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Chief Climate Change Scientist
Lara Hansen, 36, Washington

By Sandra McElwaine
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 6, 2006

Lara Hansen is on a mission to save the penguins from extinction, the coral reefs from fading, the glaciers from retracting and the polar bears from drowning.

In her office, surrounded by photos and memorabilia from her trips to Asia, Antarctica and Africa, the senior scientist for the World Wildlife Fund explains her primary focus: to redesign conservation strategies in order to meet the needs of an ever changing environment. She circumnavigates the globe to investigate, measure and mitigate the effects of global warming. Once in the vanguard, she is now at the center of a vital international issue.

"Everything on the planet is being affected by climate change," she warns. "It's not a problem of the future, it's a problem of now."

Married to a fellow environmentalist, with a 19-month-old son who frequently accompanies her on trips, Hansen grew up in landlocked Iowa fascinated by the sea. She headed to California after high school to study marine biology and acquired a doctorate degree in ecology and worked for the Environmental Protection Agency before joining the WWF in 2001. Her résumé lists teaching positions, awards, citations and research projects as well as books and journals she has published -- at the very end is a category labeled "Special Skills," featuring open water research diver, CPR instructor and EMT.

"I'm a scuba diver -- that's what I do for coral research," she explains. "I'm also an emergency medical technician. I'm waiting for someone to be pregnant, go into labor and be stuck in an elevator with them."

How did you become interested in the environment?

When I was 5 or 6, my father read me an article in Science magazine about ozone depletion, which is what causes increased ultraviolet radiation, and I decided at that point that was what I was going to do with my life.

Do you have a main concern?

The thing I work on most is coral reefs -- I have four or five field projects right now in American Samoa, Central America and the Florida Keys.

Coral bleaching occurs when sea water temperatures increase as little as one degree Celsius [roughly 2 degrees Fahrenheit]. They lose their pigment. . . . Pollution can [cause bleaching] so we do things to decrease pollution [and other stresses] to make the coral more resilient to climate change.

Where are the biggest warming problems?

From pole to pole. At the poles, north and south, we see some of the most rapid warming -- ice disappearing everywhere. . . . It is the key habitat of the arctic. A lot of animals rely on it: Polar bears require ice -- they hunt on it; they are also drowning because of ice moving away from the shore. Seals are having the same problem -- they make their maternal dens on the ice [no ice, no den]. Adelie penguins are seeing their population moving and declining. . . . They are trying to find a new habitat to meet their needs. If we move down to temperate regions, we see glaciers melting around the world. Glacier National Park is expected not to have any glaciers in the next 15 years. The joke in the national parks is, they'll rename it Puddles National Park!

So more and more animals will become extinct?

More animals will be listed as threatened. We also see the range of bird species is moving. If we continue on the trajectory we are on, the Baltimore oriole will no longer live in Maryland, where it is the state bird. It will live much further north. It's moving up to Canada. We won't have enough cold winters in Vermont, and all maple syrup will be in Canada -- that will be where the line of cool enough weather is.

What has surprised you most in your research?

How far along the trajectory we are, and what effect that has on the natural world.

Isn't global warming part of the natural process?

The climate change we see today is happening much faster than it has historically, and it is being driven by a concentration of greenhouse gases [from burning coal, oil and gas] in the atmosphere that is higher than it has been for hundreds of thousands of years.

What can we do to prevent this?

First, get "green" energy. You can opt to have 100 percent of your electricity bill come from renewable sources like wind, like solar. You can pick that on your energy bill almost anywhere in the country.

Two, we can all go to our policy makers and say, "This is an important issue for us," or if you live in D.C., you can write to whomever you want and say, "We have to do something to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We need to put a cap on CO2."

The third thing is reduce the amount of energy you use. Turn down your air conditioner, turn off lights, use compact-fluorescent bulbs, don't drive your car. I ride my bike to work everyday.

Why is climate change such a contentious issue among scientists?

Climate change isn't a contentious issue among scientists. The belief that it is is actually generated by the belief that in order to create balanced news coverage of climate change, you need to present both sides of the story. That's just not appropriate. It is like doing a story on geography and having to include an opinion about how the Earth was quite possibly flat.

Why has the public been so slow to understand climate change?

It's not as simple as deforestation: Cut down trees, they're gone. Climate change is much more complicated. You turn on your light switch, and you effect the global climate -- it's much harder for people to get their minds around.

Are people becoming more aware?

I think people are more aware. The real issue is how do we get people to realize we have a window of opportunity right now where we have to start taking action. The longer we wait, the bigger the problem becomes and the harder it will be to save the things we want to save.

When does that window close?

That's the magic question that everyone wants the answer to. Jim Hansen of NASA says it's about seven to 10 years. I have no reason to doubt [that] but things are accelerating, getting worse. I don't know if it's shorter.

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