Amherst resident Don Haas educates the public about weather extremes
Because he is a trained scientist, Dr. Don Haas is concerned about frequent weather outliers that are becoming more normal. And while the future sometimes appears bleak and overwhelming, understanding history helps frame these challenges into a manageable context.
“We ended slavery too late,” Haas said. “We stopped Hitler’s genocide too late. We got to work on Civil Rights and getting out of Vietnam too late. We began our response to Covid-19 too late. Being too late doesn’t mean that it’s too late to do something. It means we’re already letting people suffer, but we can prevent future suffering.”
Haas, 60, of Amherst, is a longtime expert on climate. For the past three decades, he has been ahead of the curve on problems and solutions facing the world. Haas believes that talking about climate is vital to the future, and that most people need to do it more often. As co-author of 2017’s The Teacher-Friendly Guide to Climate Change, he has been called “the OG of climate education and sustainability.”
By day, Haas works remotely as Director of Teacher Programming at The Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca. He is a former high school teacher, and college instructor at Cornell and Colgate universities.
Spend any time with Haas, and his deep voice resonates with passion about the challenges ahead. He is able to outline key issues in simple, accessible terms.
“Humans are changing the atmosphere in a way that the atmosphere has not been changed since before humans have been around,” he said. “Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, it’s unprecedented in history. It’s taken a while for those changes to play out, and it’s ever so complicated in so many ways. We’ve about doubled the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and now the climate is changing fairly quickly.”
Haas points to our recent Buffalo winter as evidence of weather extremes.
“We had two gigantic storms that made up almost all of the snow we got last year,” he reflected. “I’ve lived in Upstate New York or Upper Michigan for all my life, and this is just different. We can do things to make it less bad, but for the most part, we’re not.”
It is already too late to prevent negative consequences for the planet, he observed. But that doesn’t mean that people should simply give up.
“Let’s get to work anyway,” Haas declared.
Having grown up in Clarence, Haas’ late father, Roger, was an early environmentalist, although he never used that term. Like many parents, Roger instructed his children to turn off lights when leaving a room. But his commitment to conservation ran deeper.
“My dad was an engineer and a tinkerer, and he built a solar booster for our hot water heater that was just a plywood box with a plexiglass top, painted black inside, with copper piping painted black that heated the water a little bit before it went into the hot water heater. That was part of my upbringing.”
His father also built a windmill using old 55-gallon drums. Inspired partly by his dad, Haas attended Geneseo College to become an engineer, but soon pivoted to study physics. He was hired as an Earth Science teacher in Norwich, N.Y., southeast of Syracuse, in 1987.
“Scientists have known that carbon dioxide warms the atmosphere for about 150 years,” Haas observed. “In New York, the Regents Earth Science exam has had questions about the greenhouse effect and global warming since 1971, although it was just a small part of the test. So I started teaching about it. It wasn’t my focus then, but sort of a growing interest.”
Soon Haas was dedicating classroom time to showing his students documentaries by British science historian James Burke that dealt with global warming.
“Not many people were teaching about this,” he said. But as far back as the 1950s, filmmakers like Frank Capra were exploring such issues. Here is a one-minute clip from Capra’s 1958 film Unchained Goddess:
Haas earned a Master’s Degree in Education from SUNY Cortland and a PhD from Michigan State University, when he became a professor of education. He hoped to improve public schools by training teachers, but became frustrated with systematic roadblocks. Haas returned to Buffalo in 2007 and taught at Tapestry High School during its second year of existence.
Around Western New York, many residents, communities, and even local governments share Haas’ concerns about changing weather patterns and humans’ response.
“There can be a sense that ‘It’s just too big for me,’” said Tracy Skalski, Erie County’s Sustainability Coordinator. “People feel like they can’t do everything, but everyone can do some things. We want residents to get involved and advocate for clean energy at the local, state, and national level.”
County government has been proactive in addressing climate and sustainability issues. Even before 2020, when the county began work on a climate vulnerability assessment, critics have grappled with the role of government in our daily lives. How much of a part should local or national government play?
“I think we need government and individual efforts,” said Nicole Morris-McLaughlin, senior energy development specialist with the Erie County Environment and Planning Department. “Some things are not accessible to everyone because they are more expensive. We’re trying to help the transition. We know in the long run, making smart changes is going to save everyone money, so government is willing to incentivize many things. We’re finding ways to make things more equitable.”
