|ASTC Dimensions: November/December 2006
Earth in Transition: Science Centers and Global Warming
What Can Science Centers Do?
By Jeffrey Kirsch and Erik Jacquemyn
In February 2005, then ASTC president Per-Edvin (Pelle) Persson urged the Board of Directors to take action to create "international cooperative programs that will establish good practices in science communication, sound implementation of scientific innovation, and the use of science as a tool for understanding, development, and peace." Arguing that ASTC, as the sole global science center network, is well suited to lead such an effort, Pelle recommended dedicating a new staff position to the project and taking up a suitable science-and-society issue, such as AIDS, the unauthorized dissemination of nuclear material, or global warming, as the focus.
ASTC's International Advisory Board, meeting in Rio de Janeiro in advance of the 4th Science Centre World Congress, endorsed Pelle's suggestions. Noting the evidence from direct observation and supercomputer-based analyses indicating that the planet, influenced by human activities, might be undergoing a climatic shift, and recalling ASTC's history of related programming, beginning with the Greenhouse Earth exhibition in 1990, they put forward climate change as a first topic.
A conceptual plan emerged for an agenda of collaborative programs, events, and resources to be overseen by a new ASTC Director of International Relations. In October 2005, the Board of Directors approved the position and the topic, linking the project to the planned 2007-2008 International Polar Year (IPY). New director Walter Staveloz, hired in January 2006, began immediately to build a network of partners for what became known as IGLO (International action on GLObal warming). This issue of ASTC Dimensions is a direct result of those actions.
From our perspective, ASTC could not have chosen a more pertinent topic. In the search to understand climate change, all of science and mathematics comes into play. Everyone on Earth is involved in the seemingly inexorable temperature increases observed in our atmosphere, land, and seas. Scientists no longer debate whether something unusual is happening—or whether the biosphere will undergo profound changes as a result. But what can science centers do?
IPY opens the door. With its international teams of field scientists and computer scientists, this research and education initiative promises a new data-based context for global action. IGLO offers a means to engage both students and the general public in IPY's scientific process, as well as in the debates and issues that will follow as new data emerges.
Science centers should grab this opportunity to raise public awareness and participation. Already, the public has heard from those who believe that sufficient data on climate change has not been, and may never be, collected; that the new computer models are too uncertain a basis for determining whether anthropogenic gases and pollutants lie at the core of the problem; and that if global warming is happening, it may be due solely to natural causes.
Perhaps, a few more extinct species and minor climatic adjustments from now, subsequent generations will breathe a collective sigh of relief without our having done anything at all. Perhaps not. But can we afford to gamble the future on that view?
What science centers offer is neutral ground for presenting an alternative. We can remind our visitors that human actions generate positive global consequences as well as negative ones. In the recent past, nations have agreed to cease testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere; to preserve Earth's protective ozone layer by banning fluorocarbons from indiscriminate use; and to control the amount of smog-making pollution emanating from vehicles and power plants. What might the world community accomplish, we can ask, if we took the current environmental "signs" as reason enough to address climate change cooperatively?
The time is ripe. In 2005, the landmark Kyoto Treaty went into effect, signed by 140 nations, despite official U.S. objections. In 2006, people who could hardly be called "activists" lined up to see An Inconvenient Truth, the film featuring Al Gore's compelling presentation on the effects of rising CO2 levels. Time and Newsweek ran cover stories on global warming. At the St. Petersburg summit of G8 nations in July, strategies for addressing climate change were high on the agenda. And in the bellwether state of California, governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently struck a deal with the legislature to cap the state's greenhouse-gas emissions. "We have the science. We see the threat," Schwarzenegger said, "and we know the time for action is now."
Around the world, it is clear that people and nations are preparing to do something about climate change. In that global process, respected authorities are needed to help educate and engage the public. If not science centers, who? If not now, when?
Jeffrey Kirsch is executive director of the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, San Diego, California, and chair of the IGLO Education Committee. Erik Jacquemyn is CEO of Technopolis, Mechelen, Belgium, and an ASTC board member. Together, they chair ASTC's International Advisory Board.