Teachers of Green, Part Two

Yesterday’s blog featured California, Al Gore, and scientific researchers as teachers of green. Today, I want to expand this and include one of the earliest of environmentalists, Stuart Brand. Brand authored a popular and influential book entitled The Whole Earth Catalog. A Thirtiest Anniversary Edition of the Whole Earth Catalog was published recently.

Brand was featured in an article today in the New York Times entitled An Early Environmentalist, Embracing New ‘Heresies’. You can read about these ‘new heresies’ in Technology Review.

In these articles, Brand outlines and predicts that scientists’ views on a number of issues will become mainstream because of a number of factors, among them the realization of the effects of greenhouse gases on global warming and climate change. He points to changes in our acceptance of population growth, urbani­zation, genetically engineered organisms, and nuclear power. You’ll find reading the two pieces that I’ve cited here interesting and illuminating.

Brand speaks of two views on the environment, a romantic one and a science one. One is the majority view; the other the minority view. Scientists are often not heard, and when they are, people will accept or reject their findings to fit their own “romantic view.” I found this to be a helpful notion in light of our current debate over global warming. The scientific view is that global warming is happening and research supports the idea that it is most likely the result of the greenhouse gas emissions.

I also found his discussion of population growth enlightening. Years ago, especially before the year 2000, population growth was predicted to grow exponentially. The scientific view now is that the Earth’s (human) population growth is leveling off, and in many countries birthrates are in “free-fall” according to Brand (countries such as Japan, Italy, Gremany, Russia–this means a birth rate of less than 2.1 per woman). And Brand points out that the reason the birth rate has dropped (it really started dropping in the 1960’s) is that people moved to “town.” He says that in the country children are an asset, in the city, a liability. Brand points out that we have reached the tipping point in that 50% of the world’s population live in cities and in 20 years or so, it will be greater than 60%.

Brand also adds his name to others such as James Lovelock as supporting the use of nuclear energy over coal produced energy. I wrote in an earlier blog entry about Lovelock. As Brand points out, such environmental luminaries as Lovelock tend to shock the “radical environmentalists” when they advocate policies that include nuclear energy. Lovelock and Brand are not on their “best dressed” list.

What are your views on population growth? Urbanization? The use of genetic engineering? Renewed interest in using nuclear energy? Reading Brand’s views on these will be food for thought.

So, I add Stuart Brand to our growing list of Teachers of Green. Who would you add? Would very much like to have you add some names and ideas.

Teachers of Green

There was a very interesting article by PAUL KRUGMAN entitled Colorless Green Ideas in the New York Times. In it he debunked the claim that that curbing greenhouse gases would detrimental to our way of life and our economy. There are a lot of people who think that it would seriously change the way we live if were to go green. Krugman offers a real-world example to put the idea to rest. He offers as an answer the economy of California which is thriving even when it has put into the practice the most rigorous environmental standards and control on greenhouse gas emissions than any State in the country. Energy efficiency and conservation have been enacted through law, and as a result the average Californian uses about a third of the energy that the average American uses. All of this happened when energy companies were given incentives to become more environmentally sustainable, and people in California pay more for energy. And Califrornia cities have become greener over the past 20 years, while cities like Atlanta have become more polluted. Los Angeles 20 years ago had extremely high ground level ozone levels, while Atlanta had moderate levels. Los Angeles has reduced its ground level ozone levels below those in Atlanta.

So one of the great teachers of green is a state like California. It is in a way, a bellweather state—an example of how to enact greener policies without derailing the economy.

Another teacher of green has to be the book and movie by Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth, which by now everyone knows received an Oscar. But what is more important is the science upon which Gore’s book and movie are based. His work is carefully researched, and elegantly presented. A good model for teaching.

Today I heard a talk show host say again that global warming caused by human activity is a hoax, and that all of the “so-called warming” is due to fluctuations in solar energy from the sun. I looked into this claim, and there have been some studies done, and one by MIT indicated that there might be a trend of more energy, but it is so slight that it would take a century for the increase to have any effect on climate. Greenhouse gas emissions, as shown in many studies, is the cause for the increased temperature of the Earth, and the resulting increased melting of glaciers, rising sea level, rising sea level temperatures, and potentially more severe weather conditions.

