Wednesday, December 4, 2013

An outreach triple-header

by Kim Cobb

Last month I had the privilege of speaking to three very different audiences about three very different topics in one week. Yes, it was a week of intensive outreach, in the classic definition of the word. But each opportunity presented a unique challenge:  How was I going to reach the audience members? Because it's not enough to reach out, by showing up with some powerpoint slides. You must grab their hands and pull them in, as hard as you can.

Tuesday, 10/12:  The first talk found me in front of 500+ girls, the entire middle and high school populations of the National Cathedral School in Washington DC. I was there as part of the Nifty Fifty program, which brings scientists and engineers into DC area schools as part of the USA Science and Engineering Festival held each spring. My goals were simple, if not ambitious:  help them to understand the key role for paleoclimate data in reducing climate uncertainties while telling my own personal story through lots of pretty pictures. My slides are here. They let out an audible gasp when I showed the aerial photo of Fanning. But I knew I had them when I put up my last slide - a photo of my four kids - to a loud and long "Awwwwwww". Yes, ladies, it can be done. And boy is it fun. When I ended my talk, almost every other hand in the middle school section shot up, bless their hearts. They were so hungry for information about the corals ("Do you kill them when you drill them?" No.), my personal journey ("When did you decide you wanted to become a scientist?" When I was 19.), and our collective future ("What is your position on fracking?" Next question please! - just kidding). The questions were insightful, and demonstrated a high level of engagement with our nation's toughest environmental challenges. The next time you feel depressed about the lack of comprehensive energy/climate policy, go talk to some kids. They get it.
Speaking at the National Cathedral School in Washington DC last month as part of the Nifty Fifty program.



Thursday:  Two days later, I participated in a panel on "Empowering Voices of Early Career Scientists" at the NSF-sponsored Gender Summit:  North America. [The day before, a NSF program manager had noted that I am decidedly not "early career" anymore, which means I'm academically, if not chronologically, over-the-hill!] My fellow panelists represented a range of highly accomplished women scientists from an assortment of fields and career levels, ranging from graduate students to Assistant Professors, each of whom had a unique and insightful perspective on early career issues for women. The overall message was clear:  while there are significant structural hurdles to women's advancement in academic research-intensive environments, you can achieve your goals with the right strategies and tools. Effective female mentors are key, as is a broader support network of peers and senior colleague/advocates. Women cannot wait for structural changes to "the system", but that does not mean that women shouldn't advocate tirelessly for such changes - especially once they attain a certain stature in their professional community. My GSNA slides are here. The most thought-provoking idea to come from the last plenary session, dedicated to fleshing out a "Road Map" towards gender equity, was the concept of including a diversity metric in the calculation of the US News and World Report's ranking of colleges and universities. The room erupted in applause at the suggestion. For better or for worse, administrators in higher ed are constantly seeking to move their institution up in this ranking. By including "diversity" in this calculation, diversity-related issues would begin to receive the attention they deserve in our nation's top institutions. My own department, at ~30% female faculty, would help to offset much lower ratios of female faculty in the engineering schools at Georgia Tech.

Sunday:  Back home in Atlanta, I delivered a presentation on sea level to members of the Trinity Presbyterian Church (slides here). It was the first time I had publicly presented on this topic, and it made for a really fun discussion at the end of the talk. The bottom line:  there is much we do not know about the effects of future warming, but sea level is already rising and will continue to rise at increasing rates. The official IPCC AR5 estimates for 21st century sea level rise (+0.3 to 1m; see the full Chapter 13) are overly-rosy in my opinion, given that sea level is currently rising at ~3.2mm/yr (equivalent to 0.3m by 2100). [Note:  The new IPCC AR5 estimates of sea level rise are dissected in a detailed post here, on RealClimate.] I'd say that +0.5m by 2100 is a minimum number to use in adaptation planning, which assumes that melting/sea level rise will scale with warming, with rates doubling to >6mm/yr likely by the end of the 21st century as global temperatures warm by an additional 2C or more. I think that +1m is a better number to plan around, because it allows for positive feedbacks in ice melting - feedbacks that have been documented by glaciologists (see Zwally et al., 2002 for a classic example). The audience was very receptive to this sobering news, and encouraged me to share this message more broadly. As a climate scientist communicator, however, I pointed out that sea level is one of the most certain, but most delayed, impacts of climate change - does the prospect of 3ft of sea level rise in the next 100 years really move hearts and minds? They answered "Yes!", impressed by the evidence that significant melting is already underway, and measurable as rising global sea levels. Their encouragement reminded me that the public definitely doesn't get to see enough raw climate-related data, presented with appropriate caveats. They don't want their climate information delivered in 20-second soundbytes on the evening news - they want to see the data themselves, and draw their own conclusions. Happy to oblige!

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