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Protecting the planet, one Mom at a time

Science Moms

Moms are expected to know everything, aren't they? Everything from "Why is the sky blue?" to "What in the world is that?" It's easy to feel overwhelmed, even without a pandemic raging on. This Mother's Day, a new group can come to the rescue with answers to some of life's toughest questions.

The latest surveys find about two-thirds of Americans are concerned about climate change and believe more initiatives are needed to control it. In Erie County, that jumps to almost three-quarters of the population. But moms are even bigger worriers.

"83% of moms are concerned, and that makes sense, because a mom's number one job is to protect our kids. And climate change threatens our kids' future, our kids' health and our kids' safety," said atmospheric scientist and professor Katharine Hayhoe. "But nobody has time to read the latest scientific studies."

Credit Texas Tech University
Katharine Hayhoe is a climate scientist, mother and co-founder of Science Moms.

Hayhoe is leaving Texas Tech University to accept the position of Chief Scientist at the Nature Conservancy on June 1. You may have seen her on the PBS digital series "Global Weirding: Climate, Politics and Religion" or on one of many international lists, like Time magazine's "100 Most Influential People" and Fortune magazine's "World Greatest Leaders."

She is also a co-founder of the bipartisan group of climate scientists and mothers called Science Moms. The group works to demystify all the research, jargon and debate about climate change, so moms can feel empowered to use their "outside voice" as a catalyst for the planet.

"A mom's life is a very busy life. We don't have any extra time to mess around with things that are complicated, or they're going to take us a long time to figure out. So we just want the information broken down into simple digestible bits. How do we know this thing's real? Why is it happening? And most importantly, what can I personally do to help fix it?" Hayhoe said.

Born and educated in Toronto, she knows Western New York's ecosystem well.

"In the case of Buffalo, what's happening is there's less days when the lake is covered in ice. So as it's been getting warmer, the lake ice season has been getting shorter on all the Great Lakes," Hayhoe said. "We're also seeing different animals and insects and birds and trees and things like that are starting to move northward, because their optimal climate zone is shifting as our long- term temperatures increases."

Some of those things are unwanted, like deer ticks that carry Lyme disease.

"I mean, I grew up in Southern Ontario -- you know, running through the woods every summer -- and I never saw a tick. Not once. Whereas now we have Lyme disease all through New York, Southern Ontario, all through Wisconsin and Minnesota. And that's because our winters aren't cold enough to kill off these ticks in the winter," she said.

Hayhoe said the climate is one of the most polarizing issues in America, with many disbelievers and circulating myths, but the data shows otherwise.

"It's so important for all of us to not only understand that it's real and it's serious and it matters, but to know that every single one of us can make a difference to help fix it," she said. "It doesn't mean they have to go through your whole house and go zero waste. There's small, sensible things everybody can do at every level. The most important thing is using our voice."

Credit Columbia University
Ruth DeFries is a sustainable development scientist, mother, grandmother and co-founder of Science Moms.

Ruth DeFries is also a co-founder of Science Moms and the Denning Family Professor of Sustainable Development at Columbia University in New York City, which -- she noted -- gets a constant supply of clean water from the Catskill Mountains. DeFries helped start Columbia's Climate School; works connecting science and policy with several national environmental organizations; and is a member and fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, among other honors.

She said Science Moms is also hoping to bring more women into the field.

"If you look at the numbers, there clearly is a lot of work to do about how women progress in scientific careers. It's not a pipeline issue. So there are women that go into science, but the promotions and the tenure, as you go up, women start to drop out," she said.

Both DeFries and Hayhoe had fathers who encouraged them to think of science as fun. Hayhoe's dad was a science teacher and DeFries' dad was an engineer. 

"He had such a curious scientific mind. So we would have long scientific discussions when I was little," DeFries said. "I'm sure there were many subliminal messages that girls should not be scientists or good at math, but I never felt that way."

So what's DeFries' advice for talking to girls -- and boys and adults -- about climate change?

"Just help them appreciate how beautiful and amazing is this planet that we live on, that we depend on for our water, for food, for clean air, for disposing of our waste. Just help them see that connection that we have with the planet," DeFries said.

She said everyone has that connection and a voice to talk about it, with family and friends, through social media, on the job, at church or a PTA meeting. It could also mean a bus ride with other environmental activists to Washington, DC, but doesn't have to.

Although, she is optimistic about the Biden Administration's peaked interest in climate change.

"Ultimately, climate change is a problem that requires global coordination. And getting us back into the international community is certainly something that Biden said it'll do right at the beginning," DeFries said. "It's a time when when there's a real possibility to have some impact."

The scientists remind that "every aspect of climate" disproportionately impacts women and children, poor and minority communities, people who are already marginalized. They are the first to be displaced by a weather shock or climate emergency, to feel less secure economically, to put aside their own ambitions to care for others.

So like the mothers who got MADD against drunk driving, Science Moms is a family-friendly resource to learn about, act and be heard on a topic that may seem too large and difficult to tackle.

"If we don't tackle it, it's even a bigger task. What I think is important is for people to have hope, to not feel like there's nothing we can do," she said. "The basics of climate science is really very simple. It's very straightforward. We're putting too much greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It's warming the planet."

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