Professor part of broad effort to educate the public on climate change

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Penn State Professor Richard Alley is part of an initiative the American Association for the Advancement of Science started this week to communicate the science of climate change with the general public.

Called “What We Know,” the campaign aims to draw attention to what is understood about climate change and address misperceptions surrounding it. Those misperceptions include the idea that there is widespread disagreement among scientists about climate change.

Alley, who is part of the panel of scientists helping guide the initiative, noted that AAAS, the world’s largest nongovernmental general science membership organization, is a highly respected and broad group that strives to help society through the use of science.

“AAAS is helping climate scientists communicate the clear scholarship of climate change and energy. Weather forecasts are not political; they are useful tools, and we have learned to use their skill while recognizing their uncertainties, helping ourselves in many ways,” said Alley, Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences. 

“Climate projections are not political, either; they are useful tools, and we can learn to use their skill while recognizing their uncertainties to help ourselves in many ways,” Alley said. “Learning to do this can give us a larger economy, more jobs, greater national security, and a cleaner environment.”

The initiative is focused on three main messages: that climate scientists agree climate change is happening; that there is a risk of the Earth’s climate system moving past a tipping point, leading to irreversible changes; and that waiting to address the problems caused by carbon dioxide building in the atmosphere will mean higher costs and bigger challenges in the long run.

Alley and other scientists discuss these issues in videos on the “What We Know” website.

Alley makes the analogy that people take out insurance in the face of potential disasters, look at car safety ratings before buying cars and wear seat belts as a habit.

“If we applied to climate change what we apply to our normal lives, we would look at that and say, ‘We would like to take out insurance against that because it’s such a bad thing,’” he says in the video. “If I treat climate change the way I treat driving or I treat insuring my house, I’d look at that and say slowing down change to minimize that tail and taking actions to find out where we’re vulnerable and how we can reduce those vulnerabilities will make us better off.”

Alley, who is also an associate in the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, and others in the college are leading ongoing research on the behavior of ice sheets in the Antarctic and the potential impact of rising temperatures on those ice sheets, and by extension, rising ocean levels.

Alan I. Leshner, CEO of AAAS, says that the organization is getting involved because it has an obligation to inform the public and policy makers “about what science is showing about any issue of modern life.”

The question, he says, should shift from whether climate change is happening to the best way to address it.

“If we were to mobilize now we certainly could lessen the impacts going into the future,” he said. “Doing nothing is truly dangerous because we already see the trends. If we don’t respond to those trends we have no hope of lessening the impact of human-induced climate change on humanity.”

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