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Annual Public Lectures Series > James Gustave Speth

Scientists and Journalists:
Getting the Point Across
June 13-17, 2005

PS_Speth.jpg - 23956 Bytes

Some Say By Fire: Climate Change and the American Response
James Gustave Speth, Dean, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies
Summary of comments from June 15

Despite a common misconception, climate change is not a recent concern, but first gained the attention of American scientists during the Carter Administration 25 years ago. Yet even with an outpouring of scientific analysis and forecasting, averting climate change is no longer an option, said Gustave Speth, Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, in his lecture.

However, we can still prevent the worst from occurring, Speth said. The United States is the largest contributor of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, Speth said, and in fact, if each of the states within the U.S. were considered to be a country, 35 of the states would be top greenhouse gas producers.

There have been a number of recent legislative developments, including the Kyoto Protocol, Speth said, and in the U.S., 150 cities have adopted Kyoto standards, despite the refusal of the U.S. to sign the treaty. At the state level, Speth notes that California recently declared that it would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. Although Speth said he was encouraged by these recent developments, he noted that they were late in coming and still in the preliminary stages.

The business world was a bright spot in Speth's assessment of current state of climate change. Foreign countries doing business with U.S. companies have begun pressuring them to improve their environmental records. Additionally, groups such as CERES have organized investors to pressure companies to make changes in their practices and alleviate their part in the climate change problem. Insurance and reinsurance companies are also influencing businesses to change their practices. Speth cited a recent announcement by General Electric that it would significantly lower its greenhouse gas emissions, as an example of companies viewing such changes as a source of future revenue.

In recent decades, there has been an increasing gap between the public and scientists, says Speth. In fact, he notes that as the scientific content of the news has risen, it would appear that the comprehension of the American public has decreased, leaving many ill-informed. Speth referred to a recent Gallup poll that found public concern about climate change decreased between 2003 and 2004. According to Speth, if we want the public to listen to what scientists have to say, we must approach them differently, we must "appeal to their hearts as well as their heads." He suggested that a public education campaign would be one way to accomplish this.

There is also an increasing need for journalists to bridge the gap between scientists and the public, Speth said. Although a tremendous amount of scientific data exists in scientific journals, very little has made it into the daily news, accessible to the public.

Appealing to the audience, Speth suggested that a popular movement of citizens is needed. He called for people to take action by demanding accountability, protesting, and becoming responsible consumers. He also called on religious and environmental organizations to increase their involvement in the climate change issue.

Speth's closing sentiments resonated with the powerful words of Theodore Roosevelt, "Here is your country. Do not let anyone take it or its glory away from you. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches, or its romance. The world, the future, and your children shall judge you accordingly as you deal with this sacred trust."

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December 4, 2007