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Science  30 Mar 2007:
Vol. 315, Issue 5820, pp. 1806
DOI: 10.1126/science.315.5820.1806

AAAS Town Hall Probes Challenges and Opportunities of Climate Change

Researcher Lonnie G. Thompson Photo © Thomas Nash, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO—With the United States approaching a tipping point on climate change policy, AAAS brought more than a thousand teachers, students, business executives, and journalists together with top researchers for a town hall forum at the association's Annual Meeting.

Presentations at the event provided educators and students with powerful evidence of climate trends confronting humanity in the century ahead. But a guarded optimism prevailed, and through a creative exercise on greenhouse gas reduction and by exploring possibilities for improved cars, buildings, and power plants, the speakers made clear that science and technology can contribute much to potential solutions.

AAAS President John P. Holdren, in the Annual Meeting's presidential address, focused on the critical near- and long-term threats from climate change. At the town hall, he opened on a different tack. Climate change is “an immense teaching opportunity,” he said, a single framework for delivering lessons in physics, chemistry, biology, meteorology, and technology.

Often the subject is not taught effectively, said P. John Whitsett, president-elect of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). While national standards and benchmarks call for teaching it and NSTA and other groups are working to aid teachers, traditional curriculum “dictates science be taught in little boxes,” he said. Textbook treatment of climate change “is at best cursory and at worst nonexistent.”

AAAS has staked out an ambitious, active profile on global climate change, and the effort culminated in the Annual Meeting from 15 to 19 February under the theme “Science and Technology for Sustainable Well-Being.” Environment-related briefings and symposia generated hundreds of news stories in the United States and worldwide. Project 2061, AAAS's science education reform initiative, released a new guide to teaching climate change at the meeting.

Later in February, the United Nations (U.N.) Foundation and Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society, issued a climate change report prepared for the U.N. by a panel of 18 experts, including three recent and current AAAS leaders: Holdren, who became chairman of the AAAS Board of Directors at the end of the Annual Meeting; former AAAS President and Chairman Peter H. Raven; and former AAAS Board Member Rosina Bierbaum.

Just before the town hall on Sunday 18 February, the AAAS Board released a statement that drew coverage in the Washington Post and other publications. “The growing torrent of information presents a clear message: We are already experiencing global climate change,” it said. “It is time to muster the political will for concerted action. Stronger leadership at all levels is needed… We owe this to future generations.”

The town hall event, “Communicating and Learning About Global Climate Change,” offered participants a half-day of forward-looking briefings and dialogue. It opened with the debut of AAAS's 12-minute video, which describes the science and impact of climate change and focuses on the endangered Inupiat village of Shishmaref in arctic Alaska.

Lonnie G. Thompson, an Ohio State University professor whose study of glaciers has dramatically expanded understanding of climate history, gave the audience a sobering tour of Earth's ice sheets. “Their loss is readily apparent,” he said, “and they have no political agenda.”

Subsequent speakers suggested creative approaches to climate change, few of them easy.

Paleoclimatologist Margaret Leinen, chief science officer for green-tech startup Climos Inc., described how corporations and venture capital firms are moving more aggressively to invest in potential solutions. “There is no silver bullet for solving this problem,” she said, “but we must use every alternative available to us.”

Given the enormity of the problem, the challenge is daunting, said two Princeton scholars who presided over a “Stabilization Wedges” exercise. Members of the audience had to develop a portfolio of options for reducing carbon emissions. Voting with electronic clickers, they preferred conservation, increased efficiency, and alternative energy sources, largely rejecting nuclear energy.

Green-tech visionary Amory B. Lovins, chairman of Rocky Mountain Institute, suggested that some climate prescriptions may be too dire. Politicians tend to concentrate on the “cost, burden, and sacrifice” of the effort, he said. “Any practitioner will tell you, empirically, that it's not a costly activity, but a profitable one, because it's cheaper to save fuel than to buy fuel.” Further, he said, materials and technology are emerging that will allow extraordinary energy efficiency in jets, cars, and buildings.

Those were the sorts of messages that intrigued many teachers and others who attended.

“I'm concerned that kids will just get depressed about the state of affairs,” said Barbara Denny, who teaches environmental science at Miramonte High School in Orinda, California. “I really want to encourage them to start thinking about solutions. So I came for inspiration.”

(To see AAAS's climate resources, including town hall presentations, the new video, and the education groups that cosponsored the event, visit

AAAS Book: Straight Talk on Fighting Obesity

The cover features a brightly colored mélange of vegetables, and the pages inside hold a wealth of plain-spoken anecdotes and science-based advice, making the latest book in AAAS's “Healthy People” an accessible, common-sense guide to fitness and fighting obesity.

“Obesity: The Science Inside,” like the six earlier volumes by AAAS's award-winning Healthy People Library Project, is aimed at providing useful information to minority and disadvantaged communities through public libraries. It steers clear of jargon while emphasizing the importance of good health habits such as eating right and exercising.

With childhood obesity of particular concern, the volume also includes tools for parents to help their children stay healthy, said Kirstin Fearnley, the AAAS Education and Human Resources program associate who researched and wrote much of the booklet.

The booklet was funded in part by the National Center for Research Resources at the U.S. National Institutes of Health. To obtain free copies, visit

—Carol Viera

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