Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Pardon me while I step on my soapbox

...but Al told me to.

I started composing this blog entry on my way back from San Francisco where I spent last week for a conference. Many of you know that I’m a scientist and that I work in a research laboratory, and that it’s not exactly government and not exactly not-government. And I’m not just being ambiguous. The conference was the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, a 5-day meeting that is always held in SF during the first two weeks of December. The conference caters to a myriad of disciplines including my own little world in the atmospheric sciences. But it also includes biogeosciences, geophysics, volcanology, solar and heliospheric physics, ocean sciences, geochemistry, hydrology, seismology, education, paleosciences and a number of other sections between which I’m afraid I can’t even begin to explain the differences. This mega-meeting is notorious for growing each year by about 10%. This year there were on the order of 14000 people in attendance. The first meeting I attended, back in 2000, had a mere 6000 people.

The sheer magnitude of research presented at the meeting is staggering. In an attempt to make it less overwhelming, attendees tend to stay close to their own disciplines, but occasionally I find it worthwhile to explore the posters or attend a talk in another discipline, sometimes out of genuine interest, and sometimes just out of curiosity, as a feeble attempt to stay well-rounded. Or maybe it’s just a reminder that there is another world of data collection that I rarely encounter. For the most part, this past week I stayed close to my atmospheric colleagues and attempted to learn what I could about the measurements and techniques that are associated with what I know best.

In addition to individual disciplines, there is a section that attempts to incorporate all the geosciences called Union, and this year, the Union address was given by the former Vice President and 40+ year environmental advocate and climate change educator Al Gore. Gore readily explains that he is not a scientist, but rather a communicator. And he's very good at what he does. He told us a little about the history of why he’s interested in climate change, he smothered us in platitudes and told us that we’re doing very important work, he encouraged us not to be afraid to tell the truth, and he told us that we need to also communicate what we know with each other and, more importantly, with the public.

And then it was over.

Following his talk, I was left feeling a little flat. After speaking with some of my peers, I realized that although he was very complimentary regarding the importance of what we do, and that we not be held back by what is “convenient” but rather that we should feel compelled to do something. But he gave us a little too much credit. I was left feeling empowered: I can make a difference! But… how?

I felt a little like the Grinch before he got his wonderful, awful idea.

Only I don’t know that I’ve a wonderful idea, awful or otherwise.

Over the next couple days I was slowly reminded, mulling the talk over in my mind and rehashing it with my friends/colleagues/fellow scientists, of another talk that had impressed on me one of the biggest hurdles that communicators such as Gore are facing today. It was a talk that I heard over a year ago, at a much more intimate conference that I attended in September of 2005.

The talk was given by a woman who is serving as co-chair for one of the working groups on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). She spoke about the difficulties that we as scientists face in communicating the severity and immediacy of climate change, and the issues surrounding gathering public support for energy reduction efforts.

It has to do with a hole in the ozone over the Antarctic.

Now I won’t take a show of hands, but consider, if you will, whether or not you relate the ozone hole with climate change/global warming. I’ll give you a second or two to think about it. Ponder it with a quick glimpse of the guy who “used to be the next president of the United States” (it's still a funny joke to me, especially with his little "I don't think that's funny" after the clapping and laughter. He's a funny guy.)

So… back on topic. For those of you who said “no", you get a prize. Thus, for those of you who did say "yes, they’re related”, I’m sorry, but they’re not. Not directly, at least. The ozone hole over the Antarctic is a phenomenon that occurs during the Austral spring over the South Pole. It is a natural phenomenon that was made much worse for a while by the presence of “manmade ozone-destroying CFCs” that collect over the Antarctic all winter long, and then when the sun comes up in the spring (remember it’s dark for months there… lots of time for gathering the weaponry) the sun busts the CFCs up into pieces, and one of the pieces eats up ozone in such a way that it regenerates itself and is free to eat up more ozone.) The issue: CFCs are bad. The plan: lets not use CFCs anymore. The solution: hey – this guy over here has HCFCs that work the same as CFCs and aren’t as harmful. Cool. Let’s use those.

So we were told there was a problem, and scientists had a solution, and it was implemented (the Montreal Protocol), and there you go. We’re all better.

Climate change is bigger. It’s MUCH bigger. Scientists are having a hard time nailing down exactly what is going to happen, but there are VERY strong indications that it won’t be good. But it is really BIG. It’s not going to be contained to one continent that a few species of birds and hearty humans live on. It’s affecting the whole planet. There is a dangerous sense of “it’s okay, because they figured out the ozone hole thing… they’ll come up with an alternative, and once it’s economically sound we’ll use it and everything will go back to normal. Just like that hole thing.” But it’s not that simple this time. Not even a tiny bit.

We need to do something.

But what, Al?

I'm going to start by encouraging you to find out more. And don't stop there.


Mad Hatter said...

Great post. My husband is a news hound and a playwright. His latest play is about climate chage. We've been immersed in learning about it around here and I must admit I am overwhelmed to the point of being frozen.

jen said...

really great post. am very glad Bub and Pie turned us on to it.

gingajoy said...

Came here via Bub, also. This has been praying on my mind. I've not yet seen Gore's film, but added it to my netflix list just this morning. I've subconsciously resisted it, because of fear of being overwhelmed also (because I know he's right). What to do? Communicating, talking, and sharing tips is not a bad start--you're starting something here. Maybe big changes will emerge? (I feel horribly cynical about it....)

ewe are here said...

Via B&P...

Great post. I haven't seen Gore's movie yet, but I have read about it in a few different places. Plus in Vanity Fair's green issue about 6 months back (silly, perhaps, but still!)

Sounds like you have a very interesting career.