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Dr. Philip Duffy: 'We Control Our Destiny' with Climate Change

Dr. Phil Duffy
Woodwell Climate Research Center
Dr. Phil Duffy speaks at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Woods Hole.

A Cape Cod scientist is working at the White House — again.

Dr. Phil Duffy is serving as climate science adviser to President Biden.

Duffy also advised President Obama in a similar capacity. And most recently he was head of the Woodwell Climate Research Center, in Woods Hole.

Duffy is in his third week with Biden's Office of Science and Technology Policy. He spoke to CAI's Patrick Flanary on Morning Edition.

Flanary: This is a new role, so I imagine you get to shape it to some extent. What's the first thing you do at the office on a Monday morning?

Duffy: One of my family members said, 'So what are you actually going to do?' And I said, 'Well, I'm going to go to meetings and answer emails.' Our broadest priority is to help ensure that the actions taken by this administration are closely informed by science. We know that science-based policy is much more effective than policies which are based on wishful thinking or ideology. One of the things that I'm quite interested in is making sure that we have good data on reducing our own greenhouse-gas emissions. We need to make sure that we have the measurements and the data necessary to show that the measures taken are as effective as we want them to be.

Flanary: I'm curious what your first conversation was like with President Obama, and how did it differ from your first chat with President Biden?

Duffy: To be honest, I haven't had a one-on-one chat with either of those gentlemen. But clearly, already it's very, very different now from how it was 10 years ago. It's a different climate now, literally. As you know, we've experienced what seems like an endless number of events: floods, cyclones, wildfires, and so forth. And these events are clearly related to climate change. It makes it clear that climate change is a now problem, rather than a future problem. Most Americans, regardless of political persuasion, recognize that climate change is happening, and recognize that it's caused by humans, and want the government to do more about it. And that's what I think is new and changing, is the priority assigned to this issue.

Flanary: So what do you solve first? Is it animal agriculture? Electric vehicles? What's most pressing?

Duffy: We're going to have to make significant reductions in emissions from every single sector. Yes, there are some things that we know how to do, and it's just a matter of marshaling the resources to do them.

Flanary: Where did you expect we would be 30 years ago, when you entered this field? Where did you expect we'd be today?

Duffy: That's a great question. There's a common saying among climate scientists: The best time to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions was 30 years ago; the second-best time is now. Unfortunately, we didn't do what we should have done earlier, but it's good that we're at least finally exhibiting an appropriate level of ambition and an appropriate sense of urgency.

Flanary: We've had the hottest July on record, stronger hurricanes, the wildfires raging out West. Are we too far gone to do anything about certain things?

Duffy: Certain things we're going to have to learn to live with. I come from California, I lived there for most of my life. Wildfire risk is elevated there, and that's not going to change. That's going to be a fact of life.

Flanary: People often think it's too late to do anything.

Duffy: It's never too late. And the science clearly shows that. If we act now, we have a much greater chance of avoiding a really disruptive and destructive outcome. We do control our destiny.

Patrick Flanary is a dad, journalist, and host of Morning Edition.