DR. DICKSON DESPOMMIER spent thirty-eight years as a professor of microbiology and public health in environmental health sciences at Columbia, where he won the Best Teacher award six times. In 2003, he was awarded the American Medical Student Association Golden Apple Award for teaching. He has addressed audiences at leading universities including Harvard and MIT, and he has also been invited to speak at the United Nations. In addition, he has been asked by governments of China, India, Mexico, Jordan, Brazil, Canada, and Korea to work on environmental problems. Despommier lives in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Buddy, Can You Spare Some Change?
9/12/2011 6:43:34 PM

When I was in my first year of graduate school, no more than a month or so on campus, the chairman of our biology department, Robert E. Gordon, a gentle, soft-spoken southern gentleman from Georgia who specialized in the developmental biology of salamanders, asked me to define evolution for him. He expected me to give him that answer on the spot, as the two of us busily went about the task of setting up chairs in the departmental conference room for a seminar. I looked at him in horror, thinking that it was the beginning of my ‘trial by fire’ educational experience! I shot back reflexively: “Change over time”. It was followed by a long silence, as we went on with unfolding the chairs and setting them down in neat rows. I did manage to catch a glimpse of his wry smile upon his hearing my response. When we had finished, he passed by me and patted me on the shoulder, in a fatherly sort of manner, as he left the room. He didn’t even need to look me in the eye. I never forgot how good that moment felt, and how validating that encounter was to my educational experience up to that point. Later on, I learned from some of my fellow doctoral students that he used my answer as an example of how to economically express answers to complex questions without having to beat around the bush by producing volumes of polemics on the subject. Granted, a fuller explanation of his query might have filled a small library’s worth of shelves with scholarly tomes on the subject. In fact, come to think of it, it has!

So here we are in 2011 and we still have problems with that issue of conveying scientific findings to those who need to know them in a way that does not turn them off. Climate change is such an issue and its causes are the questions at hand. Changes in our environment are inevitable, as Earth’s geological record clearly shows. But the causes for the rate of those changes are not always clear from those records. We have to dig deep to find them. Volcanic eruptions and their carbon dioxide emissions are the prime causes for many abrupt change events in the Earth’s atmosphere. Today, the industrialized world behaves like a single giant volcano, continually spewing gigatonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere and raising havoc with natural systems. My response to the question: “ Who is responsible for the current change in the rate of climate change?” is: “We are”. Dr. Gordon would probably give me an “ataboy” for that one, too. The data are in on climate change, make no mistake. Humans and our fossil fuel burning economies are solely responsible for the rate increase, period.

The “debate” rages on nonetheless. The “reasoning” goes something like this:  If we are the cause of the rate change, then something can and must be done about it, and that change must come with great financial sacrifice for those industries responsible for causing the change. If it can be proven that we are not responsible, then business as usual can proceed, and the industries creating the highest levels of emissions of green house gasses can carry on with business as usual. So, how do you think all this breaks down, politically? You guessed it.

The latest squabble involved a day’s worth of talks at the American Chemical Society’s annual meeting in Denver, Colorado. The editor of Chemical and Engineering News, Rudy M. Braun, wrote an editorial on it in the latest issue C&E News (September 5, 2011). There were two sessions on climate change, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The early session had experts from NOAA and other august bodies, presenting overwhelming evidence for our forcing the climate towards higher temperatures as the result of increases in CO2 emissions.  None of them had ties with any industry that had a role in the emissions (power plants, oil producers, petrochemical industries, etc.). Then, in the afternoon, another set of presentations were given, this time by the skeptics of the “anthopogenic theory of climate change”, much to the dismay and horror of the senior editor of CE&N. None of those presenters gave credence to any of the morning presentations, choosing instead to ignore them and express their own opinions as to the causes of climate change. None of them had any evidence to refute the earlier session presenters. It is like hearing a modern repeat of the Richard Owen vs Thomas Huxley debate over the validity of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Owen ended up surgically altering the brain of a gorilla as “proof” that we did not descend from primates resembling the apes. Huxley got hold of another gorilla brain, this one was intact, and proved Owen to be an unscrupulous fraud, driven to cheating by his unshakable religious convictions. (Note: how ironic that Owen should be so wiling to break one of the main foundation concepts of his own religion in its defense: honesty!)

As a direct result of his dishonest, unethical behavior, Owen lost his job and his credibility as a scientist. Darwin’s ideas live on to this day as the founding principle for explaining change over time with regards to all life forms on the planet. There are more recent examples of this kind of thinking, too. The tobacco industry, for example, claims that while cigarettes may be harmful to your health, the evidence is not yet strong enough to warrant removing them from sale. They claim that more studies are needed. Hmm, more studies in the light of the evidence, so far? If cigarettes were classified as a drug, then they would have long ago been banned.

So, in the end, it’s a matter of whose oxen are being gored, so to speak.  Ultimately, as a species we will have to fess up and admit our role in the climate changes now in progress. It is useful to recall that modern soil-based farming consumes huge quantities of fossil fuels.  Yet another reason to consider converting to urban vertical farms as one measure to limit our CO2 emissions and still have all the things we want in the way of fresh, healthy produce. This concept must be resonating well with the public, since a recent Google search for the term vertical farm conjures up nearly 27 million hits!    

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