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AAAS Climate Change Town Hall

by Worldchanging San Francisco local editor, Matthew Waxman:

Bringing sustainability and climate change -- and the science behind them -- into the classroom is a huge and important task for all teachers.   This theme of education was highlighted at a key feature of the AAAS Annual Meeting in San Francisco, Sunday's AAAS Climate Change Town Hall titled "Communicating and Learning About Global Climate Change: An Event for Teachers, Students, and Other Communicators and Learners."

In the words of Alan Leshner, CEO of AAAS and publisher of the journal Science, the town hall event was a "dialogue not a lecture," and an opportunity to learn about climate change and bring it further into education. Free and oriented to the public, the event was attended by somewhere between 450 and 500 people, many of who identified themselves as teachers.

The action-packed four-hour event featured presentations and remarks by eight notable speakers in climate science, innovative solutions, and science education. All the presentations are online, and the AAAS noted a video copy of the event will be online soon.

Here I have highlighted key observations from my notes for each speaker. Fellow Worldchanging SF writer Raines Cohen has also uploaded a video of the event on


Alan Leshner opened the event by playing an AAAS video about climate change and introducing residents of Shishmaref, Alaska, including three students, who are also featured in an AAAS education video about the serious consequences of climate change.

Ken Stenek, Shishmaref science teacher, explained during the press briefing that climate change has forced their community to choose relocating their community "to the mainland at a cost of $180 million dollars."   This is particularly heavy-hitting as Shishmaref students, the mayor, and transportation planner all explained, the ways of life in the 4,000 year old Inupiaq village are rapidly changing, right now.   The people who live on the ice are seeing it break away -- "not uncommon to lose 30 feet of beach during a storm."

Major problems are fossil fuels (making eighty percent of the world's emissions) and deforestation deeply embedded into development.   People need to make the connection between, for example, the electricity from a wall outlet and a power-grid -- it doesn't magically appear.   Teachers have a huge role to play in educating the world. Children need to understand that their voices need to be heard, and that their habits and creativity can contribute to a better future.

Leshner and the AAAS video included a quote by Marcus Aurelius: "That which is not good for the beehive is not good for the bees."  

Sound advice!



John Holdren, AAAS President and Professor of Environmental Policy, Harvard University, formally announced the release of an offical AAAS Board of Directors statement on global climate change. He explained that climate is the envelope in which all other processes occur:

If you change the climate envelope... enough... you change the capacity to operate under all of those conditions in which we depend. ...Climate change is the most difficult... because the causes are so deeply embedded in our way of life. ...There is a great deal individuals, firms, and governments can do about global climate change.

Climate change, said Holdren, is extremely interdisciplinary, making it not only really important but concretely woven into many subjects, from science to technology, economics, public policy, and politics.   Subjects he listed:

  • The physics and geometry of the sun
  • Physics of greenhouse gasses
  • Complex physics of energy flows in the atmosphere
  • Physics of ice and water
  • Chemistry of carbon in fossil fuels and combustion
  • Biochemistry of photosynthesis, respiration, and anaerobic
  • Earth science: the carbon cycle
  • Geography: remote sensing; aircraft and satellite images
  • Geography: land-use and deforestation
  • Earth science: winds, jet streams, hurricanes (Katrina),
    climate and life over geologic time
  • Probability and statistics of climate and weather
  • Ecology: interaction of organisms and environment
  • Geography: climate-related health impacts
  • Engineering: capture of carbon
  • Systems analysis and integrated assessment
  • Sociology: public and open polling of those ready to take
  • Political science: leadership

Climate change is a fascinating and immense opportunity for teachers and students. How will it be embedded into curriculum and the experience of learning?



Lonnie Thompson, Professor of Earth Sciences, Ohio State University, in his presentation titled "understanding climate science," explained how changes easily observed in ice and glacier melt are evidence for climate change.

Thompson highlighted some of his photographs featured in Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" presentation, such as images of the Larsen B ice shelf literally collapsing in 31 days. Other before-and-after style photographs included Muir Glacier in south-east Alaska; McCall Glacier in the Brooks Range, Alaska; AX010 glacier in the Himalayas of Nepal; Glacier National Park; Glaciar Lanin Norte, Argentina; Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa; and Qori Kalis glacier, Peru (pictured). Glacier National Park will have no glaciers in 20 years.   The awe-inspiring images, along with many diagrams, can be downloaded with his presentation.

Natural and human mechanisms influence climate. And the greenhouse effect, both naturally and human occurring, is real. Ice sheets preserve lots of history about climate change over time. Sea level is rising 2-3mm a year because of thermal expansion of ocean, alpine glacier loss, ice sheet mass loss, and pumping of groundwater.

Tropical ice records are shorter but more detailed.   The tropics to Thompson are the most important part of the planet's ice. Tropical glaciers are the canaries in the coal mine... said Thompson, "Coal miners use to use these in mines and you could get out... problem is we live in the coal mine."

An audience member commented on climate change as being an ecological justice problem. Thompson responded by noting it's those who are first affected and don't have time to adapt that are usually the one's not responsible.



Margaret Leinen, Chief Science Officer of Climos, Inc., spoke about solutions and the role of each and every person in being responsible for solutions.   The IPCC 2007 report, she added as she began her presentation, is amazing: she'd never heard the word "unequivocal" used for an ongoing natural process or a developing field.   And that climate change is "very likely" caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gasses is a huge -- a 90% -- level of certainty.   Her analogy: imagine if the weatherman said there's a 90% change of rain... you'd put your raincoat on and get an umbrella.

Leinen stressed public opinion will lead to future change. She noted a recent MIT survey showing climate change as the number one rated environmental issue by Americans today, compared to thee years ago when it was rated as the number six concern.

