By Chris Secrest
Edited By Andrea Losey
In tanks teeming with underwater creatures, Brian Helmuth spots a single sea star missing two arms. Twelve years studying the lives of marine animals make him sensitive to such changes in the environment. Now, Google is asking Helmuth to help it convey the science on global warming as a Google Science Communication Fellow.
Helmuth's "cutting edge work" with robotic mussels designed to detect changes in the environment makes him a climate change expert, says Laura Petes, a policy fellow at the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration. Helmuth also helps elementary and high schools design related curricula. The key, he says, is to "personalize and internalize" the international issue.
Crop reduction and other economic impacts are already inevitable, says the researcher who has been tracking changes to coastal environments attributed to global warming.
"One thing we know is there are winners and losers," Helmuth says. "What I try to do is say, ‘How do we proactively prepare?'"
He and 20 other Google fellows will spend three days at the company headquarters in June trying to figure out how the search giant's online tools can be used to get the message across. He sat down with The Carolina Reporter to talk about his work and his selection by Google. Some parts have been edited for brevity.
How do you reconcile with those who reject climate change?
I'm fortunate that I've gotten to see climate change firsthand. … For example, there's a place in Belize I've gone where I studied the coral reefs for five years. And there was a period of time where temperatures increased by about a degree. I went back the next year, and they were just gone – it's just a parking lot. And ever since that time it's just been oozing algae where there used to be these beautiful corals. … It's easy to understand climate change once you've seen those kind of case studies firsthand and once you've had the opportunity to understand the mechanisms. I think it's harder to understand climate change when you don't have the background, when you're only kind of looking in your own backyard.
You have the nation's attention for one minute. What exactly would you tell them?
I want them to understand that climate change is very real. I want them to understand that this is something that we take very seriously, but we don't throw up our hands in despair. This is not the Chicken Little scenario where the world is falling, but … like a lot of the other challenges that America has faced, I think it's something that, if we can come together and tackle it as a unified people, we really can do something about it.
Let's say the speaker of the U.S. House called today and said, "What can we do in the next 20 years?" What would you say?
I think that changes in policy are the biggest thing we can do. … I would say the No. 1 thing we need to do is try to find creative solutions to cutting down on our emissions. The second piece of that is just to realize that we have a lot of changes coming up and that we have to prepare for those changes.
"A number of solution-oriented bipartisan climate-related bills are being considered in the Congress. We need to urge those to move ahead." … You said this in 2008. How do you feel about our progress since then?
Our progress on those, unfortunately, has been pretty dismal and they're stalled right now. This is me speaking as a citizen rather than as a scientist. I think right now that we're in a situation where politics are so divisive right now; there is no bipartisan movement forward. ... I really hope we can get back to the point where we can have open and honest discussions, because I think that there are a lot of things to talk about in terms of the effects of climate change that all have to be on the table. Climate change not only impacts nature, it impacts our national security. It impacts our food security… All these things have to be on the table when we're discussing what we're going to do.
What is the benefit to a presence like Google getting involved with the issue of climate change?
Obviously, they have a huge presence and they have this incredible opportunity to communicate with people all over the world and in some really creative ways. One of the things they're asking us to think about this is through computational thinking. At least my understanding of this is that it's taking really kind of complex problems and breaking them down into really kind of simple parts and then putting them back together in new ways that make sense to people. Again, climate change is a great example of that. It's a really complex problem that on the surface seems kind of chaotic and almost impossible to understand. But if we can break it down into ways that are understandable and then take those pieces and convey them one at a time to the public using some of these smart technologies that Google has, I think it then, all of a sudden, it's not so mysterious; it's not so esoteric. It really starts making a difference to people if they understand why it is that there's a connection between what comes out the tailpipe of their car and why we're starting to see crops die, why we're starting to see changes in the productivity of our farms and our fisheries. …
An expedition to the Galapagos, the Arctic or Antarctica is the prize for the best presentations. What would winning a trip like that mean to your research?
I haven't been to the Galapagos, which would be great, but I have been to the South Georgia Island off of the Antarctic. … I've gotten to go on icebreakers to parts of the Antarctic before, and I've gone scuba diving to a bunch of different places, but it's all been centered on research. If I got to do this, it really would be a new opportunity to try to tell the world the story, and that would first and foremost be the point of the expedition, and that would really be exciting.