Left, Right, and Center of the Cosmos

By Will Parish|March 25, 2014

Listening to a recent broadcast of KCRW’s Left, Right and Center, co-host Rich Lowry (author and editor of the National Review) put forth a few things that concerned, or perhaps more accurately, disturbed me. He questioned how we can be certain that human activity contributes to climate change in light of evidence that while the amount of carbon that people put up in the atmosphere in the last decade was way more than the last, atmospheric temperature rise this decade has been stagnant. Additionally, he asserted that because the United States’ contribution to emissions is eclipsed every day by amounts emitted by China and India we here in the States should not worry about trying to reduce our emissions further, and rather focus on getting other countries on the reduction bandwagon. What that attitude ignores is the per capita contribution. The following chart shows 2012 CO2 per capita emissions:

 

 
As a country’s wealth and industrialization climb, so too does the population’s consumption (and therefore emissions) of carbon.  So, we have a long way to go in figuring out how to keep per capita contribution to the atmosphere down. It seems that if critical thinking were taught in more subjects and more rigorously, public sentiment could change quickly about the need to take action and address climate change.  No other country is better positioned than the United States to figure out how to reduce per capita carbon pollution, and no other state besides California has a K-12 public school curriculum that teaches critical thinking skills using environment-based instructional materials throughout basic core subjects.

But this blog isn’t about that curriculum, developed from the Education and the Environment Initiative, since my entire professional life is about that!  Instead, I’d like to celebrate two unexpected allies in the search for intelligent thinking about human impact on our environment.

The first is John Podesta – recently referred to as “the man behind President Obama’s new environmental push.” Podesta, who helped guide environmental policies under President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, has been meeting privately with Democratic senators on various environmental topics such as:

1) What federal lands to put off-limits to development

2) Urging key agencies to identify ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions

3) Coaching officials on integrating global warming into policy debates, and

4) Organizing a White House meeting on climate change and drought

He is also the architect of the new climate.data.gov website, which turns scientific data related to coastal flooding, sea level rise,  into eye-catching digital presentations that can be mapped using simple software apps. The site will add additional data and tools about other climate – related impacts, including risks to human health, the food supply, and energy infrastructure.

Finally, the impacts of global climate change will be brought to our app-happy younger population with convincing digital drama, tied to specific locations! These tools show what we can expect to experience if we (that is, the per capita “we”) don’t take an offensive posture against the glacially slow pace of congressional action. We need a renaissance of realization among us Americans that climate does matter.  Making this information impactful and easy to access may be what’s needed to stop the slide of public awareness and relative inaction.

 

 
The second ally is Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, who is hosting the brand new Cosmos – the Sunday night series airing on the Fox network. Yes, you read that right Fox (not PBS) primetime, and at the helm is Seth MacFarlane. The comedian and creator of “Family Guy” recently gave an impassioned speech to a crowd of Ph.D.’s and NASA advisers gathered at Library of Congress to celebrate Carl Sagan on how scientific achievement had “ceased in many parts of this country to be a source of pride.”  Mr. deGrasse Tyson is a master comedian, celebrated intellectual, author, gifted science communicator, and nerdy cool guy, (including winning dance competitions in International Latin Ballroom and appearing in a Superman strip!) having gotten his credentials at Harvard, Columbia, and Princeton. Speaking about the spirit of urgency in the series, which is inspired by the Sagan – hosted original, Tyson asks “Do we really know what we’re doing to our environment that we take for granted is just there?” he said. “Can we be good shepherds of this planet? Do we know enough to be good shepherds of this planet?”

 

 
The series has the potential to provide the jolt to the public conscience needed to rekindle faith in science over political hunches, and still leaves plenty of room for mystery. It celebrates what science can do: “Science gives us the power to see what vision cannot,” as deGrasse Tyson says.  My hope is that Cosmos will popularize not only a renewed interest in science and humanity’s place in the universe, but also humanity’s place in nature.

The civilizations of the world don’t need to come to a crashing halt as Al Gore warned us about in his 1992 book, Earth in the Balance. Let’s make this decade the one where we (the per capita we and the World we,) all agree that resources should be marshaled and technology should be harnessed, and the education of our young should ignite the passion and means we need to arrest climate change.
 

 

Will Parish
This article was written by Will Parish

Will Parish is a credentialed public high school science educator with a 30-year record of innovative accomplishments in the environmental and educational fields. He taught Environmental Science at Gateway High School in San Francisco, and now serves on the board. He served on the California State Board of Education’s Curriculum Commission and then founded Ten Strands as a nonprofit organization to support California’s efforts to achieve statewide penetration of high-quality environment-based education into schools.