On Carbon, AGU President Robin Bell Walks the Walk

Robin Bell is a renowned geophysicist, the natural science which concerns itself with the physical processes and properties of the Earth. She has accumulated many accolades for her discoveries in Antarctica and Greenland, which include sub-glacial lakes, rivers that flow uphill, and a volcano beneath the West Antarctic ice sheet.

Bell is the current president of the American Geophsyical Union. The AGU is an international organization, which includes 62,000 scientists from 144 countries, making her the de facto top earth scientist in the world. The sensitive polar regions Bell studies are warming quickly, a symptom of climate change wrought by emissions from mankind’s activities. She is acutely aware of her personal contributions to the problem; her fuel-intensive polar research and a demanding travel schedule.

For many Americans, even those convinced of the science, climate change is a problem requiring collective action and thus excuse themselves from making personal sacrifices to reduce their personal emissions. Some say individual efforts to curb climate change, like eating less meat or cutting down on their air travel, are largely symbolic and too small to make any meaningful impact. It is notable, however, that the world’s leading earth scientist is not allowing collective inaction to absolve her of personal responsibility.

A Profile of Robin Bell

Robin Bell leads the AGU the same way she lives her personal life, by example (Source: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory).


It is a frigid winter day at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory on the Hudson River. Ice and salt still crystallize the pavement from the last storm, so Bell drove her silver Prius to work. I follow the sound of laughter on the first floor of the Oceanography building and run into Bell at the end of the hall. She offers me loose tea and invites her dog, Nara, a fluffy white Samoyed, to join us in her office overlooking the river.

Bell lives ten miles from the research center where she has worked to advance polar science over the past 35 years. According to Bell, the fossil fuel that supplements her hybrid vehicle will be her largest personal carbon expenditure until her flight to Asia later this year. In better weather, she cycles, or rides her electric bicycle.

Bell talked me through the weeks of her 2018 carbon emissions, which she tracked and charted as a line graph on her computer. She lamented the flight to Mexico that caused the line to spike and noted where it leveled out during carbon-negligible weeks where Bell and her husband, environmental law professor Karl Coplan, were sailing. “Nine tons. I’m still below average, but boy this year I’m going to blow it through the roof with travel.”

Bell’s role as the head of the AGU demands her presence at engagements in countries far from her home base in New York. But she will plan her trips with the precision of a military movement, combining multiple trans-Pacific trips to fulfill her presidential duties and to visit her daughter in California, into one condensed itinerary.

Her presidency, which began in 2019, comes as international community wrestles with how to quickly decarbonize the world economy. Staving off the worst effects of climate change requires immediate global-scale reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The United States, the world’s largest per capita emitter, has sidelined itself from participating in the global effort, handicapped by its own recalcitrance.

Amid the political paralysis in America, debate has emerged among environmentalists and green-leaning citizens between individual versus collective action to curb emissions.

 “I just want to set an example. If I am telling people this is an issue, I should be acting like it’s an issue.” – Robin Bell


In a December 2017 essay, David Roberts, a prominent climate and energy journalist for Vox, wrote “Go forth and be green. You will be happier and healthier. But do not mistake it for a solution to climate change. Only collective action and collective ingenuity can save us.”

Roberts’ view exposes a sentiment that is ubiquitous, even among many who study or write about earth science: that change is necessary on a scale far greater than could possibly be affected by any personal sacrifice, so why bother?

Roberts continued the thought in a recent Twitter thread: “Climate change is not an “environmental problem.” It’s far deeper than that. Solutions require basic changes in technology, law, and infrastructure, none of which is affected by individual behavior…Personal asceticism is largely irrelevant.”

The world’s top earth scientist disagrees.

“If we do not start acting like we care about our planet future’s then we can never move toward being a sustainable species,” Bell told me. “We cannot simply blame others and wait for some policy solution.  All actions matter. Engaging all the strategies from individual action to carbon sequestration is essential to keep our planet, our home habitable.”

Living life in a manner that comports with her field of study is essential for Bell:  “I just want to set an example,” she said. “If I am telling people this is an issue, I should be acting like it’s an issue.”

Bell usually stops by the farmer’s market on her way to the office. Buying from her local growers is an act of community for her. Bell and Coplan also belong to a community-supported agriculture group, whereby members purchase a share of the harvest of local farms to distribute the risk of farming.

