Beyond "Climategeddon" - from science education to solutions

06/29/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For me, it started with glacierlust.

I saw my first big glacier in Chilean Patagonia in 2003, and was inspired to learn everything I could about glaciers. But as I began graduate school at the University of Colorado, the following year, I was drawn towards the main issue facing glaciers today: they're melting because of climate change. And, like that, climate change, both past and current, became the focus of my Master's degree. My research was reconstructing the history of several ice caps on Baffin Island, in the northern Canadian Arctic, that, according to my calculations, may be entirely gone within my lifetime.

At CU, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by a community of some of the best climate scientists in the world - not only within the university, but also our neighbors at NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and NCAR (National Center for Atmospheric Research). These are dozens of the best minds in the world on this subject, and they unanimously agreed that current climate change is caused by humans. Their knowledge was based on their personal research in the subject as well as an enormous, constantly expanding body of research published by their peers, going back for years. There was no question in their minds anymore: people are responsible for climate change.

But when I talked to family and friends, I discovered that this huge body of knowledge possessed by scientists hadn't translated to the outside world. Most people seemed to think that scientists were still debating climate change--whereas nothing could be further from my experience.

I realized then that we didn't necessarily need more research or better science; instead, we needed a bridge to communicate the science to everyone else in a meaningful, understandable way. What was, and still is, needed is education.

Five years later, I'm still working towards that goal, now as an educator and team scientist for the Alliance for Climate Education (ACE). ACE visits high schools nationwide to present a multimedia assembly on climate change. We have a responsibility to educate students with the best climate science out there. Our presentation is based on a thoroughly referenced script, reviewed by our advisory board of globally recognized scientists. After the assembly, we help students kickstart climate projects at school--anything from starting a recycling club to solarizing their school. We strive to translate knowledge into inspiration and inspiration into action.

Many of our references come from the 2007 IPCC report. This report has been vilified recently in the press and blogosphere for containing two errors. One concerns the date of disappearance of Himalayan glaciers and the second focuses on the percentage of Dutch land below sea level--neither of which had any bearing on the primary conclusion of the report: that climate change is happening and that it's very likely (meaning greater than 90% certainty) that it's caused by humans.

To state it plainly: The IPCC report is one of the most researched scientific reports in history:

It consists of 3 sections of over 1000 pages each. It was written over 6 years by over 800 contributing authors from over 130 countries. It contains over 18,000 scientific references and was reviewed by over 2500 scientists who submitted over 90,000 comments, all of which are in the public record.

The IPCC report compiles and assesses a vast amount of research, making it a tremendous scientific accomplishment and an invaluable resource. In my mind, the true concern with the IPCC report is that this huge mountain of evidence portrays climate change--and our future--as extraordinarily bleak and paralyzing. It can feel like "Climategeddon."

The science is depressing and it's serious. And taking the science seriously necessitates doing something about it. This is recognized not just by scientists, but by politicians on both sides of the aisle (see this video of Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich.), by major corporations of all types (including Apple, Hewlett Packard, General Electric and Virgin), as well as by the US military. The Department of Defense has included climate change as a national security threat in its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review.

For ACE, that means inspiring students to be part of the solution is just as important as teaching them about it. We've facilitated hundreds of carbon-reducing projects at schools nationwide that help students see an immediate impact and save money. It's fun and it makes a real difference. And it's the best kind of science education--learning by doing.

We start with a foundation of good science. But for science to make any real difference in the world, it must be made relevant and meaningful and communicated in a compelling and accurate way that makes you say,

"I get it. This affects me."

Only then can we make real change.