Phi Beta Kappa Speaker Encourages Optimism in Climate Discussion

Last Thursday, Richard B. Alley, a professor of Geosciences at Penn State University, came to Swarthmore to provide a more optimistic look at climate issues. 

 A crowd of a few dozen students and faculty gathered in Sci 101 to listen to Professor Alley, Phi Beta Kappa’s visiting scholar of the year. Alley studies how ice forms and works. He is the author of “Telling the Good News Too,” a book about energy and the environment, and has worked with the United Nations and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on climate issues. 

Before Professor Alley began his talk, Swarthmore biology professor Jose-Luis Machado, introduced him. According to Machado, Alley’s optimism about humans’ abilities to positively affect the climate was refreshing. He emphasized the importance of learning how to effectively translate scientific knowledge to the general public, praising Alley’s work as an example of this. 

Alley spoke about energy usage, and argued that although the science behind climate change is well-established, communication needs to improve in order to see progress on climate issues. He first outlined the historical data showing the physics of global warming, explaining that the science itself is undisputed. He also presented arguments for the economic soundness of investing in renewable energy, explaining that  even without subsidizing wind and solar, these energy sources are still competitively priced when compared to fossil fuels. 

Alley said that factually, there is an established need for climate change solutions, but that within the United States, the biggest barrier to this is misinformation and mistrust of science. 

“I really do believe that these are generally good people who have been misled. Someone paid some money to mislead them,” Alley said, addressing the many Americans who do not see climate change as an urgent issue. 

To address political polarization and mistrust of academia, Alley argued that more diverse voices must come together. 

“I tend to think that the people who understand the science but do something else are important… we’ve got to have historians and communicators and artists and economists,” he said. 

Alley further expressed that people are tired of hearing academics talk about climate change, and that fresh perspectives and tools of communication are needed.

“They’re the ones who matter in this story. We’ve got to talk to people and listen to people. We may need to start with different communicators because some of them won’t want to listen to me. It’s important to emphasize how important science is… let’s be honest here, the job is to help people. That’s what they really pay for. It’s not enough to make knowledge. We have to make the knowledge useful.” 

Alley gave examples from a PBS documentary that was made as an adaptation of his book. In the documentary, information was provided by a wide variety of experts. For example, a United States Military Admiral talked about climate change, Texas ranchers explained the economic benefits of wind farms, and United States Marines spoke about the safety benefits of renewable energy. When a focus group of Texans watched the documentary, they were impressed that these problems were explained by people they could relate to, like service members and fellow Texans. Alley was proud of this effect. By framing climate issues in ways that are accessible to those outside of academia, he hopes that the general population will connect with these issues in ways that support innovative solutions. 

“81% of Americans cannot name a living scientist,” he said. “Different voices telling the same story actually help reach different people a whole lot better.” 

This message provided students with a framework for thinking about climate issues. Alley emphasized that a future of entirely renewable energy is achievable. 

Rozella Apel ’22 said that the talk provided her with new insights. 

“I usually don’t go to climate talks, but the title struck me as exciting and unexpected and I thought it would be a great learning opportunity,” she said. 

The talk did prove to be a great learning opportunity for Apel, as it made her rethink the way she talks about climate change. 

“What stood out most to me was the idea of solutions being more palatable to the greater public than problems. In the future, instead of trying to convince people to fear climate crisis as I do, I think it may be much more effective to focus on positive, and often economical, solutions for small to medium scale problems… I want to learn to listen better so that my climate rhetoric isn’t exclusive to only the left and highly educated.” 

Alley didn’t offer concrete actionable suggestions beyond rethinking communication. He said that as a scientist, he did not feel qualified to decide specifically how to change the dialogue surrounding these issues. By emphasizing that we have the tools to fix this problem, he guided his audience towards finding their own place in the fight against climate change. 

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