By Molly E. Hunt, GSA Science Communication Intern, Undergraduate Student Ohio State University

As we move into February, most geoscientists are squarely focused on the new year. But Geological Society of America President Don Siegel is already thinking well beyond that horizon. A hydrogeologist by training, and a climate change spokesperson by passion, Siegel chose what he felt was a slightly radical topic for his GSA presidential address, which he delivered at the GSA Annual Meeting on September 22, 2019.

GSA President Don Siegel meets with Science Communication Interns and Communications Staff at the 2019 GSA Annual Meeting in Phoenix, AZ.
GSA President Don Siegel meets with Science Communication Interns and Communications Staff at the 2019 GSA Annual Meeting in Phoenix, AZ.

During his talk entitled “The Future of the Geosciences in the Context of Climate Disruption,” President Siegel spoke about the Earth’s rapidly changing climate. He began by noting the ‘tragedy of the commons’, where people use a shared resource to gain an economic advantage. Siegel said, “I see no compelling evidence that sufficient numbers of the developed and undeveloped nations that currently release large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane to our common atmosphere will make the economic and political decisions to prevent a two-degree increase in average global tropospheric temperature.”

While striving for renewable energy is a noble pursuit, Siegel argued too little solar and wind can be done to make a difference in the time humanity has to do it. But Siegel still has hope and he believes that not only do we have the right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, but also to new environmental freedoms. These, he says are; “the freedom from recurrent extreme climate-driven disasters; the freedom of having reasonably clean and safe water, air, and food; and the freedom from worrying that our natural environment will completely disappear. But the ultimate liberty, he says, is “the freedom from worrying that the sacrifice needed to achieve the first three freedoms will not be made in vain.”

Siegel concluded his address by reminding members of the Geological Society of America that they cannot achieve and these freedoms through the status quo; instead, they must work more for the direct benefit of society. Siegel then outlined some suggestions for these actions, including; building regional water delivery systems, creating genetic advancements for plant science, extracting more rare-earth elements, and educating the science community and the public on these efforts and ways everyone can get involved. He ended his address by predicting that climate disruptions will worsen short of doing these things in the next 30 years and urged early- and middle-career geoscientists career to reflect on how they can participate to try to prevent it in a meaningful way.

After the address President Siegel kindly sat down with me and answered some questions:

Q: What made you select this topic for your presidential speech?

DS: I was hoping it would make an impact. I think society has a chance at mitigating climate disruption. The reality is that the U.S. should develop small-scale nuclear [energy plants] that can be made cheaply and safely and sell them cheaply to inhibit fossil-fuel use by other countries. Along with going green with solar and wind as best as possible.

Q: Why do you view modern nationalism as a toxic cause of this climate issue?

DS: It’s toxic because modern nationalism is only concerned with an economic advantage and this leads towards nationalistic isolationism. Even here in the United States, the current administration only seems to think of economic advantage and greater GDP (Gross Domestic Product).

Q: Why did you target early to middle career scientists in your challenge?

DS: They still have the opportunity to change their career and/or thoughts. Older people are set in their ways.

Q: What is your response to people who do not believe in climate change?

DS: First agree on something to open the door to serious discussion. If I met a climate change denier who argued that climate changed happened in the past, I would say that the climate is changing at a rate that’s different from the past due to the effects of humans.

Q: What are your thoughts on the recent climate change strikes across the country?

DS: I think they are great because young people are forcing older people to take notice. The people who are organizing these strikes probably don’t know what to do to stop climate change, but they are bringing it to the people who make decisions. Young people are taking charge, and when people begin to notice and get mad then something actually happens.

Q: What can youth do now to help prevent climate change?

DS: Look at the larger-scale issues and go after your politicians. While it does not hurt to follow traditional “green” measures, I hope they will focus on the larger issues. We need a coherent energy policy that doesn’t exclude any non-fossil fuel energy sources and to rationally think about how we can do it.