Ben Preston is the Deputy Director of ORNL's Climate Change Science Institute, which is dedicated to developing a better understanding of the causes and consequences of climate change and informing policymakers about what society can do to respond and adapt to these changes.
Preston's early interest in making science relevant to decisionmakers attracted him to the Pew Center on Global Change in Washington, D.C., where he worked as a senior research fellow. He came to ORNL in 2010 after five years at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, where he was a research scientist with the Division of Marine and Atmospheric Research.
We asked Preston to share some of his thoughts about the importance of climate science and how policymakers and local and national governments can take advantage of climate change research.
How did you first get involved in climate change research?
I first got involved in climate change research from the policy side. I had been working as a research scientist in environmental biology, but I was always interested in environmental policy—particularly in how environmental science is used to support public policy. To get into policy research, I hunted around for well-respected organizations that were doing policy work. I eventually found a group called the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. I told them that I had a background in science, I hadn't worked on climate specifically, and I was really interested in seeing how science influences policy and how I as a scientist could contribute to that effort. That sold them on me, so I spent four years there, working at the interface between climate science and public policy. This allowed me to bring my scientific training to bear and also to see how scientific information is both used and abused in a policy environment.
As a scientist and spokesperson for climate change research, what's the main message you want people to hear?
The public hears a lot about the uncertainty associated with climate change research and the controversy over what's going to happen in the future. I don't think this does justice to the decades, if not centuries, of research in this area. There is a wealth of knowledge out there that's continually being expanded. We know quite a bit about how the climate works and how it is influenced by human activity. We have a good handle on these things. I think that's a message that doesn't come across in the politicized landscape of climate change.
Climate research encompasses a number of scientific disciplines. How does this broad approach affect the science that is produced?
It creates a lot of challenges because each discipline has one piece of the puzzle. It's a challenge to integrate these disciplines, to tell a coherent story about cause and effect, and then to develop a policy response. However, if you're successful, you can create a rich body of knowledge. Bringing all these pieces together allows you to tell a more involved, more complex, and more nuanced story. This level of detail enables us to influence real-world decision-making in both public and private institutions.
You interact with policymakers from time to time. Are you optimistic that public policy will adapt quickly enough to soften the socio-economic impacts of a changing climate?
When I look at the prospects for significant policy intervention at a global scale—for instance, national governments collaborating to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—I am somewhat pessimistic. Over the last decade or more, we have seen that achieving those kinds of international agreements and collaborations is extremely difficult. However, we can also look at what's happening at the local level, the municipal level or the individual level. At those levels I think there are a lot more positive and optimistic stories. States, cities and communities have individually and collaboratively made significant gains in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and have improved their ability to adapt to the current effects of climate change and plan for the future.
What are some of the practical things that national and local governments can do to adapt to climate change?
I think the role of national government is to create an enabling environment in which greenhouse gas mitigation or adaptation can occur. Governments can also educate stakeholders across the public and private sectors about climate change, as well as alert them to opportunities for reducing risk and creating incentives for behavior in that direction. A lot of my research is focused more on the local level, particularly the role of spatial planning in influencing the exposure of human populations and communities to these kinds of risks. I concentrate on how our decisions about where we place people, development and economic investment ultimately influence what's at risk when extreme events occur. We have recently seen plenty of examples—particularly with regard to extreme weather—of where it would be beneficial to think more critically about how we make those decisions.
What's your definition of success in your work at the Climate Change Science Institute?
One of my definitions of success is having a scientific impact. We can measure this to some extent by looking at our research funding, at how many publications we produce and things like that. For the institute as a whole, these have been increasing.
We would also like to see the institute being recognized by other folks in the research community as a place where interesting, groundbreaking things are happening—a place where high-quality researchers look for opportunities to engage and collaborate.
We want the institute to have an impact in the broader society. We would like to have a greater media presence—to be able to communicate our science to the media in a way that allows the importance of the science to be appreciated in a broader context.
We also want to engage with the private sector. We do this well at ORNL in general, and we're trying to replicate this success in the climate arena. We're always asking ourselves, "How can the science we're doing here be used to benefit the private sector?"
Finally, we want to be able to inform the policy discourse by creating relationships and linkages in the policy arena—with organizations like think tanks and local, state and federal agencies. We want them to believe that Oak Ridge is a place they can turn to for quality science and straight answers on climate change.