Bell and Coplan have adopted a similar strategy for home energy supply, buying into community solar power. “It’s kind of like a CSA for solar,” Bell said. For Bell and Coplan, it is a work-around strategy, since their home is in the woods and shaded much of the day by tall trees. “We haven’t been willing to cut all the down trees that keep our house cool to get better solar.”

Bell and her dog, Nara (Source: Karl Coplan).

The pair ascribes to a Mediterranean diet; a mostly plant-based approach to food. They keep a garden, too. Bell primarily does the perennials and tends the bees, while Coplan oversees the annuals. Coplan also maintains a sustainable living blog and is the author of the forthcoming book “Live Sustainably Now: A Carbon-Sustainable Vision of the American Dream.” Last fall The Hill ran an op ed where Coplan urged Americans to make fundamental lifestyle changes, “there is no argument for inaction…collective action starts with individual action.”

Their shared passion is sailing, a wind-powered hobby. Bell and Coplan constructed a boat together while they were students at Middlebury College in Vermont. With their two children, they have completed multiple transAtlantic voyages and have planned a circumnavigation of the globe. They also maintain a cabin upstate, completely off the grid, ski-in ski-out, with plug-ins to charge their vehicle. “It’s just like a boat,” Bell says. “The batteries are in the floor. It’s a composting toilet. Just a wood stove for heat.”

I asked Bell about the last time she used a plastic bag. Expecting a figure on the order of decades, she replied, “I still read the regular old paper and they come in plastic bags when they are hand-delivered to your house.” Bell is hyper-aware of her impact, but she is not ascetic in her lifestyle. Supporting print journalism, for Bell, is a concession which outweighs the plastic cost. “On my list of things to worry about, plastic bag use isn’t my highest. My carbon use is. I’m much more worried about that. People get worried about plastic straws and don’t have a bigger vision of what their impact is on the planet.”

On fellow earth science leaders, Bell said, “We should be showing that we are taking sustainability seriously. Very few people are being reflective. Maybe people have done something like dropped beef. Some of my favorite friends here, that’s what they’ve done. But they still fly to an island several times a year.”

Bell proudly points to the new AGU headquarters, the flagship building of science, as an example of what can be accomplished on a macro level. It is the first renovated net-zero building in Washington, DC. It uses rooftop solar, a green wall, auto-tinting glass, and a sewer heat exchange system to offset the energy it uses. “It’s showing what you can do as an individual. This is how we start to say what the future can look like and have it be a positive view.”

Glacier Researchers to Join Worldwide March for Science

Science rally in Boston, Feb. 19 (source: GenXMedia/Twitter)
Science rally in Boston, Feb. 19 (source: GenXMedia/Twitter).

Large groups plan to assemble on April 22 in Washington, D.C. and cities across the world as part of the March for Science to demonstrate their support of science and the role of scientific evidence in guiding policy. Glacier researchers and other cryosphere specialists are preparing to join their colleagues from other disciplines in this global expression of concern.

Locations of satellite marches on April 22 (source: March for Science)
Locations of satellite marches on April 22 (source: March for Science).

The March for Science has grown over a short period, the idea first emerging soon after the 2017 Women’s March in January. It quickly gathered momentum with large numbers of adherents on social media, drawing inspiration from the 2014 People’s Climate March. The organizers selected April 22, Earth Day, as the date for the events. By February, 27 scientific associations had joined as partner organizations to co-sponsor the march. To date, 107 organizations are sponsoring the event, with 429 satellite marches planned in 42 countries.  

In addition to seeking to assure funding for scientific research, the march has a number of other goals: supporting scientific education, promoting diversity and inclusiveness in science, affirming science as a democratic value, and advancing the role of scientific evidence in policy-making.  Though some have voiced a concern that the march could serve those who seek to attack science, by politicizing science and presenting scientists as an interest group, the march’s supporters have argued for the urgency of taking a public stand in the face of unprecedented threats to scientific research and to the belief in science itself.

Poster for satellite march, Greenland (source: IceSheetMike/Twitter)
Poster for satellite march, Greenland (source: IceSheetMike/Twitter).

One of the march’s earliest sponsors was the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest general scientific organization, with over 120,000 members. Agustin Fuentes of the University of Notre Dame, the chair-elect of the anthropology section of the AAAS, spoke recently with GlacierHub about the back and forth discussions across the membership when the idea first came up. “The leadership stood up right away and spoke publicly,” he said, adding  that this “galvanized the membership.”  

