Dr. Joellen Russell in front of a glacier and blue sky Dr. Joellen Russell
Dr. Joellen Russell on Franz Joseph Glacier in New Zealand (Photo by Dr. Aaron Putnam from the University of Maine)

“Our kids can’t vote, but we can, and we can use our voices to speak up about how important it is to start cutting that carbon pollution as soon as possible.” 

After years of keeping her professional life separate from her family life, one Arizona professor has helped build a nonprofit around the collision of these two worlds.

Dr. Joellen Russell is an oceanographer and climate scientist at the University of Arizona, as well as a mom of two. 

She helped found Science Moms, a nonpartisan group of moms and climate scientists helping to educate others about fighting climate change. 

We spoke with her about what individuals can do to protect the Earth for future generations, and how she stays hopeful while working on the frontlines. 

Watch the full conversation here, or check out some highlights below.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The Copper Courier: 

You grew up in Alaska and you lived in Montana before coming to Arizona in 2006. What first got you interested in science and pursuing that as a career path?

Dr. Joellen Russell:

Well, I started out as a little kid in a fishing village in Alaska on the Arctic Ocean, and I was desperate to know where the sea ice went when it melted and it moved offshore and it was too dangerous to follow it in a boat. 

So I knew from a really young age, I wanted to be an oceanographer. And I know, I know, everybody says, “What’s an oceanographer doing working at the University of Arizona? Where is your ocean?” I specialize in the ocean around Antarctica—although I work all over the world—and we basically fly to the port to get on a ship. 

Dr. Joellen Russell and her kids on the Puget Sound ferry (Photo by Russell’s husband, Paul Goodman)

And these days, we do our work with robot floats that do the work. We deploy them from the ship, and then they do their work and beam the data back by Iridium satellite. So robot floats, supercomputers and satellites. And Arizona is a great place to be watching our climate change and making plans about how to make it better.

CC:

What does climate change look like for Arizonans?

JR: 

Our summer 100-degree days get longer and longer. We broke all the records. We have long records here in Tucson because the University of Arizona was here even before Arizona was a state, so we have really long temperature records, and what we can see is that the number of 100-degree days keeps coming up, up, up. And the year before last in the summer, we had 108 100-degree days, and the record before that was only 98, and our normal is 62.

And for a mom, that’s cabin fever season. I can’t safely throw my kids outside to go play, and under pandemic conditions.

But—so it gets hotter, and we all know it’s drier. You look at Lake Mead. You look at Lake Powell. This drought is basically since 2000. It’s 22 years in it. 

I know everybody understands how hot it’s getting. We’re the third fastest-warming city in the nation here in Tucson. Phoenix is number four. It’s one of the reasons we’re so motivated as climate scientists and as moms. 

But there are solutions. The US has cut 20% off their carbon emissions since 2007. My babies, who were born 2007 and on, they have only lived in the United States that was cutting emissions every year, decarbonizing our economy, even while we grew our economy.

Even as the population grew, we used less carbon in order to do these amazing things. So this is a solution. This is a problem, but it’s got a solution. We just need to move a little faster.

CC:

How did Science Moms come about?

JR:

I’m so lucky to work with these amazing moms who are also climate scientists. So Katharine Hayhoe sent me an email. She’s a world-famous climate scientist and communicator, and she sent me an email saying, “Hey, we have support from Potential Energy to start this amazing climate moms group called sciencemoms.com. Come on in. Come see us.”

What she wanted to do was in a nonpartisan, totally just-the-facts way, as a mother—and as a climate scientist—to help break down the science so that women and moms and just people [in general] would feel more confident raising their voice and saying, “This is important. I’m worried about it, but I also want to take action.” 

And that’s where we are today. We’ve been doing this for a little more than a year, and it’s been amazing.

I was a little nervous because I’m used to the science side and the mom side being really separate, but in this case, I’ve been so worried. Both my kids are born and raised here in Arizona, and I want them to be able to live here. I want to keep enjoying our beautiful parks and forests, and I’m concerned about the wildfires. I’m concerned about the drought. I want us to take care of this heritage so that they’ll get to enjoy it. Glacier National Park—where I like to take my kids, and I was taken when I was little up in Montana—those glaciers are disappearing.

Dr. Joellen Russell and family (Photo taken by Russell)

It’s been an incredible experience to finally put the two sides of my life together. 

CC:

Tell us about Science Moms’ to-do list for moms fighting climate change. 

JR:

Three tips on our to-do list, right? So they’re simple: swap, share, speak up.

1. Swap. You want to swap carbon-polluting things for non-carbon-polluting things. So if you’re thinking about a new stove, don’t buy the gas one. Buy the electric one.

Most places, you can choose to get your electric power from non-carbon-polluting sources rather than carbon polluting, and that means all kinds of things here in Arizona. So we have our Palo Verde Nuclear Plant. We have hydropower. We have solar. We have wind. We have lots of options here in Arizona for non-carbon-polluting power.

2. Share. Tell everybody, “Do this.” Blow up your group chat, talk to your friends, go to the PTA. You need to tell them, do your Facebook, however it is that you communicate with the world, let them know that you’re worried about climate change and tell them what you’re doing about it. 

Maybe you are into solar panels this year. Maybe this year, you’re buying vintage, right, because new to you or used always extends the life before it gets to the landfill. There’s so many good ways that we can be good stewards. So share. Share, share, share. 

3. And then speak up. We need to tell our leaders. Frankly, I do my phone calls. Other people write letters.You can come to our website and you can type in your zip code, and it will tell you exactly who you could be contacting

We need to tell our leaders at the local, the state, the federal level. We need to tell them that they need to do something about stopping big carbon polluters. We need their help. We need their leadership. We need them to move like they’ve got a purpose—the way moms do. 

We are looking out for our kids. We want them to do it too. Our kids can’t vote, but we can, and we can use our voices to speak up about how important it is to start cutting that carbon pollution as soon as possible.