A Conversation With Rhawn Denniston, Paleoclimatologist

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RhawnDenniston-Post.jpg When he isn't with students, Rhawn Denniston, an associate professor of geology and chair of the Environmental Studies Program at Cornell College, spends a lot of his time alone -- with rocks. Denniston considers teaching, and educating students on the problem of climate change, his most important work. But, outside of the classroom, Denniston works as a paleoclimatologist, studying stalagmites and corals to reconstruct past environments. Here, Denniston discusses China's relentless pursuit of renewable energy; why it's unlikely that ethanol subsidies will be adequately addressed anytime soon; and how it's ironic, given how critical an issue climate change is, that so few people know the names of the most important scientists studying it.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

First and foremost, I'm a teacher. While my research involves studying climate change, including the past behavior of monsoons and hurricanes, so much of what I and many other academics from all fields do never leaves our small group of like-minded scholars. The most important contribution I make is in educating students about the terrific array of problems, including climate change, that we face as a society.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the study of past climate change?

Increasingly we are becoming aware of how interconnected the climate system is and how rapidly profound changes have occurred. During the last ice age, rapid warming and cooling recorded in Greenland ice occurred simultaneously with substantial changes in rainfall associated with the Asian monsoon in China. During the same time, warming in Antarctica routinely coincided with cooling in Greenland. Earth's climate is a highly dynamic, complex, and yet interlinked system.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?

Just because I study past climates does not make me an expert on future climate change. There is a relatively small number of scientists and programmers working with incredibly complex computer models who really understand how the climate is likely to shift in coming decades. Given how much discussed and critical an issue climate change is, it's ironic that such a small percentage of the American public has ever even heard the names of the most important of these scientists. A few of them, such as James Hansen, are outspoken, but most remain largely anonymous to the average voter.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?

China's relentless pursuit of renewable energy coupled with the inability of American policy makers to formulate and maintain a long-term green-energy policy is putting the U.S. further and further behind. And there are so many reasons beyond its direct environmental impacts that make renewable energy attractive to a majority of Americans. Reducing our consumption on fossil fuels resonates with military hawks, business owners, and the emerging renewable energy market. We need to turn things around fast.

What's a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?

Ethanol is driving a host of environmental problems both globally and regionally. But given Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucus, ethanol subsidies are unlikely to be adequately addressed anytime soon.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

Most scientists are constantly asking "what if?" For every idea of mine that leads somewhere productive, I have several ideas that lead nowhere.

Who are three people or organizations that you would put in a Hall of Fame for your field?

The study of climate change has been revolutionized several times. Wallace Broecker at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory has been studying climate change for half a century and was one of the earliest advocates for the occurrence of rapid climate changes. James Hansen helped develop some of the earliest computer models. His work has been proven right time and time again, and he's been a devoted advocate for clean energy. Finally, Al Gore is maligned by friends of mine on both sides of the political aisle, and I truly don't understand why. It's become vogue to demonize or mock this guy when, in fact, he's done more to shake the American public by the lapels and get them to pay at least a little attention to arguably the single most important issue of our time.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

Despite my career studying with rocks, I spent a lot of time in the woods and streams of Missouri as a child and have a deep love for animals. The life of a field biologist has always intrigued me.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

I spend hours mining data sets of paleoclimate data, largely from NOAA's National Climatic Data Center.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

I have been listening to the Moving Pictures album by Rush. Those first songs: "Tom Sawyer," "Red Barchetta," "Limelight" -- classics all.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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