February 22, 2007

Text Message

Last week during the worst of the blizzard, many of my students took photos with their cellphones and sent them to friends and family all over the country. They would send, for example, a photo of a car completely buried in snow, with just an antenna showing, along with a text message: "Here is my car. I have to be at work in an hour."

My students at Small Green take courses in environmental science, and many of them come from conservative towns in the rural parts of the state. In class Monday, one student read us a text message a family member had sent back after seeing his photos of the big snowdrifts: "So much for your theory about global warming."

The whole class erupted at that comment, all talking at once. The big snowfalls we get here in Snowstorm region are caused by something called the lake effect. Cold air passing over the great lakes pick up moisture and heat, which then turns into a big snowstorm once that air passes over land. The warmth of the big lakes, the way they retain their heat, is what causes the huge amounts of snow. According to my students, unusually big snowfalls could well be a sign of global warming, not the opposite.

Students argued whether they preferred the term "global warming" or "climate change." It's true that global warming perhaps does not include the whole picture; climate changes caused by humans forces extremes of all kinds of weather. But other students felt that "climate change" as a term seemed too innocuous, too innocent, for what is actually happening to the earth.

But mostly, the students discussed how frustrated they are that scientific information simply does not get to the public. "Scientists have studied this stuff for years," one student said, "How is it that the public is still so ignorant?"

"I think it's fear," another student said. "People don't want to know."

Ironically, we were discussing in class that day an essay that takes place in New Orleans, written several years before Katrina. In the essay, the author mentions casually, sort of as an aside, that a hurricane will wipe the city out at some point, that the city is a disaster waiting to happen. I can recall the first time I taught this essay, back in 2002. My students, scientists and landscape architects, kept saying, "Oh, yeah. Everyone knows that." They had studied it in several courses here at Small Green. They all knew that the city would be facing a huge disaster some time soon.

So when Katrina hit, I was not surprised. My students had told me it would happen. And now when they talk about global warming, or climate change, or whatever you want to call it, and the dramatic changes we humans are causing, I feel anxious. As they talk about droughts and heat waves, glaciers melting and sea levels rising, I listen carefully, with dread.

They were right the last time.


Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

Sometime in the 2002-2003 school year one of my debaters wrote a debate case titled, "Save New Orleans". He found all the information in on-line sources and more or less was right on with the amount of death and destruction.

I figure if a 19 year-old college sophamore could figure out it was only a matter of time before a Katrina-level storm happened, those in charge should have seen it coming.

Ampersand said...

hey jo(e)! Thanks for commenting on my photoblog.

I previously visited your blog, from the link on JulieUnplugged, but I just perused, admired and lurked :).

Anyway, your stories about your students certainly don't make me feel very warm and fuzzy about global climate change.

Ianqui said...

There was an interview with a scientist from NASA in last week's NYT magazine, and the interviewer asked him what he thinks global warming should be called instead (he deemed g.w. "cozy and comfortable"). His suggestion was "climate meltdown".

jo(e) said...

Climate meltdown? I love that. I am bringing that suggestion to class tomorrow.

Songbird said...

There was a guy on NPR this afternoon saying we're so wealthy, surely we can fix problems with the climate as they hit us, without having to change the way we live now. Whatever.How can people be so deluded?

BeachMama said...

It is scarey and as much as we can all do our part, how much is it really going to help? That is the question that scares me the most.

Dr.K said...

Everybody who knew anything about New Orleans knew the Katrina disaster was coming sooner or later; I remember hearing dire warnings years and years ago. But en masse, we just don't seem to have the will--politically, socially, economically, ethically, or morally--to change what's real and here and now because of a warning that only ever seems like a vague and distant abstraction. But this climate meltdown isn't like Katrina, which still was a case of the odds catching up through an unlucky roll of the dice. This climate thing is a relentless juggernaut--here it comes. What are we going to do? All any one of us can do is our small part, which includes pressing together for changes in our collective behavior. It's not yet too late. But it's a scary moment, and I feel heartbroken for the polar bears, which are pretty much doomed already.

Sfrajett said...

Ooh, I love the ominous tone. Nice. My dad is a meerologist who used to do tv and radio weather. For years I have asked him about global warming, and always the same reply: that you can only measure these things by long-term trend studies, and that we have cold centuries and warm centuries. El nino. Climatological changes that can only be understood from the perspective of eras, or millenia. Now even he's convinced.

Great post.

Jody said...

Your students are correct this time, too.

Catastrophic global climate change might convey the extent of what's coming. Although the degree of the catastrophy is still somewhat in question.

I especially like the oceanography predictions. Age of slime, anyone?


Bitty said...

Education, as proven by your students, is the obvious answer to get things started in the right direction. Instead, we're up against willful ignorance, beginning at the top with you-knoW-Who.