David Harwood is a geologist and a micropaleontologist and an eternal optimist.
He’s been a professor for 27 years. The lead U.S. scientist for the ANDRILL Project that brought rocks millions of years old to the surface of Antarctica so researchers could study their history.
He's traveled to that frozen continent 15 times; he'll return again early next year.
He takes teachers on 16-day geological camping expeditions to help them develop a deeper understanding of the earth and pass that knowledge along to their students.
He studies one-celled algae that provide abundant amounts of oxygen for you and me. God bless you, diatoms!
He’s a man who talks at Sundays with a Scientist at Morrill Hall — Doc Harwood Time Travelin’ Geologist — and waxes like a poet in his Bessey Hall office.
We first talked on Thursday, both of us waiting for President Donald Trump — the man who called climate change a Chinese "hoax" — to finish explaining why the United States was withdrawing from a global climate agreement signed by 195 nations.
“In the long term, he’s not protecting Americans,” said Harwood, a professor in UNL’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Science. “He’s jeopardizing Americans and all people on the planet.”
Short-sighted thinking, said the long-term, deep-time kind of guy.
I’d contacted the passionate professor because I don’t think climate change is a Chinese hoax. And because I don’t think you can separate the fate of Pittsburgh from that of Paris. Or Nebraska’s future from Nepal’s.
“We can’t put the U.S. above the rest of the world or humans above the rest of the species,” Harwood says. “It’s the whole ecosystem.”
Harwood can talk for hours about climate change.
He loves to explain science to kids, our best hope for the future. (Harwood was in second grade when he noticed that Africa and South America looked like two pieces of a separated puzzle and got his first lesson in plate tectonics.)
More recently, at the Cottonwood Club's Nerd Night, he illuminated a slightly older audience with a 46-slide PowerPoint. Slide No. 42: "There is no Planet B."
And Harwood is happy to explain the evidence for climate change to me, a reporter who barely passed Earth Science in junior high and cringed at the thought of Chemistry in high school.
He starts with those expeditions to Antarctica, when scientists and engineers began drilling into the ice — “the frosting on the poles” — and taking samples from the core.
Beautiful tubes of bubble-filled ice, extracted by massive drills that sunk nearly a mile into the glacier.
The trapped air in the bubbles told the story, Harwood said.
Through the composition of gasses in those bubbles, scientists were able to study the natural changes in climate through eight Ice Ages and their corresponding Interglacial Intervals — 880,000 years back in time.
They found that during the cold periods on the continent, carbon dioxide levels were 180 parts per million. During warmer intervals, CO2 rose to 280 parts per million.
“The natural range the earth produces without our influence,” Harwood says.
Then came the Industrial Revolution and another bump to 320 parts per million.
At last check, more than 400 parts per million.
“At 400 parts per million, West Antarctica is gone,” Harwood says. “The Greenland Ice Sheet is gone.”
It’s true the Earth’s atmosphere exceeded those levels millions of years ago, Harwood says. He and other scientists have studied that, too. (Who among us is going to stay the same for 4.5 billion years?)
But there’s a caveat: “It’s the rate of change now that’s alarming. It’s substantially faster than normal rates.”
And more than 97 out of 100 scientists concur: Humans and human activity are the cause of that change.
And humans and their activities need to change.
It’s baffling to him that the issue has been so divisive, so politicized.
“We trust what doctors tell us. We trust science in so many ways. Why is climate change this thing I don’t trust?”
But Harwood sees the evolution occurring. For the past decade, he’s taught a class called Frontiers of Antarctic Geoscience for nonscience majors. In the beginning, students walked in skeptical of climate change. Not anymore.
The scientist in him is embarrassed by the president’s decision to leave the Paris Climate Accord. “From a global perspective we look awful,” he says. “We look irresponsible. We are irresponsible.”
Our leaders, our policymakers, should be "guiding us to safer waters."
But the eternal optimist in him doesn’t believe it dooms us.
Climate change is a buzzword now, he said.
By Saturday, 187 mayors and 10 governors had pledged support of the Paris Climate Accord. Dozens of university presidents and American companies had also committed to following the accord's climate goals.
“I think good will come from the awareness," Harwood said. "There’s never been a time when people have been so aware of our climate.”