Pioneering Black Climate Scientist Honored With Top Prize in the Field

By Ayana Byrd Feb 14, 2019

In a field that used to be derided as the domain of White hippies hugging trees, a Black scientist has been working for decades to understand and combat climate change. An advisor to six presidents, Warren Washington will now gain public recognition as he is the recipient of the 2019 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, which is commonly called "the Nobel Prize for the environment."  

Washington, who is 82 years old, is an atmospheric physicist and an innovator in climate science. According to ThinkProgress:


Before the evolution of sophisticated computers, scientists knew little about the atmosphere other than what they could observe outright. Then a young Black physicist came along, eager to use early computers to understand the workings of the Earth’s climate.

In the early 1960s, Washington worked with Japanese scientists and used the laws of physics to build computer models that could predict atmospheric conditions. “In those days it took one day to generate one day of simulation,” he told Nexus Media. “[Today], for the highest resolution, we can probably do 10 years in a day. For the lowest, we can probably do 100 years in a day. Today, I probably have more computing power in my smartphone than in those very early computers.”

Recently retired, Washington worked at the National Center for Atmospheric Research for 54 years. During that time, he served as an advisor on climate change for every president in office from Jimmy Carter through Barack Obama. In 2010, Obama awarded him with the National Medal of Science.

Washington says that Obama was the only president he advised who was interested in mitigating the effects of climate change through policies like the Paris Agreement. The others, he felt, were focused more on supporting climate research. Today, Washington—who does not advise the Trump administration—finds hope in actions being taken outside of the federal government and told Nexus Media, “I think we just have to suffer through another couple of years with this president. But I haven’t lost my optimism.”

He will share the award with climate scientist Michael Mann, director of the Earth Systems Science Center at Washington’s alma mater, Pennsylvania State University (Washington was the second African American to ever earn a doctorate in atmospheric science).

Washington is used to not being a household name, despite being the mind behind groundbreaking work. “I am quiet, but not to the extreme,” he says. “I’m just not as vocal as some people in the field, but that’s okay. [Some] people say I’m a legend, while others joke about the fact that I am still alive.”