Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The (rising) Ocean State sounds an online alarm

This piece originally ran in the (now defunct) Providence Phoenix


As he takes the podium before an audience of about 50 students, environmentalists, and reporters, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse points out superstar oceanographer and archeologist Bob Ballard, arguably Rhode Island’s most famous scientist, sitting near the back of the small auditorium. His presence lends an air of celebrity gravitas.
 
It’s Monday morning, and we’re here at the URI Coastal Institute in Narragansett for the world premiere of riclimatechange.org, a website designed, according to the press release, to speak to people with “varying degrees of scientific knowledge, a wide range of political and cultural opinions, and personal and professional concerns about climate change.” The website is the creation of the RI Climate Change Collaborative, a collection of URI-based environmental groups with some of the school’s leading environmental and scientific thinkers on its team, including Oceanography Professor Isaac Ginis, whose computer models to forecast the path and intensity of hurricanes were used by first responders and emergency management teams during Hurricane Sandy.
 
Whitehouse has been beating the drum on climate change in his weekly “Time to Wake Up” speeches on the Senate floor in Washington (he recently delivered speech number 58), calling to task the moneyed interests that back climate change skeptics and deniers. “If we allow our democracy to be taken over by polluting interests,” he says, standing before a graphic of the new website, “people are going to look back and think, ‘What happened to democracy in that period, that they couldn’t prepare for this?’”
 
If there are climate change skeptics in the audience today, they are not letting on. “Behind all of the technical aspects of climate change is a very basic battle, an information battle,” continues the Senator. “It’s a battle between the scientists, who know what they’re talking about, and very cynical propagandists who [seek] to mislead the American public into thinking that there’s something debatable, something still uncertain, about climate change.” Almost everyone in the audience smiles or nods in agreement. “We have to win this information battle, and this website will be a valuable tool,” he says.
 
The website, called “Waves of Change,” features an array of climate change articles and videos. “Changes,” one of three tabs at the top of the home page, attempts to answer the simple question, “What’s changing?” by delving into rising temperatures, sea levels, and ocean acidification. “Impacts” makes it personal, by exploring how climate change can destroy cash crops, erode beaches, kill tourism — and kill people, through heat waves and more frequent storms. The site notes how heavy rains in March 2010 “causing massive flooding which left major shopping malls and Interstate 95 underwater” sapped millions of dollars from the Rhode Island economy. “Actions” brings visitors to a page with ideas for combating the inevitable challenges of climate change.

The official announcement of the website comes just days after Governor Lincoln Chafee issued an executive order creating the Rhode Island Executive Climate Change Council (ECCC) on Friday, February 21. The nine-member council — made up of state directors from the Department of Environmental Management, Department of Transportation, Department of Administration, Department of Health, and other agencies — will advise the Governor, the General Assembly, and the public on best practices when “developing and implementing strategies that address challenges created by climate change.” The Governor noted in his executive order that the surface temperature of Narragansett Bay has risen four degrees since the 1960s. According to Senator Whitehouse at today’s press conference, this warming water is partly responsible for the inability of Rhode Island’s fishing trawlers to harvest flounder, whose population has crashed by more than 90% in recent years. “The oceans are our true witness to all of this, which is one of the reasons climate change deniers never talk about the oceans,” he says toward the end of his presentation.
 
Judith Swift, a URI Communications Professor and one of the website’s designers, says it will be a tool to convince the skeptics. “Pass this [website] on to the uncle that you sat with at Thanksgiving dinner who said, ‘That’s a lot of hokum!’” she says. “Send it to him and say, ‘Hokum this!’ ”
 
It’s a nice sentiment, even if it’s doubtful that the hypothetical uncle will find a website quoting President Obama on its front page (“[T]he debate is settled. Climate change is a fact”) particularly compelling. Perhaps more realistically, Swift hopes that this website will be a valuable tool for high school students who tend to be more open minded. They are, after all, the generation that has to live in the world that climate change will produce.

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