3 February 2008

Good planets are hard to find

Posted by Jessica Ball

On Friday I attended the NOVA Climate Change Symposium on the Annandale Campus of Northern Virginia Community College, and despite the weather’s earnest attempts to drown the attendees (and drill through the roof of the auditorium, from what I could hear), it was a great event. The speakers were engaging and earnest, the audience listened intently (and took lots of notes), and the questions at the end were thoughtful and received just as well-considered answers. The event reminded me of what I miss about being in college – getting to learn a lot of fascinating things from a variety of people in a very short time. (The Powerpoints made me all nostalgic…)

My main impression, having seen An Inconvenient Truth, was that this event was a similar presentation to the movie…only much better. After all, it was coming straight from the experts themselves, and it concentrated more on science and solutions than an ex-VP with a slick Powerpoint (who couldn’t help injecting far too many clips of himself looking thoughtful while traveling around DC.) I certainly took lots of notes, and here are a few of the things that struck me:

Jill Corporale’s biology perspective: Not only is climate change affecting humans, it’s affecting species everywhere. It’s not very often that people connect species extinction with climate change – mostly, it’s some sort of vague reference to deforestation or over-hunting. I was particularly struck by her recollection of visiting coral reefs twenty years ago, then returning to the same reefs recently, only to find them blighted and dead. That makes it personal and immediate; I’ve swum among reefs that may someday end up like that. As she said, “Climate change is more than a warm day in January.”

Callan Bentley’s “Meltdown”: That’s the kind of talk I want to see! He used a very simple set of facts to demonstrate exactly why CO2 is doing to the atmosphere, and why the “climate change skeptics” have no ground to argue that anything other than human activity is responsible for the current dramatic changes we’re seeing. I especially liked seeing the Mauna Loa measurements presented in conjunction with the output of volcanic eruptions – it’s so easy to hold one or the other up for inspection, but I rarely see the two compared. The slide about Naomi Oreskes’ literature search (published in the Dec. 2004 edition of Science) especially made me want to laugh at the “skeptics”. If you don’t believe human-driven climate change is happening after almost 700 studies say it is – and NO studies say it isn’t – then you’re pretty dense. Kudos to Callan! (I feel jealous that his students get to see talks of that caliber in class every day. I really need to get back to school.)

Craig Jensen’s “Nuclear option”: I was somewhat distressed by my lack of knowledge in this area – particularly since my college campus was fairly close to a nuclear power plant. I didn’t know, for instance, that it was impossible for a nuclear plant to explode; that even if one experiences a meltdown, containment (at least in US plants) is so good that it harmful aftereffects are minimal; and that Chernobyl was such a disaster because it had substandard – meaning little to no – containment. (The last one didn’t surprise me, but it was sad.) I was especially interested to hear that the reporters flying to Pennsylvania to cover the Three Mile Island meltdown received more radiation from being in a plane than residents living near the plant did from the incident. I was also ignorant of the time it would take for nuclear waste to decay sufficiently to be harmless – the scale is actually hundreds of years, not tens of thousands, as is usually bandied about by opponents of nuclear power.

Scott Sklar’s solar power options: This talk excited me sheerly for the cool factor of the technology he was talking about. I, for one, am definitely going to pony up the money for solar-voltaic roof shingles when I finally get around to buying a house, and I really want to try out those LED light bulbs. On a more practical note, he made me think about the way I use energy in my house right now, and I’ve already begun to alter my habits to try and conserve electricity. (Replacing the crappy insulation in the roof will take a little more effort, unfortunately.) Mostly I want one of those “Solar Patriot” homes he was talking about, but I’m going to be on the renting side of the housing market for a while yet, so that will have to wait.

There were other great talks, and a lot of excited, motivated people at the end of the event, but I hope next year’s Symposium is even better. This is exactly what we need: an way for individuals to become informed about climate change and active in mitigation efforts, rather than the status quo of sitting back and letting politicians and industry be the only important players.

Al Gore may have won the Nobel, but there are a lot of people out there who care about climate change – and when they get together for wonderful events like this one, we all need to join in. Congratulations to the organizers and participants of the first annual NOVA Climate Change Symposium!