The 5 Most Influential Climate Scientists

by Evan Thompson

Updated August 31, 2022

Addressing climate change remains one of the most pressing issues on Earth.

Predictions show extreme weather threats, including floods, wildfires, and droughts, will get worse in the future if global temperatures continue to rise as a result of human activity.

Scientists are crucial for our understanding of climate change and global warming. Climate scientists observe weather changes on a global scale and predict how variations will affect Earth's local, regional, and global climates, both presently and in the future.

What Is Climate Change?

Climate change is a variation of average weather patterns that cause conditions to change, such as the planet becoming colder, warmer, or drier over several decades or longer. Climate change is also the study of global warming and its observable effects on the environment.

Though they often don't get the same recognition as movie stars or politicians, climate scientists play a huge role in safeguarding the future of the planet. They often lead the charge in coming up with new ways to study climate change, explain global warming to the masses, and even curb its effects.

Here, we highlight five of the world's top climate scientists, their careers, and their most significant contributions to our understanding of climate change.

Top Climate Change Scientists

Syukuro Manabe

Known For

Developing the first atmospheric model of Earth's climate.

Why It Matters

Manabe's computerized models, first created in 1967, found that increased greenhouse gas emissions cause global warming. His models sparked the beginning of long-term research into climate change.


Manabe was born in Ehime Prefecture on the island of Shikoku in Japan in 1931. He received his Ph.D. in geophysics from the University of Tokyo in 1958.

Manabe is best known for his pioneering work on models of Earth's atmosphere's circulatory dynamics. In a series of papers beginning in the mid-1960s, Manabe and his collaborators used fluid dynamics principles to develop a one-dimensional, single-column model of the atmosphere's radiative-convective equilibrium, along with positive feedback effects deriving from water vapor.

Manabe gradually expanded this model to two and then three dimensions. Manabe's model turned out to be critically important for developing a comprehensive, general, and realistic circulation model of the Earth's atmosphere.

In 1975, Manabe used his model to simulate temperature and hydrologic cycle response to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. The simulation demonstrated the feasibility of relatively accurate, long-term predictions of climate response to changes in atmospheric CO2 and simultaneously signaled the potential seriousness of the human-caused global warming problem.

After leaving the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 1977, he returned to Japan, where he was appointed Director of the Global Warming Research Division of the Frontier Research System for Global Change (now known as the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology Research Institute for Global Change) until 2001.

In 2002, he returned to the U.S. as a visiting researcher with Princeton University's atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences program. Manabe is currently a senior meteorologist at Princeton University.

Susan Solomon

Known For

Pioneering the theory about how and why the ozone hole occurred in Antarctica.

Why It Matters

Solomon's theory advanced the understanding of the global ozone layer and changed the direction of atmospheric chemistry research.


Solomon was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1956. She earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1981.

Solomon spent most of her career working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), first with the Chemistry and Climate Processes Group and later with the Earth System Research Laboratory.

Solomon is best known for her hypothesis that the hole in the stratosphere's ozone layer above the polar regions, which opened sometime during the 1970s, resulted from interaction with human-made chemicals — especially chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were at that time widely used in refrigerants. The ozone layer protects all living things from potentially lethal ultraviolet radiation levels from the sun.

Between 1986 and 1987, Solomon led a team in Antarctica that made measurements and took samples to test – and later confirm – her hypothesis. In 1989, an international agreement known as the Montreal Protocol banned CFCs for commercial use. Since then, the ozone hole has stopped growing and begun to shrink.

In 2011, Solomon became Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She also is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the European Academy of Sciences, and the French Academy of Sciences.

James E. Hansen

Known For

Testimonies on climate change to congressional committees helped raise broad awareness about global warming.

Why It Matters

As the preeminent expert on climate change in the 1980s, Hansen was hugely influential to the general public's understanding and perception of global warming.


Hansen was born in Denison, Iowa, in 1941. He holds a master's degree in astronomy (1965) and a Ph.D. in physics (1967), both from the University of Iowa.

