Originally published on April 6th, 2014 at generalcirculation.blogspot.com
The sun is shining (today, at least), it's finally above 40 degrees, and it's general exam season for the 2nd years.
The general exam is the first intellectual hurdle of the PhD. In our department, it's a two-part challenge: an oral exam during which you present the results of your first two years of research and field questions from the faculty, and a two day written exam during which you are tested over the breadth of coursework that you've completed to date.
The exam is dispersed across the last few months of our 2nd year Spring semester and determines whether we can advance from the Master's stage of our graduate work to the PhD stage. Those who fail can choose to attempt to retake the exam or to leave with a Master's degree. Our 2nd years are brilliant, and I'm sure will trounce the exam with flying colors, but it's still useful during the high stress to have a reminder of why we started down this path to begin with.
For me and others in my department, we came into this field because somewhere in our previous education the science of climate change entered our consciousness, and we found it fascinating, compelling, and unsettling.
Although my general exams are a year in the rearview mirror, this year's exam season has coincided with a period of heightened stress for me as well, with journal reviews, annual reports, and project meetings coalescing into a haze of take-out Thai food and late nights in front of the computer.
Which is why I was particularly grateful (in a bittersweet way) for the jolt of motivation that came in the form of the release of Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, the second phase of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fifth Assessment Report. This phase is one of three sections of the IPCC's latest report on the scientific basis of climate change, it's impacts, and possible approaches to addressing it. For a brief, clear overview of the report and its contents (complete with compelling infographics on the geographical distribution of climate change impacts), you can check out the Environmental Defense Fund's summary.
Around 13:10 in the Charlie Rose feature, Dr. Sachs says: "We need to hear more solutions...Fear can open the eyes for at least a moment, but it can also get people to tune down or even tune out sometimes...I'd like to see some clear leadership about the things to do, because actually, there are a lot of specific things that would make a huge difference." (if the embedded video doesn't show up in your browser, you can view it here)
His statement took me back to a meeting I had in the greenest days of my PhD career, when I was still touring universities to meet with potential PhD advisors in the different programs I had applied to.
On one visit, I sat down with Dr. Veerabhandran Ramanthan in his office overlooking the Pacific Ocean outside of San Diego. He's been part of a major push to distribute cleaner burning cookstoves in rural parts of South Asia to reduce black carbon aerosol emissions, which pose a huge health and climate risk. During our meeting, Dr. Ramanathan said something similar, but not identical, to Jeffrey Sach's statement--that climate scientists have done enough to delineate what is a rather disturbing global problem, and it's time now to start offering solutions.
What struck me about that mental juxtaposition was that Jeffrey Sachs' call for solutions was focused at policymakers and at the technology and energy sectors, not at climate scientists like Dr. Ramanathan. Jeffrey Sachs is a world-renowned economists and Michael Oppenheimer has more than two decades of experience in the science policy arena. They are well-qualified to grapple with the economic and political conundrum of addressing climate change, but not all climate scientists are.
Should climate scientists be responsible for offering the solutions to climate change as well as the science? On one hand, climate scientists are best equipped to determine if a solution is actually a solution from a climate standpoint. On the other hand, they are not best equipped to determine if a solution is most economically efficient or ethically just. On the third hand, as Sach's pointed out, though, presenting the often bleak realities of climate change without the prospect of constructive pathways out of the problem is a recipe for people to tune out of the science as well.
I could easily develop a veritable octopus of back and forth opinions on this. My undergraduate diploma conveyed my degree "with all the Rights and Responsibilities thereunto appertaining." Wouldn't it be nice it they gave us a list of what those rights and responsibilities were?
Until then, I can rest assured that my responsibilities at least lie with this take-out Thai food and another late night in front of the computer.