Thursday, September 29, 2011

New Unity College President gives Climate Misconceptions lecture

Our new college president, Dr. Stephen Mulkey, gave a lecture on climate change to the assembled third year class last night, about 65 or 70 students in all, plus a few staff and faculty and other students who were interested.

Mulkey, a tropical forest ecologist, was keen to dispel misconceptions that the general public has about climate change.

(The slideshow is available online here, and hopefully the audio lecture will also soon be available.)

Here is the list of misconceptions he worked on, one by one, plus my summary of his rebuttals.

Each misconception was dispelled by a series of slides containing the rebuttal, generally using real data.

Misconception: Weather is climate - Local weather events are taken as evidence for or against global climate change.

(Rebuttal: Climate records are much longer -- thirty years of consistent data are usually required to demonstrate a climate change. Also, weather watchers may not be capable of distinguishing when mean and variance change together.)

Misconception: Natural variation is the cause - Climate has always varied over the history of the earth, and the observed changes are part of that natural variation.

(Rebuttal: Yes it has, but the climate record shows current change is unprecedented in its speed. Modeling experiments demonstrate that humans must be the cause of 60-70 percent of the current changes.)

Misconception: Models don't work - Climate models are unreliable and cannot predict future climate.

(Rebuttal: Models are increasingly reliable. Scientists are still tinkering with models to decrease the small amount of remaining uncertainty, but we can now predict what will happen with a good deal of confidence.)

Misconception: It s the sun - The earth is warming, but it is caused by the sun not by human activities.

(Rebuttal: Modeling and empirical studies agree that, although solar cycles are involved in the overall system, they are not large enough in magnitude to be driving the current changes.)

Misconception: Global greening CO2 is good for plants - Global warming may be a good thing because higher CO2 will benefit humankind through enhanced plant growth.

(Rebuttal: Plants do grow faster in higher CO2 concentrations, true, but this is more than cancelled out by the degradation of ecosystems, particularly rainforests and arctic soils, which are already adding CO2 and methane to the atmosphere.)

Misconception: Global warming is trivial. We will be able to adapt because climate change will not have significant impacts on the Earth’s ecology and human economy.

(Rebuttal: Global warming is already non-trivial. People are already suffering and dying, in far-away places such as sub-Saharan Africa, but also here in the US as a result of extreme weather events. And it will get worse, perhaps much worse. The economic impacts of the extreme weather events in the US in just the last year added up to $42 billion, never mind the economic multiplier events of slowed growth as a result of the disaster. (The $42 billion was just in direct losses and disaster relief.))

Mulkey concluded his talk by asking why students were not "in the streets" already, and describing the tension between his duties as Unity College president, and his willingness to make a strong statement and join the ranks of those already arrested in protest (Hansen, McKibben, and Speth, to name just three that come to mind.)

(I for one would prefer he stay out of jail and help us get this college moving yet faster in the right direction to really begin to help solve this problem. But if he really wants to spend a night or two of experiential learning in the DC city jail, that shouldn't slow us down too much.)

What was most gratifying to me about the talk was the rather large number of students that stayed to ask questions.

I was instrumental, along with some of my colleagues, in making climate change and sustainability a general education requirement for all majors at Unity College several years ago, making us an early adopter of this important step which is now recommended by the ACUPCC and ASSHE.

But I wouldn't say that this was then, nor has it been since, popular among students. Even some other faculty have complained. It was a fairly radical step at the time, and many thought we were forcing the subject on students.

I think time and hard experience will show that we were right to do so, but in the meantime it was obvious from the reception to last night's talk that some of the heavier hostility has now waned, and it's certainly good to see the going get a little easier. I've really been enjoying my two sections of the required class this year, primarily because of the strong student interest in the subject matter.

It doesn't hurt that the administration seems to "have my back."

Last night only a small handful of students were dismissive or bored, and twenty or so hung around to ask questions and learn more.

Next week's lecture by Dr. Mulkey will take the discussion to the next level.

Meanwhile, back in class, we will begin to unpack a few of the assertions Stephen made and take a longer look at the evidence in each case, trying to answer students' more in-depth questions.

Tune in for the next exciting episode!

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