In 1962, when I was born, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere stood at 316 parts per million (ppm). Now nearly 52 years later, the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere has reached 400 ppm. I can’t see it, taste it or feel it but through the power of science I know it is there and still steadily rising. The evidence is unequivocal that this increase is due to the burning of fossil fuels by humans. It is strange to think that because of this vast uncontrolled experiment that humans are conducting with the earth’s atmosphere the world into which I was born, in a certain sense, no longer exists.
Annual Climate Science Day: Scientific Thought Leaders Unite
To raise awareness among US politicians and policy-makers about the issue of climate change and the impacts of unrestricted carbon dioxide emissions, 14 scientific societies have joined forces to hold an annual Climate Science Day on Capitol Hill in Washington DC. Now in its 4th year, about 40 scientists fanned out across Capitol Hill on January 29th 2014 to meet lawmakers and their staffs to discuss climate science and to offer themselves as resources about the science of climate change. This year I had the privilege of representing the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB) on Climate Science Day.
Preparation is Key
Since this was my first time taking part in this event, I arrived at the training session, held at the offices of the American Geophysical Union on January 28th, the day before our meetings on Capitol Hill, with anticipation. There I quickly met my partners for the following day’s meetings: Dr. Peter Guttorp, Professor of Statistics at the University of Washington and member of the Nobel Prize-winning IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), who was participating in his 3rd Climate Science Day, and Dr. Tyrone Spady, science policy expert with the ASPB in Washington and Kaitlin Chell, also a local expert with the ASPB.
During the afternoon’s training, the 40 scientists introduced each other and separated into geographically based teams, heard descriptions from local experts about the process of meeting politicians and their staffs and were treated to a lecture about climate change by Dr. Richard Alley of the Department of Geosciences of Penn State University. Dr. Alley’s perspective was particularly valuable because of his engaging communication style and the knowledge he has gained from frequent appearances on Capitol Hill testifying about climate change before congressional hearings.
During the lecture he described atmospheric physics research done by the Air Force during the course of developing heat seeking missile technology in the 1950s. He concluded that the science of climate change is as unequivocal as the science underpinning heat seeking missile technology and that one cannot deny one without denying the other.
On Capitol Hill: Communicating a Sense of Urgency
The following day, Peter, Tyrone, Kaitlin and I shuttled between the Senate and House side of the Capitol on a cold sunny day. We focused on the Washington State delegation since Peter and I both live in Seattle. We met with Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell during their weekly constituent coffees as well as with staff members of many of Washington State’s congressional delegation from both Democratic and Republican parties. These meetings were very useful for introducing ourselves and engaging these policy-makers on an issue that American society will ultimately have to grapple with.
At the end of the day, what stood out for me was the striking contrast between the urgency of Dr. Alley’s presentation the preceding day and the relative lack of urgency on Capitol Hill where climate change may be regarded as one among many issues that politicians face.
It is clear that many people have not yet grasped the reason for this urgency-delay now makes confronting climate change and carbon emissions that much harder in the future. This has been elegantly demonstrated by Dr. John Sterman of MIT in a series of papers highlighting the fact that many people have difficulty appreciating the concept of stocks and flows (Sterman and Sweeney 2007; Sterman 2008) (Sterman 2011). If one likens the amount (stock) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to the amount of water in a bathtub, then the bathtub will keep filling and eventually overflow as long as the water flowing in is greater than the water flowing out.
Even if the drain is open the level in the tub will only stabilize if the water flowing into the tub is the same as the water draining out. This means that carbon dioxide emissions have to be reduced to a level equivalent to the uptake of carbon dioxide by available carbon sinks just to stabilize carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Merely reducing emissions somewhat but at a level greater than the carbon sinks guarantees a continuing increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Because increased awareness of these facts is part of what is required for US society and politicians to ultimately face the challenge of climate change, it is heartening to see the development of intuitive tools such as those developed by Climate Interactive (http://climateinteractive.org/) to simulate possible carbon emissions trajectories and enable improved risk communication. Finally, Richard Alley concluded his lecture to us Climate Science Day participants by mentioning that he is now teaching a MOOC (massive open online course) on this topic. Given the enthusiasm and knowledge with which he approaches his topic, his students are in for an eye-opening experience!
- Sterman, J. D. (2008). “Risk communication on climate: mental models and mass balance.” Science 322(5901): 532-533.
- Sterman, J. D. (2011). “Communicating climate change risks in a skeptical world.” Climatic Change 108(4): 811-826.
- Sterman, J. D. and L. B. Sweeney (2007). “Understanding public complacency about climate change: Adults’ mental models of climate change violate conservation of matter.” Climatic Change 80(3-4): 213-238.