Driving The Climate Change Conversation To A Neighborhood Near You

A scientist and a teacher are on a road trip across America to talk about global warming.
Climate change activists Athina Simolaris and Shahir Masri shortly before departing Orange County, California, on Aug. 1 for a road trip across America to raise awareness about global warming.
Climate change activists Athina Simolaris and Shahir Masri shortly before departing Orange County, California, on Aug. 1 for a road trip across America to raise awareness about global warming.
Teri Osborne

Among most scientists, there is no debate about the existence of climate change or humanity’s role in global warming. So as he began his career, air pollution scientist Shahir Masri intended to do what scientists do: gather evidence, conduct research and publish papers.

But as Masri talked to people in his community and saw the level of misinformation about climate change, he realized he needed to do more.

That’s why he and his girlfriend, Athina Simolaris, a high school and middle school teacher, set out from California in early August on a road trip across the country to engage Americans on one of the most pressing issues of our time.

“We’re at a time when action is increasingly important, and every year that we don’t act is one decade, probably, of increased warming that we’re committing ourselves to,” said Masri, 32, a Tustin, California, native.

“You can just be an ordinary person who cares and can make a change.”

- Athina Simolaris

The couple plans to visit three dozen states in the next three months, traveling in Simolaris’ low-emission Hyundai. Their first event in Las Vegas was a question and answer session at a nature preserve. In Utah the couple met with members of the Paiute Indian tribe and visited the Cedar Breaks National Monument to document a bark beetle infestation that’s wiping out hundreds of thousands of acres of trees, and Masri joined a panel of local scientists for a talk at a public library.

Armed with a tent, sleeping bags, a hammock and a donated drone, the couple will sleep outdoors or stay with friends, family members and strangers who have offered their homes (and will make hotel stops when necessary).

“What we want to do is get this conversation going and try to make people feel that it’s OK to talk about climate change, even if we’re not coming at it from the same perspective,” said Simolaris, who recently became certified to teach Spanish.

Both are putting their careers on hold at a crossroads. Simolaris, 28, earned her master’s degree this year and normally would be applying for teaching jobs to pay off her school loans. Masri also has school debt and should be researching and publishing papers ― the prescribed path to tenure in academia.

But he decided last year to make a major change.

He had spent more than a decade immersed in his coursework, earning a Ph.D. in environmental exposure assessment from the Harvard School of Public Health in 2016 before joining the University of California at Irvine, where he works as an assistant specialist in air pollution exposure assessment.

But the more he wandered outside what he describes as the “academic bubble,” the more he realized there were too many misconceptions about climate change for him to keep to the lab. So he began speaking up. All the time.

He writes op-eds connecting the dots between climate change and extreme weather-related disasters like the California wildfires. He strikes up conversations with strangers at public events, like the woman he met at a Republican political booth during a chili cook-off in Orange County last year who told Masri that climate change is due to volcanic activity, not human activity.

And he joined the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a grassroots nonprofit that advocates for national policies to address climate change.

At the organization’s Washington, D.C., conference last year, Masri had planned to tell fellow organizers that he was overwhelmed and needed to take a step back from advocacy. But once he was surrounded by 1,300 other climate activists, he couldn’t do it.

“I actually decided, no, rather than put my climate advocacy aside in the name of my work, I actually need to put my work aside in the name of more climate advocacy,” he said.

He called Simolaris and proposed a one-year sabbatical to dedicate themselves to activism. She agreed. Like Masri, she sees the urgency of addressing climate change. She also knows how nonscientists feel about what can at times seem like an insurmountable problem.

In college she studied Spanish and international relations, and after graduating in 2012 she moved to her mother’s native Dominican Republic to teach English. She was alarmed by the growing amount of trash she saw floating in patches in the ocean around the island — which is dumped into the country’s rivers from homes and informal settlements and washes ashore during storms.

Simolaris made personal changes, like shifting away from single-use items, such as plastic water bottles. When she moved back to her hometown of Boston, she biked to work and started a composting program in her office and at home.

Then she met Masri, and through their conversations began learning about the science of pollution. The more she understood about carbon dioxide emissions, the more concerned she became.

“It scared me, and it made me feel that this is such a bigger issue than doing something on a personal level,” Simolaris said.

She later traveled to Europe to spend several months working on family-run organic farms. She stayed in small towns, where she found farmers and residents were willing to talk openly about climate change. But in the United States, no one talked about global warming, and news stories didn’t connect the dots between weather and climate change. They barely mentioned the phrase “climate change” at all, she said.

“We’re at a time when action is increasingly important, and every year that we don’t act is one decade, probably, of increased warming that we’re committing ourselves to.”

- Shahir Masri

Donald Trump’s election as president spurred her to do something, but she was unsure how to take action. Then Masri introduced her to Citizens’ Climate Lobby, where she learned about environmental policies and how to reach out to and meet with elected representatives and other policymakers. She realized she didn’t need to be a scientist to take part.

“You can just be an ordinary person who cares and can make a change,” said Simolaris.

Most Americans say global warming is real — 73 percent of registered voters recently surveyed, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. That’s a high since the program first asked about the issue in 2008, said the program’s director, Anthony Leiserowitz.

The percentage of Americans who believe global warming is happening began dropping after 2008 because of a variety of factors, primarily the rise of the conservative Tea Party and the rightward lurch of the Republican Party, he said.

Global warming is still a deeply politicized issue. Liberal Democrats care about climate change, ranking it as the fourth most pressing national electoral issue. Conservative Republicans rank it last on a list of 28 issues.

Leiserowitz found that there’s a spectrum of attitudes toward climate change and that many Americans fall in the middle ― “moderately certain that global warming is occurring, harmful and human caused,” he said. People along the spectrum can be engaged, but that depends on what messages they are hearing about the issue and who they’re hearing it from, he added.

“A messenger is often more important than the message,” he said. “If you don’t like the messenger, then people are predisposed to discount, ignore or deny the message.”

There’s no messenger with a higher level of trust among the public than climate scientists, he said, but most people don’t have regular access to them.

“Climate scientists and scientists in general are mostly an abstraction to most people,” Leiserowitz said. “They’re not talking to climate scientists over the backyard fence or at a neighborhood barbecue.”

He said the climate science community should do more public engagement ― which is exactly what Masri hopes to do on the road with Simolaris.

He often finds that when he speaks to people about climate change, they express a sense of defeat. They point out that the polar bears are dying and ask if they can really make a difference at this point.

Masri just published a book, “Beyond Debate,” to address common climate change misconceptions and to remind the public that there is still time to act.

“It’s not a foregone conclusion,” he said. “There are climate projections and many different scenarios. Whether we take the worst-case scenario or best-case scenario, that’s still entirely dependent on how we act today.”

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