This weekend I had the fortunate opportunity to attend the Seattle Science Festival’s Closing Night program, “Our 11th Hour: Straight Talk on Climate Change from People Who Know.” And they certainly did: the speakers included Keven Trenberth, who works at NCAR as a climate scientist and is a lead author of the IPCC Scientific Assessment of Climate Change Reports; Dr. Richard Alley, of Pennsylvania State University, a leader in polar and ice studies and member of the National Academy of Sciences; and Andrew Revkin, an award-winning journalist who writes extensively for the New York Times on climate change and related issues and runs the Dot Earth Blog.
Much of what these eminent scientists had to say did not come as much of a surprise; but some of the ways in which they said it were very effective and interesting. They covered the usual ground: the critical nature of the problem, the fact that we, collectively but particularly in the halls of congress, are putting our heads in the sand; and how climate science is being hijacked by political agendas and power to an extent to which we have rarely seen happen before. One of my favorite analogies of the evening was provided by Dr. Alley, who spoke of the prevalence of zombies in climate change policy: ideas that in science, are brought up as alternative hypotheses, and that during the course of scientific exploration are discarded when the evidence no longer supports them- except they then get resurrected by people who want to use them for political agendas: e.g., the idea that if too much ice builds up on top of the poles, the world will become unstable and flip over (yes, I am not kidding, that really was an idea early on in polar science, that really has been resurrected from time to time)- and how we spend far too much of our time fighting these zombies rather than making progress on climate change.
Revkin gave an interesting talk about the mental gymnastics we do around climate change: you can watch his presentation from this event in its entirety here. Some of his points were very well taken: psychologically, we do not want to and we cannot deal with abstractions about the end of the world; we want concrete steps; and we are more likely to favor market innovations and new technologies rather than mandates and top-down regulation. Well, ok- but despite the fact that more people love rebates for electric cars or mandating energy efficiency- are we going to get where we need to be with fuel efficiency alone? Probably not. But his point about framing the debate in a positive and innovative framework is well taken.
One of the aspects of his talk that I was frustrated by was his discussion of how leading scientists themselves differ strongly in how we should respond to climate change. I think he continues to do a disservice to the issue by emphasizing scientists that actually differ on the fact of climate change; Revkin picks 4 nobel-prize-winning scientists, one of whom, physicist Ivar Gaiever, does not agree that global warming is a critical issue. Well let’s all sing it again- 97% of scientists working on climate science agree humans are causing global warming.- and makes this the basis of his statement that you can “pick a scientist to support your views.” Well, yes, you can- but about 97 out of 100 scientists you pick will tell you that anthropogenic climate change is happening. Revkin’s presentation of the subject in this way I think continues to do a disservice and continues to amplify a debate that is not a debate at all anymore- in other words, he is in Dr. Alley’s words, resurrecting a zombie. I wrote to Revkin on these points in response to his blog post on this presentation.
Despite some reservations about some of the content, I thought it was just fantastic that the Science Festival devoted its final night to this critically important topic. I also have to say that I was a super latecomer to the festival this year, not finding out about it until it was already underway. Its just AMAZING, 10 days at Seattle Center of hands-on science experimentation, talks, interactive opportunities, its totally kid friendly, and, for those of us who like to geek out on science, really what could be better? Next year I plan to be all over it.