So a third teacher of green has to be the research being done on climate change, and the results that have been reported for many years.

Now it is time to use this knowledge to do something.

International Polar Year 2007 – 2009

The International Polar Year (actually it’s two years) is a large scale research effort that will focus on the artic and antarctic beginning in March 2007 and running through March 2009 (two annual cycles of research). The research will focus on seven areas: Atmosphere, Ice, Land, Oceans, People, and Space, as well as Education and Resources. You can see the complete IPY Chart that identifies each of the 228 endorsed projects.

Andrew Revkin, the New Times Science reporter, has written a piece describing the goals and aspirations of the IPY. Refkin reports that the central goals of the IPY is to clarify the role of greenhouse gases and global warming on rapid changes that are going on at each pole.

The IPY is also providing opportunities for teachers and students to be involved in the research. At the IPY website you can click on the Educators link where you will find news and announcements, event listings, blogs, and links and resources.

I found a powerful link designed for the IPY at the USGS (United States Geological Survey). Here you will find maps, fact sheets, and applications for a wide range of IPY topics.

Global Warming: Lessons from the Earth for us

With the release of its report “Climate Change 2007” by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the issue of global warming has surfaced in the press, and in the government, yet again. The report basically says that scientists agree that the Earth’s temperature increase is being caused by greenhouse gas emissions, and that there is evidence in the reduction of glaciers, increase in sea water temperature, and a number of biological indicators such as the migration patterns of birds. The implications for the future will result in further reduction of glacial ice, sea level rise, sea level temperature rise, and many other effects. Still, there are many who claim the whole idea of global warming is a hoax. Is it?

The short answer is no. We are slow to accept new ideas. I am reminded of how we have been very slow to accept the findings of science when they fly in the face of our political or religious views. There are many examples in science. Here are some historical examples showing how slow we are to accept new ideas.

Copernicus. The view of the world introduced by Copernicus (he was so afraid of the reaction that his book was not published until he was on his deathbed). It took hundreds of years for the Catholic Church to finally move from an Earth centered universe to a Sun-centered, and even that proved to be wrong with the discovery of galaxies.

Galaxies. The sun is not the center of the universe, but merely one star in one galaxy among billions. The existence of galaxies greatly expanded our concept of the universe and raised questions about our place in the universe.

Age of the Earth. Then geologists threw another curve ball when evidence was amassed that the Earth is not very young, but in fact, 4.5 billion years old, and the universe (since the Big Bang) is 15 billion years old.

Beginnings. And, finally, I would add that science has clearly shown that the Universe began as a small-grapefruit size, and exploded with a Big Bang, 15 billion years ago. And instead of living in a fixed, stationary Universe, the stars and galaxies are expanding away from the original Big Bang. We live in an expanding universe, not a static one.

So, I am not surprised that many people, including the U.S. government has turned away from scientific findings supporting the fact that the Earth is heating up, and the cause is human induced by greenhouse gas emissions.

An important question concerning global warming is this: Is the Earth’s surface average temperature changing?

According to research funded by the U.S. government (isn’t it strange that the same government doesn’t use the results of its own funded scientific research), and posted on the EPA Climate Change website, “records from land stations and ships indicate that the global mean surface temperature warmed by between 0.7 and 1.5ºF during the 20th century (see Figure below).

The EPA reports that “these records indicate a near level trend in temperatures from 1880 to about 1910, a rise to 1945, a slight decline to about 1975, and a rise to present (NRC, 2006). Warming is now occurring over most of the globe and is consistent with the global retreat of mountain glaciers, reduction in snow-cover extent, the earlier spring melting of ice on rivers and lakes, and increases in sea-surface temperatures and ocean heat content.”

The graphic below shows sea ice change since 1979 in the Arctic. According to NASA, Arctic sea ice has been decreasing at a rate of 9% per year, with the most significant change in the last three years. This continuation will have at least two effects; increase in sea level; contribution to increasing global temperatures as glacial ice reflects solar energy; less glacial ice means more absorption of solar energy and higher air temperatures.