There are three particular risks to the region, according to Skalski. The first is environmental.
“Warming temperatures equal warming waters, and that leads to a risk in ecosystems,” she said. “If we have temperatures similar to Georgia, that’s not going to keep things around here business as usual. Erie County has never recorded a 100-degree day. We’ve reached 99 degrees. But we are expecting things to change.”
Western New York has one of the oldest housing stocks in America, according to experts. There are buildings with seniors and low-income residents that lack air conditioning, causing heat waves to become life-threatening.
“Two-thirds of our housing units in the city of Buffalo were built before 1940,” Morris-McLaughlin said. “Because of that, we’re more vulnerable.”
The second issue is economic, which is evident when drought and storms put buildings under stress. In 2021, the United States spent more than $20 billion responding to climate disasters, including wildfires in the west and hurricanes in the south. Last winter, two major storms within six weeks stressed Buffalo’s infrastructure.
The third issue concerns health. Western New York residents with obesity and heart disease struggle during extreme weather events.
“The Northeast as a whole is affected,” Skalski said. “Public health issues caused by heat waves can be life-threatening. One of the key topics that connects us to the community is talking about health. It can affect every family.”
Ordinary people can help lessen the effects of climate change without revamping their lifestyle or opening their wallets.
“I’d suggest accessing a home energy audit,” Morris-McLaughlin said. “Many people are income-qualified to get a free energy audit through New York State. Have someone come in and check your weatherization. See where there are holes that need insulation or find where you might be wasting energy. If your appliances are inefficient, in many cases, the state will pay for upgrades. That’s a perfect way for people to become more comfortable in their homes, to save energy, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
Another easy change, according to Morris-McLaughlin, is to enroll in community solar. Installing solar panels on an individual roof is expensive, but ordinary people can get the benefits of solar power as part of a group — and take comfort knowing that they are using clean energy without spending anything extra.
When Skalski and her team participate in community events, she occasionally fields questions about whether climate change is even real.
“People will say, ‘Oh, the earth has warmed before. It’s very cyclical,’” she said. “To an extent, they are right. The earth has warmed in the past. Cycles have varied throughout the years. They’ve gone up and down.”
Data from NASA shows that since 1950, however, the planet has continued to warm at an unprecedented rate.
“In 1950, we went over 300 parts per million of carbon dioxide for the first time. Now, 70 years later, we’ve surpassed 400 parts per million. There is a huge uptick from 1950s levels which indicates that humans are altering the atmosphere.”
The problems of fire
Still, sustainability is a difficult topic, because cause-and-effect are not readily visible day-to-day. The issues can be overwhelming. When Haas trains teachers, he streamlines climate concerns into a few relevant talking points.
“The biggest and most important ideas that everyone should understand about climate change is that climate change is real,” Haas said. “It’s mostly caused by humans, especially through burning fossil fuels. It’s a very serious problem, perhaps one of the greatest ever faced by humanity.”
That does not mean, however, that all is lost.
“We’re not doomed, unless we keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Haas said. “In the short-term, the most important thing we can do is talk about climate change. Most Americans only do so rarely. We need to change that.”
Haas stressed the need to understand the scale of issues, which can be difficult. He starts by pointing to fire.
“Burning stuff is the root of modern climate change,” he said. “For 90 percent of the earth’s history, there was essentially no fire, and now billions of fires are burning all the time. I’m not talking about forest fires. I’m talking about controlled fire through furnaces, power plants, under the hood of your car, your water heater, gas stoves, gas dryers, and what goes on in factories when we make cement. We need to figure out how to replace processes that have been driven by fire to a process with something else.”
Terms like carbon emissions, greenhouse gasses, and net zero sound technical. Fire is not.
“Fire is part of what makes us human,” Haas said.
He points out that many good things are happening to improve climate issues. Since 2005, carbon emissions have been reduced 40 percent because of the growth of electric power. Wind and solar have also contributed to reduced emissions. Coal has been replaced by natural gas and fracking, which Haas acknowledges has a different set of issues.
Haas does not intend to frighten his audience, but acknowledges that facts can create anxious feelings.
