NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY CONFERENCE HEATS UP CLIMATE CHANGE DEBATE

 Joe Piaskowy/MEDILL

Scientists and attendees reflect on communication

by Joe Piaskowy
Nov 11, 2009

Glaciers are retreating, lakes are drying up and sea levels are rising faster than expected. Extreme weather is on the rise and predicted to become more extreme as global temperatures climb.

Yet, paradoxically, scientists realize the evidence of climate change may still be a hard sell.

Scientists continue to collect empirical data and evidence in support of global warming and the role human activities are playing in driving climate into new and dangerous places.

 Joe Piaskowy/MEDILL Planetary scientist Brad Sageman welcomes 225 students, scientists and area residents to Northwestern University's first public climate change conference.
Joe Piaskowy/MEDILL
Planetary scientist Brad Sageman welcomes 225 students, scientists and area residents to Northwestern University’s first public climate change conference.

“Despite all the accumulating evidence about climate change on the planet, polls show that people are actually decreasing in their belief that climate change is a problem, ” said Brad Sageman, chair of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Northwestern University.

In a concentrated effort to share the science with the public, the department co-sponsored Northwestern’s first climate change conference with the Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern, the Program in Environmental Policy and Culture, and One Book. The conference organizers brought together scientists and policy experts from around the country to highlight research, ideas and solutions. 

More than 225 students, scientists and area residents came out on the unseasonably warm November day to participate in a series of presentations covering the politics as well as the science surrounding climate change.

Chicago architect Mark Hartman said that he attended the conference with a professional as well as a social agenda.

“The topic of climate change is a hot topic politically,” Hartman said. “And it affects me personally as well as the world I live in.” Hartman expressed an interest in greener buildings. 

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press shows that not everyone shares Hartman’s concern and foresight. The poll released in October indicates that only 35 percent of Americans surveyed see global warming as a “very serious problem,” down from 44 percent in April 2008.

Lonnie Thompson/OHIO STATE  An Alaskan  lake melted from a glacier as global warming is melting glaciers across the globe.
Lonnie Thompson/OHIO STATE
An Alaskan lake melted from a glacier as global warming is melting glaciers across the globe.

As public support for addressing climate change may be waning, scientists are finding it more and more important to get the message out.

Conferences such as the one held at Northwestern are vital, said Francesca McInerney, one of the conference speakers and an assistant professor of earth and planetary sciences at the university. 

“They help get us thinking about how what we are doing is relevant to the climate change question and then communicating it to the people who are outside of our field,” she said.

McInerney’s research focuses on measuring and reading isotopic signatures, essentially the carbon dioxide and methane levels, of rock and fossil record. Her research shows how natural climate change affected the ecosystems of earth’s distant past, causing huge displacements in species.

And, right now, CO2 levels are higher than they have been in the last 800,000 years, she said.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide is a thermostat for our planet. Scientists know that from measuring the CO2 in ancient air bubbles trapped in ice cores and from isotopic signatures of the earth’s past. When atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are high, so is the earth’s temperature.

“We can track CO2 rise and we can track and temperature rise and there really is little debate about the way CO2 causes warming,” McInerney said.

Keynote speaker Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State University kicked off the conference by painting a picture of a planet in peril, where over 90 percent of the world’s glaciers are retreating and the earth is experiencing unprecedented changes faster than predicted.

The glaciers at Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania have lost 85 percent of their ice mass, 26 percent of which has melted since 2000, accelerating sea levels rises.

Thompson/OHIO STATE At Mt. Kilimanjaro, more than 85 percent of the ice that covered the mountain has melted, with 26 percent disappearing since 2000
Thompson/OHIO STATE
At Mt. Kilimanjaro, more than 85 percent of the ice that covered the mountain has melted, with 26 percent disappearing since 2000

For Thompson understanding our climate past is essential in understanding the future.

“You can look at what role climate change played in civilizations of the past – this takes it out of the political arena and to things that actually happened. The past tells us that we should be concerned with climate change because it certainly does have an impact on societies,” he said.

According to scientists some people seem to be confusing a few seasons of cooler weather with long term climate patters, and this is a mistake.

The speakers shared a common message – Climate Change is real, it is happening now, it has happened before and we have to act now if we are to mitigate some of the serious problems associated with Global Warming.

“I’m an optimist at heart,” Sageman said. 

“I feel like human beings always take a long time to get there heads around things and we have just started this discussion. I have a lot of belief in our ability to innovate and solve problems,” he said.


Medill School Of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications
1845 Sheridan Road, Evanston, IL 60208-2101 © 2015 Northwestern University