Finally we can summarize and say that “research to detect climate change and attribute its causes using patterns of observed temperature change shows clear evidence of human influences on the climate system due to changes in greenhouse gases, aerosols and stratospheric ozone (EPA).

Future climate change

From the EPA website, scientists agree that “greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere will increase during the next century unless greenhouse gas emissions decrease substantially from present levels. Increased greenhouse gas concentrations are likely to raise the Earth’s average temperature, influence precipitation and some storm patterns as well as raise sea levels. The magnitude of these changes, however, is uncertain.”

Often, the hoax advocates will pick up on the word “uncertain” and use it to deride the scientific research, and make the claim that this uncertainty indicates “bad science” and the therefore the results should not be trusted. Uncertainty in science does not mean “bad science,” instead it speaks more to the range of the data, and the extent to which interpretations can be made.

I once heard a science teacher (Bob Maxwell) when giving a talk to American and Russian high school students who were involved in collaborative environmental research tell the story of the cooked chicken. It went this way. I can’t tell it as well as Bob did. Here goes. He had two pots nearly full of water (one cold, and one boiling) each on a separate portable heating source. He asked the students to imagine what might happen if he put a chicken in the pot of cold water, and then heated the water ever so slowly; he also asked what might happen if he put the chicken in the boiling water. In the end you would get the same effect, a “cooked chicken.” But getting there would be entirely different. The increased temperatures that we observe on the Earth is similar to the cold water being heated slowly; the chicken get cooked, but doesn’t even know its happening.

We aren’t cooked, but don’t you think we ought to pay attention to what the Earth is showing us regarding temperature change?

Teaching resources on global warming and climate change:

Three (scientific) views on Global Warming
EPA Global Warming/Climate Change Site
Global Warming from Wikipedia
Global Warming from the Union of Concerned Scientists (includes teaching and curriculum ideas)
Findings of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change Science
An Inconvenient Truth
Global Warming Frequently Asked Questions from the National Climatic Data Center, U.S. Department of Commerce
Research Articles from Google Scholar Search
Papers by James Hansen and Others on Global Warming (Hansen is one of the leading government researchers on global climate change.)

California’s Stem Cell Research Program—The Rest of the Story

In yesterday’s post I wrote that the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) announced the awarding of $45 million to medical researchers in many of California’s research centers, universities and institutes. However, the money for the grants was “borrowed money.” About $80 million in grants are expected to be announced next month. The CIRM was created through Proposition 71 in the Fall of 2004. However, the program has been challenged in the courts thereby preventing the CIRM from using the $350 per annum allocated to the program over the next ten years from being used. Instead, the Governor “borrowed” $150 million to keep the program alive, and allow the CIRM to send out RFP’s and initiate the grant program. After the next round of grants, California will be the number 1 provider of research on stem cells.

The U.S. Congress passed legislation that would have allowed Federal agencies to fund stem cell research. However, the bill was vetoed by Bush, thereby limiting the scope of research funded by the U.S. government.

The controversy around whether governments should fund stem cell research is one that science teachers might want to consider bringing into their life science and biology courses. One way of exploring the controversy is through the method of case study analysis. The National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science Case Collection is a powerful source to find a case and use it in the classroom. It has organized a collection of science cases by topic areas. If you go to their home page, you can peruse their collection. There are several biological categories.

I found one that you might use to get you started. It’s entitled Saving Superman: A Look into Stem Cell Research, and was written by Lisa M Rubin, University of Buffalo. As Rubin points out in the introduction to her case study, it was Christopher Reeves’ establishment of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research (CAMR) whose explicit goal is to raise funds for stem cell research across the globe. Her case highlights the nature of stem cells, and also helps students deal with questions such as: What consequences could arise by leaving future research unregulated in the private sector or by completely banning it? What do you think are some advantages or disadvantages to having federally regulated research?

Another case you might look at is The Case of Eric, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and Stem Cell Research. This case also includes some very powerful links to articles and websites on stem cell research.