During a summer of unexpected weather – with some U.S. regions inundated with rain, while the Northeast endured severe drought – this year’s All-School Read (ASR) assignment may have seemed especially appropriate, given its focus on climate. The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, written by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, is a science fiction novella set in 2393 that describes the causes and effects of extreme climate change on Earth and dwells on mankind’s lack of timely action that might have reversed the planet’s warming trend.
Before discussing the ideas behind the 2016 ASR, Middlesex first learned about current climate conditions on September 23 from Dr. Robert K. Kaufmann, professor of geography and environment at Boston University. In his talk, “Climate Change: Why So Skeptical?” Dr. Kaufmann aimed to explain not only how climate change works but also why scientists are certain it is happening, though many laymen do not believe that it is.
Dr. Kaufmann first described the chemistry of Earth’s climate, stating that there is no controversy about this basic science. “The interesting part comes when people debate whether the gases from human activity are changing the climate,” he noted. “The whole argument hinges on this.”
Does human activity change Earth’s heat balance? “I’m going to say ‘yes,’” he asserted, “because of radiative force,” which is a measurement of the difference between the amount of sunlight absorbed by the Earth and the energy that is radiated back into space. Factors such as deforestation and gases from fossil fuels will cause heat to remain trapped in the atmosphere, increasing radiative force. Because measurements of radiative forcing and global temperature have been rising together “in a way that is statistically significant,” Dr. Kaufmann concluded, “They really are related.” In short, human activity is contributing to climate change.
“You will not find a climate scientist who does not think it is changing,” he continued, “but if you ask average people, you get geographic differences in beliefs around the country.” Having analyzed where people live in the U.S. and the degree to which they believe the climate is changing, Dr. Kaufmann has found that “experiential learning dominates the statistical results.” Simply put, “If it is hotter where you are, you will believe in climate change.” Perhaps even more surprising is that people based their belief only on the most recent five years of weather.
After fielding questions from his Middlesex audience, Dr. Kaufmann concluded that there are many ways for humans to reduce the level of CO2 being released, a contributing factor to climate change, and asked them to weigh the alternatives. “What are the costs you are imposing by letting climate change continue? It could be more costly in terms of environmental damage than it is to make changes that seem expensive.”
The following morning, the community reconvened in the theatre for a faculty and student panel discussion on the political, environmental, economic, and ethical ramifications of climate change. While two students shared their concerns about winter smog in Shanghai and in their home city of Beijing, the leaders of Common Sense reviewed the steps that Middlesex has taken to reduce the School’s carbon footprint and minimize resource waste. Economics teacher Mike Pandolfini discussed the kinds of changes – such as solar power and electric cars – that could further reduce carbon emissions; AP Environmental Science teacher Willy Hutcheson talked about his lifelong passion for birds and advocated for better stewardship of natural resources; and history teacher Ben Kulas provided a historical context of climate change, giving examples of environmental conditions that have resulted in destabilizing political situations.
Judging from the quality of questions for both Dr. Kaufmann and the panel members, this year’s All-School Read achieved its intended purpose: to inform and inspire thought-provoking discussions about some of the thornier issues in the world today.
Dr. Robert K. Kaufmann of Boston University showed the correlation between radiative force and global temperature.