Friday, October 12, 2007

Our Partnership with Museum of the Earth

I live in Ithaca, work at Cornell, and currently am the instructor for a course called “The Earth System,” (see My students, TA, and I are partnering with the Museum of the Earth on the Museum’s Global Change project. We are going to record our thoughts as we examine the processes responsible for climate change – both natural and anthropogenic – and the steps that we as a human society can take to ameliorate our impact on our home planet.

I am struck, initially, by the number of my students who refer to climate change awareness as a recent phenomenon. Certainly mass-media awareness is recent, catalyzed in large part by Al Gore, his film, book, and public appearances – and by this morning’s Nobel Prize. But awareness within the scientific community extends back much farther than that. The physics and chemistry of atmospheric gasses and their interaction with sunlight has long been understood. When I was a college student myself (I won’t tell you when, but it was “back in the day”) my class in environmental science covered the greenhouse effect and other consequences of anthropogenic fossil fuel use. Still farther back in the mid-19thc. the Swedish chemist Arrhenius studied fossil fuel burning as part of the industrial revolution, and cautioned against rising temperatures as a result of pollutant-driven atmospheric warming. Continuous monitoring of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been carried out for 50 years. Twenty years ago long-term records of climate and atmospheric composition were extracted from cores drilled in Antarctic ice, spectacularly confirming the lock-step correlation between global temperature and greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide and methane. Why then is widespread awareness so recent? In part because the issues are complex. Understanding correlation, causation, and consequence requires careful untangling of interconnected processes. And because the Earth is a system of interacting parts, consequence, in particular, is difficult to assess with the high degree of confidence that would make for easy decision-making. This leaves us vulnerable. Without being an expert in the field of climate science it is easy to be confused (unwittingly) or misled (deliberately) by the enormous amount of available information and the competing claims of various interest groups. And some of those who would deliberately mislead are truly unscrupulous in their misrepresentation of climate facts, further confounding what is already complicated.

So where do the complexity and contradictory claims leave us? Perhaps to walk away disgusted by politically partisan bickering. Perhaps to simply throw up our hands and hope that someone, somewhere, figures it all out. Perhaps to assume that science and technology will rescue us as they always have in the past. Or perhaps to inform ourselves; to make the effort to sort fact from fiction; to take on the responsibility of understanding our role as planetary residents; to collaborate with others in our community to assess the problem and to design and implement its solutions. And that’s where I am. Ready to roll up my sleeves and help those in the communities in which I live and work to understand the solid and uncontested facts; to sift through potential consequences; to make well-informed decisions. Fifteen of us are embarking on this project together, excited by the opportunity and optimistic about the outcome!

-Alexandra Moore, Ph.D.
Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences
Cornell University

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