Teaching aliens to talk

How global warming made me change my life.

  • Eric Baker
  • Wee-WOO, wee-WOO, wee-WOO! Scott Denning, Colorado State University professor of atmospheric science, does his molecule dance on YouTube.

  • Eric Baker
 

Scott Denning’s cranking up his molecule dance again. God, I love it when he does this.

Skinny, intense, with a touch of mad-scientist hair, he stretches his arms wide and tells us that each of his fists is an oxygen atom and his head a single atom of carbon. He’s a walking, talking carbon dioxide molecule.

Now he’s sliding his head side to side, like a ball on a string. In a high voice, he sings: WeeWeeWeeWeeWee! Everyone in the room starts grinning. “But wait,” says Scott, “that’s just one of the ways that CO2 radiates heat back to Earth. Because greenhouse gases have more complicated structures than two-part nitrogen or oxygen molecules, which make up most of our atmosphere, they can also do this.”

He flaps his arms like a deranged heron, bobs his head up and down, and in oboe tones goes wee-WOO, wee-WOO, wee-WOO!  

Laughter from the unusually well-groomed men and women sitting around me — TV meteorologists from four Western states, including Mike Nelson, the Golden Boy of the Denver TV weather scene. He’s one of those rare broadcasters with a degree in climate science as well as meteorology, and no slouch himself in the interpretive dance department. You should hear the high school kids cheer when he does his sensational, body-spinning dance illustrating how hot and cold air smash together to spawn a tornado.

I laugh at Scott, too, then nod as he transforms back into a genuine professor of atmospheric science, here from Colorado State University to explain why greenhouse gases are the heat-breathing Godzillas of the atmosphere, even at just 400 parts per million.

And I’m thinking that if only more scientists and public figures could learn to talk like Scott and Mike, rather than aliens from the Planet Zantron, maybe we could actually change public opinion on climate change.

In fact, that’s why I’m sitting here. I got the ball rolling on this all-day seminar in downtown Denver, then helped to recruit the experts that are teaching climate science to these trusted TV messengers. Maybe, in the future, after a 10-day streak of 100-degree days, they’ll be able to say more to their audiences than, “Wow, that’s some weather!” 

I’m also thinking how weird it is that I’m doing this.

For decades I was – well, still am – a Colorado State University teacher of creative writing. I traveled the world to research magazine stories, wrote essays and books, and did visiting writer gigs at literature conferences and readings. I tried to help my students discover the excitement of the stories that float all around us, all the time, begging to be written.        

But nowadays, the elegant structures I work to create tend not to be essays or books. More and more, my final “drafts” are communication workshops, PowerPoint presentations, organized climate change talks by experts from across the scientific and academic map.  

In other words, I’m no longer a guy who gets introduced to audiences. I’m an introducer. Of scientists. My Lone Artist ego is off somewhere, collecting dust on a shelf.    

 

It all started with a severe case of The Anthropocene Clench.

You know about The Clench. It’s what comes over you in the morning, when the bad news starts rolling in. Thanks to NPR, TV, online headlines, you learn, say, that another Connecticut-sized chunk of the Amazon is going. Or the blue whales are going. Pick your species or ecosystem: Everything’s going, or so it seems. 

And suddenly your chest tightens and your throat starts to close. It’s the body’s protest against so much of the world’s beauty draining away before you’ve had a chance to even see it, much less figure out how to save it.

The Clench, I believe, spares few of us who don’t live in desperate poverty or bury ourselves in the false comfort of denial. But despite our despair, many of us try to do something, however small: Vote, sign petitions, send money.

I did all that, and I also researched and wrote nonfiction stories on Buddhism and environmental activism in Thailand, comeback wolves in the West, an elephant seal reserve in California, and so on. It all felt pretty good – useful, sometimes even noble. Have notebook, will travel. “Carbon footprint” was not yet part of my vocabulary.

After a while, though, I realized that forests and animals still had this unfortunate habit of disappearing. Then one day in 2007, I read, really read, the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

For months, I’d been listening and not listening to my wife and CSU teaching colleague, SueEllen Campbell, who is an environmental literature scholar and writer. She’d been telling me in urgent tones about Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe. In a flash, I finally understood that both Field Notes and the IPCC report were delivering the same terrifying, overwhelming message: The only home we had was cooking, faster than I’d ever imagined, and the time to act was now.

Clench!

Particularly galling to me – as a teacher and writer – was the pathetic state of our national “discussion” on the subject. Even in 2007, nearly all scientists knew climate change was human-caused, yet big newspapers were still running pro and con columns side by side. Fossil fuel industry flacks, even the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, were denouncing it as a hoax. Whatever happened to evidence-based thinking?  

Then I heard NASA scientist James Hansen speak in Denver. Here was a guy who knew as much about global warming as anybody on Earth. He’d changed his focus from doing science to talking about it, testifying before Congress many times about the alarming cumulative effects of rising temperatures. But despite his evident sincerity, his monotone, passive-voice delivery was incredibly boring. Few people bothered to listen. He spoke, I realized, in “the voice” of science. And that was a voice that needed to change.

 

Adapt or Die. Isn’t that a bumper sticker? It should be.

SueEllen and I began talking intensely across our little kitchen table. We could drown in despair or become paralyzed. Or, we could try to do something. Writing about climate change was not enough. So what if I placed one more shapely, thoughtful essay on the subject in an environmental magazine? Elizabeth Kolbert, Bill McKibben, and lots of other outstanding journalists and essayists were already publishing like mad. What could I do that they weren’t doing?

Then, one day, SueEllen remarked, “Global warming’s so all-encompassing that it’s everybody’s business.” 

