hoax in 3 short years. At this rate, woolly mammoths could be roaming Yellowstone after his next term.

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