The Earth's changeable climate has captured a lot of attention lately. From the fires raging in Southern California to drought in the southeastern United States, we seem to be reminded constantly of our inclusion in the natural world.
Although scientists' physical understanding of the climate system has increased greatly during the past 50 years, public dialogue has only recently been stirred.
Among scientific issues, global warming received the most media coverage in 2006. Nevertheless, it ranked 20th out of 23 national priorities in a Pew Research Center survey. While 61 percent of people feel that immediate political action is necessary, calls for response have yet to connect with a majority of leaders in Washington, D.C.
Since broad murmurs of global warming first developed in the late 1980s, a louder chorus of voices has come to contribute to society's collective consciousness.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has come on the international scene, coordinating periodic assessments of the climate written and reviewed by scientists. More than 50 researchers from the UW contributed to the Nobel Prize-winning report issued earlier this year.
Domestically, grassroots efforts such as Step It Up and Focus the Nation have grown over the past two years, culminating in a succession of civic and educational events slated to occur throughout the coming months.
On campus, the UW Common Book program is featuring Elizabeth Kolbert's Field Notes from a Catastrophe, a narrative-based account of climate change. After nuanced description and careful diagnosis, Kolbert offers a somber conclusion.
"It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically-advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing," she writes.
In spite of such an outlook, students have begun discussions of their own from the classroom to the Quad.
The UW hosted the Graduate Climate Conference (GCC) last weekend. More than 75 graduate students from 23 institutions across the Unites States and Canada filled out its program, including six sessions of climate science research presentations and posters, panel discussions and a forum on the intersection of science and advocacy.
"Conferences like the GCC are rare," said Reddy Yatavelli, a research assistant for the department of atmospheric sciences. "It gives students who work in specific subject areas a chance to put their research in perspective and see the big picture."
Attendees of the student-run conference found the GCC's policy session valuable.
"It brought up lots of big questions," said Debra Tillinger, a Columbia University graduate student. "It provided a comparison of the popular concept of 'going green' and some of the harsh realities of climate change."
Climate change has entered our collective consciousness. The conversation continues, guided by students, researchers, journalists, politicians and citizens.
Whether or not the level of public discourse can be elevated above indifference and noise remains to be seen. Regardless, the issue remains in the popular media, climate education has found renewed interest and exposure, and opportunities for discussion are increasingly accessible.
With the 2008 presidential election only a year away, Kolbert and many others think the outcomes of this discourse are more important than ever.
[Reach columnist Brian Smoliak at email@example.com.]