Yes, everybody’s. Even the U.S. Navy was all over the problem, because sea level rise will affect every naval base on Earth and because climate change may create national security problems, as already-stressed and poverty-stricken populations migrate without waiting politely “for permission.” That’s when I remembered our larger role as teachers.

SueEllen and I thought about CSU, 26,000 students strong. Were there any academic departments there that wouldn’t have something to say about the subject? Fashion design, maybe. But among people who had knowledge to share, how many could speak out of the box? At CSU, I’d heard far too many death-by-PowerPoint talks over the years.

I believe in young people. I love teaching, and I stay in touch with my students. Because the gradual nature of climate change will make it even more of an issue for them than for me, SueEllen and I decided that, by God, nobody should graduate from CSU without having at least some knowledge of the basic plumbing of the atmosphere, plus a good sense of what the future may hold. But how to communicate that? We thought about the Japanese woodblock artist Hokusai and his 100 Views of Mount Fuji. Fuji as a great orange volcano waiting to burst. Fuji as a distant snow-dream to shopkeepers laboring on a Tokyo street. A far-off Fuji dwarfed by a great wave, the only solid point inside a roiling sea.

So, why not a 100 Views of Climate Change? Everybody’s business. An environmental crisis in which changes in atmospheric chemistry affect each of us in different ways – farmers, skiers, city planners along every coast on Earth.

Working outward from faculty friends and acquaintances, we discovered dozens of researchers and science teachers on campus who were ready to talk to bigger audiences about what they’d found out, and what it meant. They wanted to discuss what was happening with drought and beetle kill in the West, pikas migrating upward, Andean glaciers, the spiritual implications of action or non-action in a warming world, and, above all, potential solutions.

We started small with a lecture series, faculty speaking to faculty. CSU has a cutting-edge atmospheric science department, and we quickly found Scott Denning and Dave Randall to kick off the talks. Scott hadn’t yet perfected his molecule dance, but was obviously a natural, ready to refocus his energies as James Hansen had. (You can find Scott’s dance on YouTube.) Dave directed a world-leading climate-modeling center, though I barely knew about it then. Heck, I’d been operating in a box, too — inside the arts and humanities.

We reminded everybody that they were now talking across the disciplines.

Only ONE equation allowed, I lectured Dave as we prepped for the first talk. He looked pained, but willing to try. Also, lose the jargon and the acronyms: Your colleagues may know what “Q4D” and “anelastic” means, but you’ll just confuse an economist, a historian, a soil biologist, not to mention your average college kids, no matter how smart they are.

I’d say, Imagine you’re at a dinner party, and your host’s bright 12-year-old comes up to you and asks, “What do you do?” Just explain it, as simply as possible. This strategy, lifted from a science journalist friend, seldom failed to work.

Other tips came out of Comp 101 or creative writing. Show, don’t tell. (Or do both.) Make the audience care. “Science In, English Out,” as communications trainer Susan Joy Hassol likes to say.

Suddenly, SueEllen and I had become trainers ourselves, event promoters, and it was great and heady fun. I didn’t have to be a chemistry ace to give somebody else a forum for talking about a cool new solar-storage battery. We could also showcase artists and poets who could convince scientists and students that the entire world of ideas was galvanizing around climate change.

Then we went bigger. Over the next two years, we organized dozens of talks for the student body and Fort Collins community. We averaged close to 300 folks per event and hosted speakers from 28 CSU departments, ranging from political science to art history to physics to, yes, fashion design! We’d created a campus-wide discussion, a new culture, even, and after a while faculty we didn’t know were approaching us to talk. Later on, researchers who met each other through the talks began collaborating on grants. 

It wasn’t long before I learned about similar talks at other universities, though maybe not with the interdisciplinary range that we’d offered. Our campus model or others like it can work at almost any large university, or even a cluster of smaller schools willing to trade resources. All that it cost us was moderate fees for room rental and posters, time and energy (a lot of both, true), and a willingness to adapt to new roles –– intellectual talent scouts.  

 

Our warming world remains the biggest challenge of our time and still scares the hell out of me, and not just when yet another wildfire comes roaring out of the foothills near our house. But immersion in the brave new world of science, sustainability and policy studies has made me much more hopeful about our ability to adapt and change our fossil-fuel consuming ways.

I’ve seen so many people step out of their comfort zones to share their crucial knowledge with us and with policymakers. In recent years, James Hansen has taught himself to speak to the public more effectively; in fact, he’s now writing a book about climate change aimed at his granddaughter — a great communication technique.      

And more and more young scientists, sensing the urgency of climate change and other environmental issues, want to learn how to connect with a greater world – another sign of hope.

Since the CSU talks started, I’ve traveled widely to help scientists use traditional story-telling techniques to reach the public and decision-makers. I point out that Rachel Carson opens Silent Spring not by denouncing pesticides but by telling a fable about the “blight” that came over the land of a mythical village. Or I urge scientists to describe their field or lab work as a quest – the oldest, most compelling story of all. Who doesn’t want to hear about a road trip? An arduous journey to Antarctica to take ice cores intuitively echoes Ahab’s hunt for the Great White Whale or Huck Finn’s Mississippi odyssey. People everywhere listen, and respond, to stories.         

Although I still do occasional visiting creative writer gigs, I sometimes miss my old literary artist life, hearing an audience go “Ah-h-h” when I finish reading a poem or a personal essay. But then I think about how many insights and skills from that old life — my life of stories — have deeply informed my new way of moving through the world. Perhaps trying to adapt to a large environmental crisis, even one as pressing as global climate change, isn’t as difficult as it’s cracked up to be.