Thursday, October 18, 2007

Climate Concerns and Public Understanding of Science

My friend Fred, who is a Biology professor at a Virginia College, threw a question to me yesterday morning about showing Al Gore's movie to a course that he is teaching. His initial questions to me were along the lines if some of the exact things that I had been thinking since last week's Nobel prize award. Why did it take Al Gore's movie to bring such widespread attention to the mainstream? Is the message new (I don't know as I haven't seen the film)? Does having a super PR machine make that much of a difference? Was the timing just 'right' to make such a movie? Will we be on to something else when oil is back down below $55/barrel?

Instead of paraphrasing, I thought it better to just post the general email conversation that followed (in order):


From: Fred
Sent: Wednesday, October 17, 2007 6:54 AM
To: Michael
Subject: al gore

Hey Mike. I have a question for you.

I am teaching this survey of environmental concerns course this semester & I'm thinking about showing "an inconvenient truth."

I'm thinking of doing so for a couple of reasons:

1) to see if students can spot "values" arguments compared to "scientific" ones
2) to get students thinking why Al Gore (or figures like him) can do a better (or worse) job of bringing environmental issues to the attention of the general public, compared to environmental scientists
3) I think it is, essentially, a very well produced lecture on the basics of climate change

I'm very apprehensive because I know that there are a few claims made in the movie that many climate change folks think are exaggerated.

Have you seen the film? If so, do you think it's appropriate to show in a course that outlines the basics of environmental science? How accurate do you think the film is?


From: Michael
Sent: Wednesday, October 17, 2007 8:20 AM
To: Fred
Subject: RE: al gore

Hi Fred,
From what I know of the film, there are probably good reasons to show it to you class (your reasons 1 & 2 are excellent). I actually haven’t seen the film. At first, I just never bothered. Then when all of the hoopla around it had everyone telling me, “you know, you should really watch it because…..”. it turned into a more compelling reason not to watch (no, I am not carrying pickit signs). I just got another dose of that over the weekend at Rita’s cousins house.

So while I can’t comment on the film itself (sorry I’m no help there), I do question how much good it does. By that I mean, are people, by and large, doing anything different? Yes, gore got people to talk about global warming (really, climate change), which is good, because a changing climate, regardless of the causes, is a very serious topic which can potentially affect everyone on the planet. Now everyone wants him to speak at their events, and make another movie, and run for president and blah blah blah. I just think that when everything is sensationalized, it takes away from understanding the true severity of climate volatility. Some of the projections that he makes in the movie (I did get some feedback via summaries by climate scientists and other colleagues who saw it) assume that all of the trends will continue; this does not take into account two important factors: (1) there is natural variability that works within and beyond the 1850 to present timeframe that coincides with increasing CO2 concentrations, and (2) people are creative. There will be technologies that will be developed (some are already close to commercialization while some are not even thought of yet) which will help to alleviate negative consequences. Most long term pessimists don’t take technological advancement into account.

I’ve been working on the NASA climate model for around 10 years now. The model has weaknesses, but it has gotten much better in representing global geophysical and biophysical parameters that govern, and are governed by, climate. From this work, two things are clear, and these are not usually discussed. In addition to warming, some areas of the earth will cool (simple mass balance), and along with the negative consequences of climate change, there will be positive aspects to potential climate change also such as new agricultural belts, rain returning to some deserts, etc. Now the negative probably outweighs the positive (which is largely a function of economics and geography) but I don’t see many of the positive aspects being discussed (in press or peer review). The only thing I see is ‘everything is bad’, and this dilutes the issue. The thing that bugs me the most is that there are more immediate reasons to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through energy conservation– there are direct implications to human health via particulate matter and energy/international security. These are issues affecting people today, but don’t seem to get the attention that they deserve.

Sorry about the rant, but I actually do think it is a good idea to show the film.. maybe I will even come down and watch it with you.


Ps. If al gore were to run for president, I would vote for him in a second!

From: Fred
Sent: Wednesday, October 17, 2007 11:30 AM
To: Michael
Subject: RE: al gore

HA! I thought I was the only one interested in climate change who didn’t see the film. I had not seen it until the beginning of this past August (for exactly the same reasons you haven’t seen it, Mike). However, I felt obligated to watch it b/c some students in this env sci course were bound to ask me about it. Upon viewing it though, I realized why people were making such a big deal about it. It really is a well-produced, attention-getting lecture on climate change (with, of course, Gore as the lecturer).

I also question how much good a film like this does. Though it probably causes some people, who previously never thought about any environmental issues in their lives, to at least begin to consider human impacts on the environment & specifically climate change. Yeah, the film really doesn’t mention any potential positives of climate change or natural climate variability, & certainly doesn’t focus on technological aspects of mitigating excess atmospheric CO2.

It’s interesting that you mention some areas cooling (like possibly Northern Europe, if I’m not mistaken)—that’s why I always refer to this as global climate change to students (not global warming) & then explain why.

It’s funny you mention about things not getting attention (like other air pollutants, or greenhouse gases affecting human health). Whatever happened to biodiversity loss through habitat alteration??? I think that’s a huge problem & no one ever wants to make a big issue of ever since climate change became hip.

I’d vote for Gore as well. Out of everyone who is running for pres, he is probably the one that comes across as having the best understanding of how science works (& what it can do & not do). Thanks for the input, Mike. I’ll probably show the film.


From: Michael
Sent: Wednesday, October 17, 2007 12:01 PM
To: Fred
Subject: RE: al gore

Exactly!! (your biodiv point). It’s not downplaying the climate work, but there are so many issues that really do straddle a fine line between supporting society and potential collapse that nobody really discusses, such as biodiversity, water quantity and quality, air pollution (except for marathon runners in Beijing), and the list goes on and on. Climate is an issue, but the people/natural resources connections are often largely un-noticed. That is until crop diseases wipe out a good chunk of the cocoa supply, and all of a sudden Americans have to spend $5 on a box of cocoa puffs...


then we digressed into other things not important here. Anyhow, I expect to be posting more along these lines soon.

Interestingly, and timely, I also had this article emailed to me from a former colleague in the midst of the above conversation.

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