Hansen is one of the most well-known advocates for raising awareness about global warming. His testimony before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in 1988 is widely considered a turning point in the history of climate change as a public policy issue.

He emphasized the trend toward warming over the past century or more and the correlation of this trend with increased CO2 emissions worldwide. Hansen also told the Senate committee that global warming is human-caused and will pose a grave threat to humanity's future if not stopped.

Hansen's research on global warming began with his studies of Venus, culminating in his now widely accepted theory that the planet's extremely high surface temperatures are due to a runaway greenhouse effect.

In 1987, he co-authored a paper that demonstrated the feasibility of combining meteorological data from widely separated stations to explain long-term patterns in weather variability. He also studied how sooty aerosol particles caused by coal burning affect cloud formation.

Hansen spent more than 40 years as director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Hansen is currently an adjunct professor at Columbia University and Director of the Program on Climate Science, Awareness, and Solutions in Columbia's Earth Institute.

Phil D. Jones

Known For

Developing a long-term timeline of the instrumental temperature record.

Why It Matters

Jones' data — collected at thousands of meteorological stations, buoys, and ships — showed the big picture of Earth's temperature and climate systems.


Jones was born in Redhill, England, in 1952. He holds a Ph.D. in hydrology (1977) from the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Jones is best known for maintaining a time series of the instrumental temperature record, helping scientists see the big picture of Earth's global climate over the past 1,000 years. He's also known for his involvement in the so-called "Climategate" affair.

In late 2009, someone hacked the internet server at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (CRU) and downloaded emails exchanged between Jones, the CRU director, and other prominent scientists. Once the emails were made public, climate change skeptics claimed they proved that global warming was a scientific conspiracy.

Other areas of Jones' research include paleoclimatology and climate change detection. He has also published papers on the study of climate extremes — especially heavy precipitation and drought — and river flow reconstructions for the British Isles.

Jones is the author or co-author of more than 500 peer-reviewed journal articles or book chapters and ranks among the top half of 1% of highly cited researchers in geosciences, as calculated by the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI). In 2009, Jones became a fellow of the American Geophysical Union.

Jones spent most of his career with the CRU. He served as director from 1998 until 2016. Jones is currently a professorial fellow in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England.

Veerabhadran Ramanathan

Known For

Discovery of the greenhouse effect of halocarbons.

Why It Matters

Before Ramanthan's findings in the mid-1970s, carbon dioxide was thought to be the only greenhouse gas causing global warming


Ramanathan was born in Chennai (then Madras), Tamil Nadu, India, in 1944. He holds a Ph.D. in planetary atmospheres (1974) from Stony Brook University in the SUNY system.

Ramanathan is best known for developing general circulation models (GCMs) of the atmosphere and for more focused research on problems involving atmospheric chemistry and radiative transfer.

One of his most influential discoveries came in 1975, when he published a groundbreaking paper reporting his findings on the impact of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as a greenhouse gas relative to carbon dioxide — by a factor of more than 10,000 to 1.

Other climate-related phenomena he has studied intensively include human-caused "brown clouds," consisting of soot (or black carbon), which are plentiful over the Indian Ocean. Ramanathan believes the issue has contributed to changes in the monsoon phenomenon in the Indian subcontinent.

In a 2014 paper published with several collaborators, Ramanathan suggested that reducing methane, carbonaceous aerosol particles (soot), ozone, and hydrofluorocarbons in the atmosphere could still significantly slow the expected rise in sea level due to global warming.

In the late 2000s, Ramanathan proposed another creative idea he calls Project Surya (after the Sanskrit word for the sun), which is an effort to introduce cheap, solar-powered cookers throughout rural India to help cut both soot and CO2 emissions.

He is currently Victor C. Alderson Professor of Applied Ocean Sciences and Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of California San Diego, as well as Director of the Center for Atmospheric Sciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Portrait of Evan Thompson

Evan Thompson

Evan Thompson is a Washington-based writer for TBS covering higher education. He has bylines in the Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Everett Herald, and others from his past life as a newspaper reporter.

Header Image Credit: Anton Petrus | Getty Images

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