A Meteorologist for the Millennial Generation

Volume 4, Issue 2, Summer 2014

By Andrew Ng

In September 2013, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a 1,500-page report that stated, in boldface, “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” It also stated, “Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system. Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.”

For meteorologist Eric Holthaus, M.A. ’06, Climate and Society, this report hit especially hard. On his medium of choice, Twitter, he broadcast the following to his then roughly 15,000 followers:

I just broke down in tears in boarding area at SFO while on phone with my wife. I’ve never cried because of a science report before. #IPCC

I realized, just now: This has to be the last flight I ever take. I’m committing right now to stop flying. It’s not worth the climate.

In today’s world, it’s not unusual to announce a lifestyle change on social media. But unlike most people, Holthaus drew international attention when numerous news outlets publicized his tweets with headlines such as “IPCC Report Makes US Meteorologist Cry” (The Guardian) and “The Meteorologist’s Meltdown” (The Daily Beast). During the ensuing Internet frenzy, Holthaus gained his share of supporters as well as critics, earning monikers as varied as “rebel nerd” (Rolling Stone) and “drama queen” (Fox News). Some commenters even suggested that he commit suicide if he really wanted to reduce his carbon footprint.

Four months later, it was time for Holthaus to put his very public vow to its first test. He had to travel from his home in Wisconsin to the annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society in Atlanta, Georgia. He opted for a 400-mile bus ride, tweeting the following on the road:

I’m taking a #noflybusride to #ams2014 because it’s the best mode of transit for the climate.

Not everyone is going to choose to take the bus over plane because of the climate. We have to start somewhere.

Afterward, he wrote an article for Slate titled “I Spent 28 Hours on a Bus. I Loved It.”

* * *

For the 33-year-old Holthaus, the journey to becoming a “rebel nerd of meteorology” began in the American Midwest and includes stops in Latin America, Columbia, and the villages of Ethiopia along the way.

His fascination with the weather started while growing up in Kansas. “The sky is so big there,” he says. “I would watch thunderstorms and wonder how they worked.” Later, while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in meteorology from St. Louis University, he had an encounter that would forever focus his professional interests on not just the weather but the social justice of weather.

“St. Louis University was big on service,” he says. “You thought of yourself as a citizen of the world first, and how you can make the world a better place. On a spring-break service trip to Mexico, I met refugees from Honduras, who had just suffered through Hurricane Mitch. I realized these severe weather events have big consequences outside the United States. In places like Central America, the effect can linger for decades. That’s when I geared my professional interests toward severe weather and climate change—it’s what matters most in my field.”

Following graduation, he volunteered for a year with migrant farm workers in Oregon, then jumped immediately into an M.S. program in Meteorology at the University of Oklahoma, chasing tornadoes from New Mexico to South Dakota. The transition from social work to scientific research was jarring. “My brain couldn’t handle the extreme transition,” he says. “I wanted something that blended both worlds.”

So in 2005, he enrolled in Columbia’s M.A. Program in Climate and Society as part of its second-ever cohort. Housed at the Earth Institute, this interdisciplinary program explores the impacts of climate change from both a scientific and social perspective, with an emphasis on the developing world. As a student, Holthaus was able to continue the interest that began with that seminal spring-break experience. For his master’s thesis, “The Social Justice of Weather: Hurricane Risk Management for Development in Latin America and the Caribbean,” he traveled to Cuba and Honduras to interview residents about their experiences with hurricanes and investigated the factors that make a country more or less vulnerable to severe weather. Working with Columbia scientists Mark Cane, John Mutter, and Walter Baethgen, he created a vulnerability index based on correlations between hurricane mortality and human development indicators used by the United Nations, such as deforestation, infant mortality, and income.

“The M.A. in Climate and Society does more than explain how the climate system works,” says Cynthia Thomson, assistant director of the program. “It also covers the challenges it poses to people around the world and how to address them. We’re a great fit for people like Eric who really want to help societies cope with all the challenges that climate change and climate variability throw at them.”

Holthaus earned his M.A. in 2006 and stayed on at the Earth Institute for another six years, working for its International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), which is based at Columbia’s Lamont campus in Palisades, New York. As part of the institute’s Millennium Villages Project, he helped scientist Cheryl Palm develop a drought-based crop insurance program for villages in Africa—a program that uses environmental indicators like rainfall (or lack thereof) to trigger automatic payments to farmers. Later, Oxfam America approached the IRI to extend the same idea to communities in Ethiopia.

“Eric came at a time when the project was transitioning from an experimental pilot to something bigger,” says Daniel Osgood, IRI research scientist and Holthaus’s supervisor for the Ethiopia project. “His personality and talent were valuable in the field, where we were scaling it up from a couple of villages to dozens of villages.”

