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AAAS Town Hall Explores Challenges and Opportunities of Climate Change
A photo by glacier researcher Lonnie G. Thompson last year shows part of the hole that has formed and grown in the center of the Northern Ice Field on Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Some estimates say the once vast ice fields atop the towering peak could be melted by 2020.
SAN FRANCISCO—High school freshman Frieda Grierson left her home in the Alaskan village of Shishmaref in middle of winter, and within a couple of days she was in California, at the AAAS Annual Meeting, standing before a room full of reporters who wanted to know the impact of climate change in the Arctic. She told them about her grandfather.
His name was Davey Ningeulook, and he was a legendary hunter and a respected elder in the Inupiat villages of northwestern Alaska. Frieda was very close to him, and she recalls how he talked sometimes about the shifting weather, the changing ice. He died last September, at the age of 80, and today there is a sense among the residents of Shishmaref that the traditional lifestyle of living off of the land known so well to Davey Ningeulook is rapidly being undermined as a warming climate changes hunting patterns and gives rise to storms that erode the village's sandy shoreline.
Freida's story was a poignant illustration of how a changing climate is already threatening human and other life. As she and her classmates—and a generation of students worldwide—are certain to face climate-related issues for the rest of their lives, AAAS brought more than 1000 teachers, students, business executives and journalists together with top researchers to discuss climate education during a town hall forum at the association's Annual Meeting last month.
Presentations at the event provided educators and students with powerful evidence of climate trends confronting humanity in the century ahead. But a guarded optimism prevailed, and through a creative exercise on greenhouse gas reduction and by exploring possibilities for improved cars, buildings, and power plants, the speakers made clear that science and technology can contribute much to potential solutions.
P. John Whitsett, president-elect of the National Science Teachers Association (foreground) and then-AAAS President John P. Holdren
AAAS President John P. Holdren, in the Annual Meeting's traditional presidential address, had focused on the critical near- and long-term threats from climate change. But at the town hall, he opened on a different tack. Climate change is "an immense teaching opportunity," he said, a chance to explore the physics and geometry of earth's orientation to the sun, the chemistry of carbon and combustion, the biochemistry of photosynthesis, the meteorology of hurricanes, the geography of health-related climate-change effects and the technology of capturing carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants.
Often, however, the subject is not taught effectively, said P. John Whitsett, president-elect of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and a physics teacher at Fond du Lac High School in Wisconsin. While national standards and benchmarks call for teaching it and NSTA and other groups are working to aid teachers, traditional curriculum "dictates science be taught in little boxes," he said, and textbook treatment of climate change "is at best cursory and at worst non-existent."
AAAS in recent months has staked out an ambitious, active profile on global climate change. That effort culminated in the Annual Meeting held from 15-19 February under the theme "Science and Technology for Sustainable Well-Being." Climate- and environment-related briefings and symposia at the meeting generated hundreds of news stories in the United States and worldwide. Project 2061, AAAS's science education initiative, published a new guide to teaching climate change which was released at the meeting.
On Sunday 18 February, the AAAS Board of Directors released a strong statement that drew coverage in the Washington Post and other publications. "The growing torrent of information presents a clear message: we are already experiencing global climate change," the statement said. "It is time to muster the political will for concerted action. Stronger leadership at all levels is needed....We owe this to future generations."
The town hall event, "Communicating and Learning about Global Climate Change," convened the same day, providing participants with four-plus hours of briefings and dialogue. The event opened with the debut of AAAS's 12-minute video on climate change that focused in part on Shishmaref and the threats to the ancient Inupiat culture there.
The forum was organized by AAAS—under the auspices of the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology—in collaboration with the California Science Teachers Association, the National Science Teachers Association, and the United Educators of San Francisco (representing the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers).
Lonnie G. Thompson
[Photo © Thomas Nash, 2001]
Lonnie G. Thompson, an Ohio State University professor who has dramatically expanded understanding of Earth's historic climate through his study of the world's glaciers, gave the audience a sobering tour of ice sheets at the poles, in the northern latitudes and in the tropics.
The audience gasped audibly at some photos in his presentation that showed profound shrinking of glaciers in the space of a few decades. When Glacier National Park in the United States was founded in 1910, there were 150 glaciers there, he said; today there are 26, and within 30 years, they likely will be gone, too.
"Glaciers are our most visible evidence of global warming," Thompson said. "Their loss is readily apparent—and they have no political agenda."
Speakers who followed Thompson provided a vision that is hopeful, though not easy, for slowing and ultimately reversing the still-accelerating rate of greenhouse gas emissions into Earth's atmosphere. Future solutions, they said, will require education and public commitment, the involvement of business and a society-wide need for creative thinking and changing behavior.
Margaret Leinen, chief science officer at Climos [Photo credit: Michael Colella]
Paleoclimatologist Margaret Leinen, chief science officer for green-tech start-up Climos Inc., said some of the nation's top corporations already are moving aggressively toward more sustainable and climate-friendly operations, both to improve customer relations and to bolster the bottom line. And venture capitalists are channeling millions of collars in investment into innovative potential solutions, she said.
"I think this is something that we're going to be seeing a lot more of," Leinen said. "There is no silver bullet for solving this problem, but we must use every alternative available to us."
Climos, for example, is exploring the use of natural processes to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Leinen joined the company after seven years as assistant director for geosciences at the U.S. National Science Foundation.
Reinforcing Leinen's point, two scholars—Robert H. Socolow, co-director of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative at Princeton University, and Roberta M. Hotinski, a consultant to the Princeton Environmental Institute—led the audience in the "Stabilization Wedges" game. Members of the audience were given an electronic clicker and a detailed set of alternatives, and then, in a series of votes, they had the difficult job of assembling a portfolio of options to reducing carbon emissions. [The audience tended to prefer conservation, increased efficiency and alternative energy sources and largely rejected nuclear energy.]
Amory B. Lovins holding a piece an ultra-light, ultra-strong material that could someday be used in energy-efficient vehicles
Green-tech visionary Amory B. Lovins, chairman and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute, has provided energy counsel to industry, government and 19 heads of state. Like Leinen, he emphasized the vital role of profit-seeking business in counteracting climate change.
Politicians, he told the town hall audience, concentrate on the "cost, burden, and sacrifice" of the effort. But, he added: "Any practitioner will tell you, empirically, that it's not a costly activity, but a profitable one, because it's cheaper to save fuel than to buy fuel.... Many companies understand this. Whether or not they think climate change is a problem, they're protecting the climate to make money."
Lovins cited DuPont as one example. It set a 2010 goal for its worldwide operations of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 65% below 1990 levels. By 2006 it had achieved 80 percent of its goal, he said—at a profit of more than $3 billion.
Materials and technology are emerging today that will create opportunities for remarkable improvements in energy use. Cars, trucks and aircraft can triple current levels of efficiency, Lovins said, as manufacturers incorporate ultra-light materials, ultra-low drag designs and advanced propulsion systems. Huge electricity savings can be achieved worldwide just by making pumps more efficient, he added.
That's the sort of message that energized many teachers and others who attended.
"I'm in my first year of teaching advanced placement environmental science," said Barbara Denny, a veteran teacher at Miramonte High School in the San Francisco suburb of Orinda. "I'm really concerned that kids will just get depressed about the state of affairs, and I really want to encourage them to start thinking about solutions. So I came for inspiration."
Added Holdren: "We're already experiencing dangerous climatic change.... The question is whether we can avoid catastrophe. We need much more effort from all of us—and our government—if we're going to do that."
Edward W. Lempinen
20 March 2007