In 2007, Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) won the Nobel Peace Prize “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.” The awarding of the prize was especially meaningful for me as I volunteer with Gore’s organization, The Climate Project.
The Climate Project is a non-profit organization founded to increase awareness of climate change at a grassroots level in the United States and abroad. As a follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary which helped popularize the issue of global warming, The Climate Project has trained 2,000 volunteers world-wide to make presentations similar to Al Gore’s and educate people about global warming.
My work in the field started in 2001 when, after completing my Ph.D. and postdoctoral fellowship, I joined a small company that was developing technology to accurately measure trace greenhouse gases and pollutants. The research exposed me to the climate crisis in a very direct manner: I had the opportunity to fly in a jet at 30,000 feet above California and measure vast plumes of carbon monoxide that were emitted from coal-burning plants in China; I observed rapid glacier melting in the Yosemite valley, and helped analyze Greenland ice cores that show that current conditions are not part of a natural cycle. My own observations coupled with the vast scientific literature convinced me that people are changing the climate very quickly with potentially dangerous consequences.
Global warming is of particular importance to the South Asian community. More than 65,000 people are dying every year in South Asia due to climate-change related issues; countless more will suffer as the Himalayan glaciers melt, disease vectors spread (e.g. malaria, Dengue fever, plague), and sea levels rise. Due to widespread poverty and overpopulation, these communities are particularly at risk because they cannot rapidly adapt to the changing climate. But the subcontinent can and must play a critical role in solving the problem. As regional emissions continue to rise, South Asia’s political leaders must balance economic prosperity with controlled greenhouse gas emissions.
In 2006, I saw Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. The images were captivating, and the complex science was presented in an understandable manner. Most importantly, the presentation was geared towards a different audience. Instead of scientists presenting results to other scientists in professional journals and meetings, global warming was being presented directly to the people with the hope that changes could be made at the grassroots level and political will could be directed by the voters. I knew Gore’s was a great educational strategy, and one that I wanted to be part of.
I landed in Nashville in March 2007 for a three-day training course with about 200 of my peers. During the first two days, Al Gore gave his climate change presentation and then taught us to do similarly. On the third day, Hollywood comedy writer Andy Goodman (Dinosaurs, The Nanny) taught us to give good presentations that convey information while holding the audiences’ attention (Goodman’s first tip: If you’re not funny, don’t make jokes).
The trainees came from diverse backgrounds and included scientists, artists, athletes, politicians, and activists. Many people were already involved in either measuring global warming or working to prevent it. After the training was complete, copies of Gore’s presentation were given to each of us to personalize and present. The mission was clear: find audiences in your region, present the material, and provide information regarding climate change to as many people as possible. Customize and update the presentations, but stay scientifically rigorous. Each presentation is a little different and is adapted for the specific audience.
My first Climate Project talk was for college science students and emphasized the scientific evidence for man-made climate change. I gave another talk to Environmental Justice students, focused on the geographic areas most affected by climate change and those responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. Many of the talks stress solutions (e.g. fuel-efficient vehicles, compact fluorescent light bulbs, compost, re-usable plastic bottles) and involve audience participation. One student at my talk suggested a system which continuously monitors a household’s energy usage, permitting homeowners to identify and minimize energy usage.
The magnitude of the problem of climate change is immense. In order to stabilize the atmosphere at “safe” levels of carbon dioxide, we need a 50 percent reduction in worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, this will require a lot more effort than just buying hybrids and changing light bulbs. It will probably involve carbon taxes, increased energy costs, and worldwide political vision. The good news is that current and emerging technologies can address the problem, and we still have time to reduce emissions to acceptable levels.
Everyday, 70 million tons of global warming gases are released into the atmosphere from power plants, motor vehicles, and other man-made activities. Unlike many previous sources of pollution (e.g. CFCs that destroyed the ozone layer), these gases are generated by billions of people living all over the world. The solution to the climate crisis will require global cooperation and a widespread decrease in personal energy consumption. By educating people about the climate crisis, and by training some of us to help in that effort, The Climate Project is working toward this solution.
Manish Gupta is a scientist who volunteers with The Climate Project. You can contact Manish about scheduling a presentation in the Bay Area at [email protected] For more information about The Climate Project, visit www.theclimateproject.org