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Climate Chaos | Climate Rising Advisory Committee


Earlier this winter Northern sent each committee member a questionnaire focusing on themes and features of Northern Spark 2016. Here’s what they had to say.

Dr. Sonali McDermid

Assistant Prof of Environmental Studies, NYU


I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at New York University. I hold a Ph.D. (2011), an M. Phil. (2011) and an M.A. (2009) focusing in Atmospheric Science and Climatology from the Department of Earth and Environmental Science, Columbia University, and a B.A. in Physics from New York University (2006). My research focuses on understanding interactions between climate change and variability, land-use, and agriculture, with an eye towards identifying and quantifying important feedbacks and uncertainties. My research utilizes a variety of tools and datasets, primarily global climate models, but also observed and remote-sensing datasets, and process-based crop models. My primary research concerns revolve around understanding the environmental ramifications of agricultural production through human land use and modification, particularly in vulnerable areas in South Asia, in the hopes that this will provide a better understanding of what constitutes sustainable agricultural production and management.

Previously, I was a NASA Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York City, and conducted much of my work through the Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project (, which is undertaking integrated assessments of climate change and food security in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. I continue my work with AgMIP, and also use the NASA GISS global climate model to investigate global and regional climate-land surface interactions, and the impact of climate change and altered sea surface temperatures on the South Asian Summer Monsoon system.

What are you thoughts on this year’s theme: Climate Chaos I Climate Rising ?

I think the title is great overall. I’m curious to learn more about the “Rising” component here – is this to connote or spark activism? Does this represent the younger generations who will stand to largely “deal” with the problem? Or does this describe the “rising” nature of the problem?

Of the topics: move, nourish, interconnect, perceive, act,  which engage you? With which does your practice align, reflect or agitate, and how?

I would say the “move” and “perceive” topics align best with my skillsets as a climate scientists, and my current research interests. The quantitative model-based tools I use show spatial shifts in distribution of climatic variables and indicators, with implications for the host of species/actors/agents that depend on these variables. There has been much written on public “perception” of climate change from a scientific point of view, but this has been often difficult to communicate to the general public (and is an important entry point for the arts – which have been much more successful than the scientists!). That said, I struggle constantly in my teaching with all the facets of climate change perception – as “perceive” really is an umbrella for lots of ways to “feel” or “understand” climate change. I think “interconnect” is also a very important point as well, so happy to engage on this front too – this takes patience, compassion,  and understanding that I think has been lacking from the overall discussion (on both sides).

What are two important ideas or questions related to the subthemes you identify with, that the public should know or ask?

It’s difficult to narrow this down to two – there are so many! While I’ll try here, I think one of the most complicated issue is that climate change, like everything else, has been whittled down to sound bites or “key questions/findings/ideas”. Climate change is complicated, nuanced, and not easy to understand. There needs to be space for this – for complicated problems – in our everyday discussion. I think the arts provide a mechanism for discussing complexity. . particularly as it relates to climate change . . and how important it is that we not simplify the discussion.

That said, I think important subthemes could be:

1) The “science” is not the problem nor is it a convincing argument to enact large scale change. What would it take to incite transformative change and why might people be opposed (really, not superficially)?

2) How do we make decisions (policy and personal) in the face of uncertainty, of which there is plenty when looking at local and regional climate change.

3) How do I learn to appreciate and internalize general conclusions in the face of complexity? Why is it not enough to live by personal values to fight climate change, and if individual actions aren’t enough, what else am I prepared to ask for and/or do to enact change?

From the perspective of your field in general, what are two of the most pressing concerns about the effects of climate change that the public should know?

While we have some robust understanding about the global, and even broadly regional, changes we are about to face, it is still difficult to give definitive projections/predictions about the impacts to agriculture, biodiversity, system and individual health (other than we think these things could be largely negatively impacted). We also are not completely sure of critical “tipping points” in our climate system, which further complicate predictions. The public should know that while our tools and methods are getting better, we may need help to solve this problem from the “bottom up”, in that we cannot wait for (local) certainty before we act both collectively and individually. Rather than trying to adapt to a predicted “certain” future, we may need to figure out the world we want and look to build resilience – which may not fully need a projected “climate change” map to do so.

What is missing from that conversation about climate change? Whose voice is missing?

I think we need to bridge gaps in understanding. . not of the science but of each other. In general, I don’t think anyone wants to see anyone else suffer, but this gets obfuscated with political rhetoric and the drive to “win” an argument. We need compassion towards each other and patience to understand that while values are disparate among us, we can bridge these things to spur collective action. I think this “bridging” voice has been missing – but clearly COP21 was able to find some of this in their latest agreement. Of course, scientific literary helps and that is substantially lacking. . . but herein shows the systemic issues that we’re up against.

What has been your experience of how and why people’s behaviors change in relation to climate change?

Amazingly (or not) the Pope had a larger impact on approaching consensus on climate change than any scientific reports or studies ever had (at least temporarily). Studies generally show that the amount or quality of the science doesn’t matter, but people ideologies and leanings/associations will always win out. How do we leverage this for the good of all?

In your view, how does or could art add to the climate change conversation?

I can imagine a variety of ways, but I think art in all its forms has the ability to resonate in a way the science can’t (and shouldn’t in some ways). .  much like the Pope I suppose! It taps into something visceral – deeper –than seeing figures or numbers and can safely provide points of view and discussion topics in a way the science can’t (it gets too polarizing). That said. . . climate science and climate change art are more connected than distinct. . .