“Teaching about climate change without inducing some fear is fundamentally dishonest,” he noted. “It’s as inappropriate as teaching about the Holocaust without making learners feel sad. Fear is at least a piece of the motivation for virtually everyone I know working on climate change. The best way that I’ve found to avoid wallowing in doom and gloom is to act, work with friends and colleagues in that action, and to inspire others to act.”
‘Like an Old Testament Prophet’
In that vein, Haas co-authored The Teacher-Friendly Guide to Climate Change, with Ingrid H.H. Zabel and Robert M. Ross. Around the time the book was published, The Heartland Institute, a conservative organization, published their own guide, Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming. Its purpose was to call into question the reality of climate change. More than 300,000 copies of that book were sent to science teachers across the country.
“The Heartland Institute was one of the largest climate denial organizations in the United States,” Haas said. “If you have any sense of numeracy, or know how to read graphs, or know anything about logical fallacies and cognitive biases, you can see through it pretty quickly.”
Lacking equivalent funding to The Heartland Institute, Haas and his colleagues worried whether their book would find its proper audience. If a biased organization was handing out free copies of their work to teachers, would anyone pay for The Teacher-Friendly Guide to Climate Change, even though its science was valid?
“We decided that if they can send their book to every science teacher in the country, we should try to do the same,” Haas said. “We didn’t have the same deep pockets that they did, so we did a Crowdfunding campaign. We raised enough money to send a package to every public high school in 15 states before the pandemic hit.”
Take that, climate deniers.
“Don Haas is one of the most influential Buffalonians that most people have never heard of,” mused Drew Beiter, a co-founder of the Academy for Human Rights and a social studies teacher at Springville Middle School. (Beiter and the Academy for Human Rights were featured in a prior Buffalo Tales story that may be read here.) “Don has been the OG of climate education and sustainability for the past ten years. He is like an Old Testament prophet. We live in a world that needs to align with his vision.”
Beiter compares the urgency of climate change to 1957, when Sputnik kick-started many Americans’ dedication to increase math and science skills in classrooms.
“With Sputnik, we saw the dangers right away,” Beiter said. “Here, the dangers aren’t as tangible, but they’re coming at us every month. We’re in an existential moment now where every classroom should be teaching climate in some way to prepare students for the world we’re entering into. In June, I taught about climate by taking my students outside to look at the red haze around the sun caused by wildfires in Quebec. Don is spreading his message to classrooms in a quiet, unassuming way that belies its larger vision.”
Like most good teachers, Haas is not afraid of political pushback.
“I’ve given lots of talks about teaching controversial issues,” he reflected. “It’s remarkable how people believe what they want to believe. I sometimes use a snippet from Simon and Garfunkel’s song ‘The Boxer’ — ‘a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest.’”
Haas is the father of two daughters, ages 22 and 19, and enjoys playing Euchre, attending concerts, and hiking in the woods. On a recent sunny afternoon, he was looking forward to visiting the Eternal Flame at Chestnut Ridge Park in Orchard Park.
“I love taking people there for the first time,” he said. “It’s beautiful and interesting, and it’s a really novel piece of energy history. Imagine coming and seeing the Eternal Flame in the 1820s.”
As Haas and his colleagues continue to push for change in classrooms, he believes that a solution lies within each of us.
“It really wouldn’t be very hard for most people to reduce their household energy use by half,” he said. “If you change your vehicle to something that’s more efficient, if you get rid of the 20-year-old refrigerator and replace it with a newer, much more efficient one, and if you do an energy audit on your home and improve your insulation, it probably isn’t that hard to cut your energy use, especially if you’re somebody who hasn’t really thought about it before.”
Text © 2023 by Jeff Schober
(Thanks to Samantha Wulff for additional quotes)
Jeff Schober has a journalism degree from Bowling Green State University and a master’s degree in English and History from the University at Buffalo. He teaches English and Journalism at Frontier High School and is the best-selling author of ten books, including the true crime book Bike Path Rapist with Det. Dennis Delano, and the Buffalo Crime Fiction Quartet. Visit his website at www.jeffschober.com.
Steve Desmond is an award-winning photographer. With his son, Francis, he is the author of A Life With A Purpose, which raises money for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy research. To view more of Steve's work, search Facebook under "Steve Desmond" and "Desmond's PrimeFocus Photography," or on Instagram at "Stevedesmond9."
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