To this day, Holthaus continues to consult on drought-based insurance for subsistence farmers in Ethiopia, this time in partnership with the Japanese International Cooperation Agency. “These farmers make about a dollar a day,” Holthaus says. “We’re trying to provide a safety net for them when the weather goes bad.”

* * *

While working at the IRI, Holthaus started dabbling in two things that would eventually come to dominate his professional life: journalism and Twitter. In 2011 the Wall Street Journal decided to start a local weather blog, and the editor reached out to Holthaus through a mutual friend. Holthaus’s blog gained some traction during Hurricane Irene in August 2011, but it wasn’t until Superstorm Sandy in October 2012 that his weather coverage really caught on.

In the span of one week, he spent more than a hundred hours tweeting and blogging about Sandy, even though he was in Arizona at the time. He sent the first tweet eight days prior to landfall, and his tweets grew more and more breathless as Sandy approached:

Odds are increasing that a hybrid “snor’eastercane” could hit Greater New York early next week.

Normally conservative HPC [Hydrometeorological Prediction Center]: “CHANCES INCREASING FOR A MAJOR STORM IMPACTING THE MID ATLANTIC AND NORTHEAST.”

Our latest snor’eastercane update. My odds for NYC impacts from #Sandy are now 2-in-3.

yikes. this is what #Sandy looks like RIGHT NOW. yikes...yikes.

The government’s 7-day thoughts on #Sandy. Look out, NYC.

#Sandy and its destined midwestern cold front are starting to catch sight of each other...

#Sandy’s circulation has grown to about 1000mi diameter. This thing is a monster.

As a result of his unflagging coverage, Holthaus’s Twitter following grew from 2,000 to 14,000, and he was invited to speak about the experience as part of an American Meteorological Society panel the following January.

“I tried to raise every alarm I could,” he says. “This was the worst storm that New York City would see in over 200 years. I tried to translate the technical information coming from the National Weather Service so that I and the public could understand it.”

The experience also inculcated in him the value of Twitter. “It’s my primary source of story ideas and for getting responses to what I write. I can’t imagine my job without it now,” he says. (Until recently, his @EricHolthaus profile page featured a photo of the Empire State Building getting struck by lightning, in front of a banner featuring Columbia’s Schermerhorn Hall.)

A year after the Sandy experience, Holthaus’s 140-character communiques received widespread attention again, this time for a more personal reason: his no-fly vow. “I had thought about giving up flying before, on my flights to and from Ethiopia,” he says. “But the IPCC report was the trigger. It contained giant disaster scenarios out of sci-fi movies, and yet society was doing nothing about it. I thought, I have to start somewhere. To me, flying was a symbol of continuing with our current system without caring about the consequences. I couldn’t live with that on a personal level.”

The ensuing media attention shocked Holthaus and reinforced the notion that drastic lifestyle changes spurred by concern over climate change are still difficult to fathom. “I thought my vow wasn’t that big of a deal. I understand the extreme reactions to it, because the solutions to climate change are extreme. People say I’m an alarmist, but if you look at the numbers, extreme solutions are necessary.”

* * *

In January 2014 Holthaus joined Slate as a full-time writer, reporting on weather and climate across the country from his home base in Wisconsin. With articles ranging from “Coming Winter Storm Will Basically Make the South Like The Walking Dead to “California’s Rainiest Week in More Than Two Years Is Freaking People Out,” Holthaus has found a niche that leverages both his meteorology background and his distinctive millennial-generation voice. In his very first article, he interviewed Weather Channel CEO David Kenny about the beloved network that he grew up with in the eighties and nineties, even confessing that he used to wait excitedly for the “Tropical Update” at 58 minutes past the hour. In recent years, however, the channel has shifted to more reality programming like Highway Thru Hell and Coast Guard Alaska. It’s a shift that disappoints Holthaus and symbolizes the reduced emphasis on science in popular culture.

“Carl Sagan used to talk on TV about nuclear winter—he saved the world because he made us terrified of nuclear war,” Holthaus says. “We have no one like that now for climate change. The Weather Channel has a chance to do it if they dedicate themselves to the weather, science, and climate. They realize they’ve gotten off track, and they’re trying to steer it back.”

On a broader scale, communicating about climate change—and getting past the politics of it—remains an ongoing challenge for meteorologists, journalists, and policymakers alike. Holthaus’s strategy is to take the offensive. He’s critical of the disclaimer mentality that pervades climate change communication: “Every time there’s a severe weather event, it’s as if scientists are required to say, ‘This event may not be directly caused by climate change, but events like it will become more typical with climate change.’ I think the science supports a link between every extreme weather event and climate change, even if it’s currently undetectable—it may be a small connection today, but the connections will only increase. To me, it’s irresponsible to say otherwise.”

Consider it another vow: As long as the Internet’s around, Holthaus will continue to spread the word about our changing planet, one tweet at a time.