Trends in public opinion are tied to trends in public companies. Many companies, such as Wal-Mart, are making a serious commitment to use less energy.   Next week investors will come to San Francisco to meet with scientists to develop "clean technologies" in the Clean Tech Venture Forum.

In 2006, "carbon neutral" was named by the New Oxford American Dictionary as its word of the year. Many companies are becoming climate neutral. And many US companies, she explained, are global companies, so they must comply with Kyoto Protocol in other countries -- globalization is helping enforce environmental regulation.

She also advised individuals to take action on a local level and calculate one's own carbon footprint as a start. (I think more advice could have also been mentioned.)

The California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (Assembly Bill 32) will also have a ripple effect. Leiner quoted Governor Schwarzenegger, who has noted California has being the twelfth largest carbon emitter. California leadership will reverberate throughout the nation.

An audience member asked Leiner to comment on the relationship of AB32 to the Kyoto Protocol.   Leiner responded by explaining California is still in the process of deciding how actions on limits will turn into caps and a trading system, and the process will unfold in the next five years, and it's premature to make such a comparison. She added that the state measures will have profound influence and the corporate sector will also follow-up with solutions.



Amory Lovins, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), delivered a witty and exciting presentation about "profitable climate protection."

I think what was most impressive about Lovins' business-savvy presentation were stunning statistics and examples of RMI's solutions-based work making a case for energy-efficient, profitable design.  

Lovins directed the audience first to RMI's new publication "Winning the Oil Endgame," an uncontested journal offering a strategy to disconnect the US from oil dependence.

Most energy used in an automobile is wasted and spent on moving the automobile itself, while only 0.3% of the fuel moves the driver.   Lovins highlighted RMI's R&D project developing ultra-light, ultra low-drag, and advanced propulsion automobiles.   He also explained that all buildings -- much like the RMI / Lovins home in Colorado -- should be designed as integrated systems.

Lovins gave the example of the Oakland Museum's integrated water pipe system by Rumsey Engineers (based in Oakland) to demonstrate that engineering and infrastructure projects should also use systems-thinking logic. He also pointed the audience to for more information.

In response to the RMI automobile project, an audience member asked how Lovins factors in the externalities of designing more cars, particularly ultra-efficient and fun-looking ones?   Lovins responded stating that it won't work with everyone in a car.   We need to have real competition between other mobility systems and cars, and the best thing is "to be already where we want to go" and have better land-use policies.



Robert Socolow and Roberta Hotinski of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative at Princeton University explained their "Stabilization Wedges," a genius "concept and game for teaching about cutting carbon emissions." The game was tested on the audience.

The "wedge" teachers' guide and further information and background can be found at the Princeton Carbon Mitigation Initiative website.

"Wedges" are different kinds of fifty-year emissions reduction strategies.   The full game has fifteen strategies grouped into various topical groups, such as efficiency and conservation, fossil-fuel based strategies, nuclear energy, and renewables and biostorage.

We played the game in the audience and voted on our preferences for climate emissions reduction strategies.   We also voted on the least favorite item we'd like to cut that emits: by far, the audience preferred not to cut miles flown, and miles driven came in second place (pictured). People like mobility!

At the end of the event, an audience question was directed toward the "wedge" game but went unanswered. The audience member noted the "Edible School Yard" project in Berkeley and asked, why was there so little in the wedge game about food and health?



John Whitsett, President-Elect of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and a Physics Teacher at Fond du Lac High School in Wisconsin, spoke about the need for including global climate change in science education. He also stressed 21st century science content needs to include a global awareness and social responsibility.

Whitsett explained how global climate change must become part of curriculum standards, benchmarks, and position statements.   He cited AAAS Project 2061 as being both a life-changing event in his own career and a great resource.   Project 2061's "Benchmarks for Science Literacy" and the NSTA National Science Education Standards are both important documents in science curriculum.

  Witsett also identified the January 2007 issue of "ScienceScope," NSTA's middle-school journal, and as great K-12 teaching resources.

I was most fascinated by Whitsett's emphasis on how the NSTA has been trying to shift science education away from being taught in separated, "boxed" disciplines and moving it towards being taught as an interrelated system -- a critical point. A major challenge of educators, according to Whitsett, is to give kids a broader view and help them make interconnections. For example, kids "13, 14, 15 years old have a very short life timeframe and have trouble visualizing a 30, 50, 100 year set of changes." It is incredibly important for teachers to broaden the worldview of students and help them visualize -- learn to see -- the world.

During the press briefing prior to the event, someone asked Whitsett if textbooks and curriculum are keeping up with science.   Most are not there or are lacking, Whitsett explained.   Teachers need to maintain a professional growth plan and have ways to stay current.   Textbooks rarely deal with real-world problems because the politics involved can affect textbook sales.   He also noted data is usually outdated by the time textbooks are published; a two-year lead is needed for publishing.

An audience member asked about the validity of the scientific content of "An Inconvenient Truth."   Whitsett acknowledged that the science in the movie is accurate.


In his closing remarks, John Holdren concluded that the US needs a national policy on climate change, and "we're already experiencing danger, dangerous is already here... the issue is facing catastrophic danger... we need much more concerted efforts from all of us and from our government."

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I was quoted having said that our community (Shishmaref, Alaska) will be relocated at a cost of $180 million. If the community does not get the financial support from federal or state sources, the people will end up being dispersed among neighboring communities. This will be at a greater cost in that the unique Inupiaq dialect and culture will be lost. What is the greater cost? This island is a dying canary in the coal mine. I hope that the culture doesn't die with the canary.

Posted by: Ken Stenek on 12 Mar 07



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