Fuentes further underscored the importance of science at a time when, as he said, “the structure of the planet is changing so fast.” He continued, “We are at a point of almost no return. I never expected to see video footage of glaciers shrinking…We’ve known of this global disruption climatologically, and it’s been ramped up politically. People who engage in science have to speak up now.” He spoke as well of primates, the “canaries in coal mines for the world’s forests,” with over 60% of primate species listed as threatened.

Scientists at demonstration at AGU annual meeting, San Francisco, December 19, 2016 (source: DeLucia/Twitter)
Scientists at demonstration at AGU annual meeting, San Francisco, December 19, 2016 (source: DeLucia/Twitter).

Robin Bell of Columbia University, the president-elect of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), linked cryosphere processes with the importance of the march. The AGU, with over 60,000 members, was one of the march’s first sponsors. “The march is a chance for us to talk about how science matters,” she said. “Science is important for society, and it’s non-partisan.”  

“We’re still making basic discoveries about how ice sheets work,” Bell continued, referencing her own work in Antarctica. These findings are important to society because of “the linkage to sea level rise” and the threats to port facilities in the current economy, where “goods move all around the world.”  She emphasized that the march was global, with other countries besides the US needing to assure the role of science in policy and decision-making.

Flyer for satellite march, Busan, South Korea (source: March for Science/Facebook)
Flyer for satellite march, Busan, South Korea (source: March for Science/Facebook).

Alisse Waterston,  the president of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), described to GlacierHub her organization’s path to supporting the march. At the AAA’s 2016 annual meeting in mid-November, less than two weeks after Election Day, members voiced their wish to take action. “It was remarkable to see such a strong sense of solidarity, of deep concern because of the rhetoric,” she said. The annual meeting led to a number of initiatives that began in late November and December.

Valorie Aquino, one of the three co-organizers of the March for Science and an anthropologist from the University of New Mexico, approached the AAA in January to ask for support. Waterston felt it was an excellent opportunity for the AAA “to leverage its capacity and work in solidarity with individuals and with other organizations.” The march serves to oppose what she termed an “assault on people, assault on the most vulnerable, and assault on knowledge itself.”

Laura Ogden, an anthropologist at Dartmouth, and head of the AAA’s Anthropology and Environment Section (A&E), is mobilizing A&E to support the March. She described her work with the indigenous Yaghan community in Tierra del Fuego. Her current research, a “collaborative archive project,” examines photographs of glaciers from the early 1900s. She traveled with the Yaghan to visit these glaciers and discussed changes with them.  She explained that for the Yaghan, “the loss of glaciers are related to the loss of lands, the loss of language and of rights.”

Susan Crate, an anthropologist at George Mason University and a member of the AAA’s Task Force on Climate Change, raised similar points from her work in Siberia, where she has collaborated with permafrost scientists in the management of hayfields crucial to the indigenous Sakha, who raise horses and cattle. Permafrost thawing and changing patterns of snowfall and snowmelt leave hayfields flooded, ravaging long-established livelihoods. Crate emphasized “the need to invest deeply in understanding the diversity of ways that people experience all these changes,” echoing what Ogden termed “understanding how climate change is part of this bigger story” of vulnerability.   

Poster for satellie march, São Paulo, Brazil (source: MarchCienciaSP).

A cryosphere scientist who works at a federal agency had a different response to the march. “You should be aware in advance that— as an [agency] employee— I cannot speak to the media about, nor participate in, public actions wearing my ‘[agency] hat,” he wrote in response to GlacierHub’s request for an interview. “The administration here is going strict on this requirement, as they don’t want to give any reason for any next budget slashing, which is becoming increasingly possible by the day, and specifically on a planned political action. I don’t want to provide anyone with an excuse to lash out on my work. Hope you understand.”

In a subsequent conversation, he elaborated his points: “Marching is easy. You are with thousands of people. There’s an energy in the crowd. But back in the office, there are daily battle lines when you are on your own. That is far more demanding than the march, which I fully support.”

Planning satellite march in Valdivia, Chile (Source:ScienceMarchCL/Twitter)
Planning satellite march in Valdivia, Chile (Source: ScienceMarchCL/Twitter).

He continued, “The true heroes will be science managers, agency people and university administrators who will be supporting and protecting the scientists. They are the ones who will preserve NSF [the National Science Foundation], NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] and NASA [the National Aeronautics and Space Administration].” He paused, and then completed his thought: “They probably won’t come to the march. But on Monday they will come back to the office and they will fight.”   

To find a march near where you live, visit this site. And to learn how to make a model glacier in a wheelbarrow to bring with you to the march, look here.