Two faculty moms are stars of a national campaign urging action on climate change

by Anne Manning

published Feb. 5, 2021

Melissa Burt and Emily Fischer are accomplished climate researchers – familiar faces at scientific meetings, and around the halls of Colorado State University’s Department of Atmospheric Science.

But to millions of Americans meeting Burt and Fischer for the first time, they are moms – and that’s what they hope will be the difference.

Burt, Fischer and their adorable families are stars of a national media campaign called Science Moms that launched just as America got a new president in January. The campaign’s urgent message about the realities of climate change tugs at the fierce protective instincts of its target demographic: mothers.

“Science Moms is a different kind of messaging,” said Burt, a research scientist in atmospheric science and assistant dean for diversity and inclusion in the Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering. “This is a group who we know will do anything for their kids.”

Shifting the narrative

Emily Fischer and daughters at Rocky Mountain National Park

Associate Professor Emily Fischer with her daughters, Freida (left) and Joan, enjoying lunch at Rocky Mountain National Park.

Melissa Burt and her daughter at Horsetooth Reservoir

Research Scientist Melissa Burt with her daughter, Mia, at Horsetooth Reservoir in Fort Collins.

A driving force behind Science Moms is the Potential Energy Coalition, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that wants to shift the narrative on climate change by bringing together leading creative and media agencies. A former colleague recruited Fischer to be a part of Science Moms, which includes the national ad buy and a website with information on how to take action on climate change.

An associate professor in atmospheric science and a mother to two daughters, Fischer studies ozone, wildfire smoke and their consequences for health. She recruited her CSU colleague, Burt, who studies Arctic clouds, radiation and sea ice, to join Science Moms.

“I am frustrated by climate change, by the communication that has been happening around it, and the lack of action,” Fischer said. “There is a lot of consensus on the science. There are clear solutions. There is just a lack of political will.”

For the campaign, Fischer and Burt are joined by four other climate scientist-moms at other universities: Katherine Hayhoe, Ruth DeFries, Tracey Holloway and Joellen Russell.

The campaign, now airing in major television markets across the nation, features Burt and Fischer narrating slideshows with pictures of themselves, their partners, and their children – and how those relationships spur them to action in their day jobs as climate scientists.

“From the second you have a child, you want to do everything you can to protect them,” says Fischer’s voice, as images flash of a smiling hot chocolate-stained face, an unsteady toddler on tiny skis, and a newborn getting a first kiss from mom. “I think our action on climate change is no different. It’s just an extension of being a mom.”

Intersection between professional and personal life

Melissa Burt and daughter at their computers

Burt with her daughter, Mia, at their home.

Emily fischer and daughter

Fischer with her daughter Joan on top of Arthur’s Rock in Lory State Park.

Fischer thinks about climate change every day, and not just in terms of its consequences for her kids’ future. In 2018, Fischer was the lead scientist on a national field campaign to study wildfire smoke, in which she and colleagues flew a National Science Foundation instrument-laden airplane into smoke plumes across Idaho and other states.

The intersection between Fischer’s professional and personal life hit even closer to home this past August. She and her husband, Peter, and two daughters, Freida, 8, and Joan, 5, were camping in the Rawah Wilderness when the Cameron Peak Fire, which would continue burning into winter, ignited. The family ran six miles to safety, Fischer clutching her two daughters’ hands, unsure if they would make it out in time. The connections between longer, more intense fire seasons, and the creeping up of average temperatures due to greenhouse gas emissions, are undeniable, say both Burt and Fischer.

In Burt’s Science Moms video, she’s with her 4-year-old daughter, Mia, and partner, Stace, laughing as they slide down a snowy hill or make sandcastles at the beach. “You don’t have to be a climate scientist to want to protect the earth,” Burt narrates, as the pictures transition to images of deadly storms. “As moms, we care about our children and the environment they grow up in. And for Mia, I want you to know that I worked really hard to be a part of the change, and to make it a better place for you.”

Burt admits she wouldn’t normally be the first to voluntarily splash her face across a national ad campaign. But she decided the opportunity was too important to pass up. As a researcher who studies the Arctic, her work doesn’t always hit home for people – after all, the Arctic feels far away, and the consequences don’t feel as devastating to the average person.

“The research shows that moms are concerned about climate change – they just don’t know what to do about it,” she said.

Burt was also motivated by a desire to increase visibility of scientists of color. Most people, she said, have never interacted with a scientist, and many have a particular, narrow view of what a scientist looks like. “As much as I’m scared of being out there, I said to myself, ‘How can I use my voice to say this is something that matters to me and should matter to you and your children?’”