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Susan Solomon

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Susan Solomon

Susan Solomon

Susan Solomon is an internationally recognized scientist in the fields of climatology and atmospheric chemistry. First noted for her work in Antarctica on ozone depletion, she has since co-directed the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Thanks in large part to her efforts, the panel shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore in 2007.  In March 2000, she received the National Medal of Science, the highest scientific distinction in the US. The prestigious Blue Planet Prize followed in 2004.

Your research on the ozone hole and CFCs was one of the major forces which lead to the Montreal protocol and consequently to the probable reconstitution of the ozone layer. Since then, which of you research achievements do you feel have been most significant?

After showing the importance of CFCs and surface chemistry on polar stratospheric particles for Antarctic ozone depletion, I went on to show that CFCs and surface chemistry on volcanic particles are also important. This turned out to explain enhanced ozone depletion that occurred after two major eruptions, El Chichon in the early 1980s and Pinatubo in the early 1990s. With Dave Thompson, I was later able to show that stratospheric ozone depletion is affecting the surface climate of Antarctica in unexpected ways, which has been very interesting. Stratospheric zone depletion is so severe in Antarctica that it changes the wind pattern all the way down to the ground in certain seasons, with big effects on the climate. I have also done recent work on understanding the irreversibility of climate changes due to carbon dioxide that has proven to be quite important in clarifying how that gas has special properties that make its climate change effects remarkably long-lived.


Climate change presents a greater challenge than the ozone hole. In the face of this alarming issue, which research goals are the most pressing in the fields of climatology and atmospheric chemistry? What are your own current research priorities?

Understanding how the suite of chemicals in our atmosphere can influence climate is fascinating and important. Soot particles are a topic that is potentially very significant, especially the question of soot on snow and what role that may play in the retreat of snow cover, glaciers, and sea ice. While carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas, others are important too, and I am working to better understand the effects of the range of gases and how long-lived their impacts on climate really are. I remain fascinated by the interplay between the stratosphere and surface climate, and a lot of my work is directed at understanding better how important the stratosphere may be for climate change, not just in Antarctica but also elsewhere.


Your research work, on the one hand, and your role in the IPCC on the other, are very different functions requiring different qualities. How do you reconcile the two?

Actually I am always an advocate for rigorous science in everything I do.  And I think research and scientific progress have tremendous value not only to science but also to society, and communicating science knowledge to society is what the IPCC is all about – the two needs are totally complementary.  I don’t advocate for any particular political view on climate change, but rather for the value of science throughout.  I feel that the role of science is to provide information to people so that our society can make the best-informed decisions – but it really is up to society whether to limit climate change or not.  Science provides information and hopefully it is a useful input to that choice, but it’s not up to science to choose because issues of values are involved.  How much risk is too much?  For whom?  Those are questions each of us as individuals and all nations have to answer, and they depend upon much more than science.


The 2007 Nobel Prize that you shared as co-chair of the IPCC’s Working Group One also testifies to the immensely significant role that you and your fellow earth scientists and atmospheric chemists play in shaping the political and societal view of issues which affect us all. What does this Nobel Prize mean to you?

It’s significant that the Prize was a peace prize, not a prize in physics or chemistry.  What that shows is the recognition that science can help in the world’s efforts to find peace. I do believe that science can provide light in a world that can often be dark, and this prize is recognition of that. But it’s important to emphasize that the scientists involved in the IPCC didn’t really share a Nobel prize; it was the organization that received the prize – so neither I nor anybody else involved is a Nobel prizewinner.  The Prize recognized the importance of the IPCC as an institution, not the individuals. 


In the last few years, popular awareness about climate change has increased dramatically. You have said before that the action of environment-conscious individuals can make a difference and have often described yourself as optimistic regarding climate change. Do you remain so post-Copenhagen? Is there more that scientists can do to impact on such political meetings, in preparation for Mexico for instance?

I am a technological optimist, and I’m tremendously impressed by some of the advances we seem to be seeing in the development of renewable energy sources.  Decarbonizing the way we get energy worldwide is essential if we wish to avoid future warming and for that, nothing is more important than better technologies.  It really outweighs the politics in my view – all the pledges in the universe don’t mean much if there are not technologies that help real people to emit less carbon if they want to.   Wise international leadership looks for ways to help the world advance, not just through treaties but also through education, research, and fostering technology development, and I really see a lot of progress happening in all those areas in climate change.  

Regarding the politics – as I said earlier, I don’t feel it’s the job of scientists to push for political action.  It’s our job only to state what we know, and how we know it, and explain it as clearly as we can.  And avoid advocating for politics. 


During your first Antarctica expedition you were the only woman among several men. Do you feel that the situation for women scientists has evolved over the last 25 years? Are proactive measures for the promotion of scientific education and careers for girls and young women still necessary?

I was the only woman with a team of 15 men on the expedition in 1986.  It’s pretty rare to see that now.   So yes, the situation for women scientists (and men too!) has evolved a lot in the last 25 years.  But I think we can’t afford to become complacent.  There is still prejudice against women in science, more so in some fields and some countries than others, and promotion of scientific education and careers for girls and young women will still be important for some time to come.


Tell me about your collaboration with Hervé le Treut. You are both members of the French Académie des Sciences. Do you also have links with the Pierre-Simon Laplace Institute that he directs?

I certainly value Professor le Treut’s work and his colleagues at the institute.   I had the honor of working with several of them on the IPCC, and that has been my primary contact with this outstanding group of scientists. 


How do you view UPMC’s position in the higher education landscape, both at the European and international levels?

Clearly UPMC is a remarkable institution.   With such a name and such a history, it has a lot to live up to in keeping its future as great as its past, but I am confident it will keep doing that. 


What does this honorary degree represent for you?

I’m certainly very humbled by this honorary degree.  It means a great deal to me, not least because I have lived in France for a year when I was young and always will have tremendous affection for France.