By Published: Oct. 18, 2019

CU Boulder and NOAA scientists join panel discussion following Boulder screening of Ice on Fire, an HBO documentary

Human activity has changed the climate, and humans have not yet done enough to slow—much less reverse—the damage, yet four scientists who study climate change all agreed this week that they have reason for optimism.

The scientists, all of whom appear in the HBO documentary Ice on Firejoined a panel discussion after the Boulder screening of the film on the University of Colorado Boulder campus.


Gabrielle Petron, at right, makes a point during a panel discussion on campus following the CU Boulder screening of the HBO documentary Ice on Fire. To her left are other Boulder experts who also appear in the film: College of Arts and Sciences Interim Dean James W.C. White, NOAA Scientist Pieter Tans, and INSTAAR Climate Technician Jennifer Morse. Photo by Glenn Asakawa. At the top of the page is an image from the filming of the documentary.

“On the pessimism scale, I’m an 8 or 9” on a scale of one to 10, said James W.C. White, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and a highly cited climatologist. On the optimism scale, however, he said he was a 9 or 10. 

“The generation of students that comes to this campus wants to change the world. I want to give them every opportunity to do that,” White said.

Produced by Oscar-winner Leonardo DiCaprio, George DiCaprio and Mathew Schmid, Ice on Fire focuses on solutions designed to slow the accelerating environmental crisis. It argues that renewable energy is necessary but insufficient to meet the climate challenge. 

White’s acknowledgement of the grim scientific findings but expression of hope reflected the themes of Ice on Fire, which also features three other Boulder scientists who joined the panel discussion: 

Waleed Abdalati, who directs CIRES and moderated the panel discussion, asked the experts how they’d rank both their pessimism and optimism.

Tans said he was both pessimistic and optimistic, noting that the Paris Agreement on climate action hasn’t been effectively implemented. On the other hand, he said, people have the freedom to vote for government leaders who will take action.

Petron, too, expressed both pessimism and optimism, emphasizing the desire of younger people to address climate change. “Even our generation, we want a world we can thrive in,” she said.

Morse emphasized hope. “I’m super-optimistic about the next generation, but let’s not leave it all to them,” she said.

Meanwhile, the rapid decreases in land and sea ice are grave causes for concern, the panelists said. “What’s concerning about an ice-free Arctic is a planet that has a very different weather pattern from where we live,” White said. “There’s a huge amount of carbon locked up in the Arctic.”

Indigenous people see the change first hand, he added: “If you are indigenous to the Arctic, you are terrified.”

Ice on Fire argues for a two-pronged approach to reversing the crisis: reducing carbon emissions through traditional renewable energy sources and new ones, like tidal energy, and implementing “drawdown” measures, focusing on methods for drawing down and sequestering carbon, including direct air capture, sea farms, urban farms, biochar, marine snow and bionic leaves.

The panelists also discussed how individuals can help in their everyday lives, even if they can’t afford to buy solar panels and don’t own their own homes (and thus can’t invest in energy-efficiency measures). Consuming less stuff and eating lower on the food chain were two suggestions.

After a spirited Q&A session with the audience, Abdalati asked the panelists to give the audience a one-sentence message to take home. Two responded with one word.

Morse: “Together.”

Tans: “Solidarity.”

Petron: “We don’t have time; we need to act.”

White: “Show your children and grandchildren that you really do love them.”