The Green Scene

Rick Borchelt is one of those rare scientists who’s also a good communicator. So says Pamela McCown, a former TV meteorologist who’s now involved in educational and job-creation initiatives in Western North Carolina. She describes Borchelt as a biologist who “was bit by the science-communication bug.” Communications director for the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University, Borchelt is known as a science writer and communicator with a keen interest in community-based endeavors that encourage public engagement with science. His March 17 presentation at the Diana Wortham Theatre will kick off Climate Change in 2009: Global Changes, Local Impacts, a spring/summer series co-sponsored by the Asheville chapter of the American Meteorological Society and the Colburn Earth Science Museum.

Talking ‘bout climate change: Science-communication expert Rick Borchelt will kick off a lecture series aimed at better explaining the science behind climate-change issues. Photo courtesy of Rick Borchelt

McCown shares Borchelt’s passion. Much of what the general public hears about climate change is filtered through splashy headlines and oversimplified summaries, the 10-year media veteran maintains, while the hard facts and methodology behind climate science are often glossed over, misrepresented or ignored. As a result, she notes, opinions on the subject have become very polarized.

“Typically, we dorky scientists are not good communicators,” says McCown. The typical scientist’s explanation of how climate modeling works would make many listeners tune out (and snore, she adds with a laugh). “We’re losing a lot of information [about climate change] because of that.”

Three years ago, the Meteorological Society’s local chapter was pondering this question: “How do we convey real information, so that when citizens hear the ‘news’ about climate change, they can discern what’s valid and what isn’t?” Thus was born the idea of a public lecture series, and attendance has grown each year, McCown reports.

Last year, the society teamed up with the museum, and McCown joined its board. Both the partnership and the series are a good fit for Asheville, which is home to the National Climatic Data Center and other weather-related federal entities, as well as a growing number of businesses and nonprofits, she continues. McCown herself is part of the trend: She moved to the area about six years ago, setting aside her television days to work for Education & Research Services, a nonprofit that’s collaborating with local business groups to bring climate-related jobs to the region.

“Our mission is to grow [this] climate initiative in Asheville and work on getting science and technology jobs here,” she explains. The recently adopted federal stimulus package, McCown asserts, includes money for climate records and climate modeling, and Asheville may very well get a piece of it (the Climatic Data Center, for example, houses the largest such archive in the world). But with or without stimulus funds, the regional economy’s climate-data sector will see significant growth in the next 10 to 15 years, McCown predicts.

In the meantime, however, her friend and colleague Borchelt will try to translate climate-change science into something intelligible to the rest of us. He’s well-suited to the task, having served as press secretary for the U.S House of Representatives’ Committee on Science, Space and Technology; as the president’s special assistant for public affairs during the Clinton administration; and as director of communications for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

“Communicating accurate climate-change information is one of the most challenging issues we face in the scientific world,” Borchelt asserts. “Most of us do not have a basic understanding of how climate-change science works, or of how we have arrived at this place where the topic … is so divisive.”

Accordingly, Borchelt has titled his upcoming presentation “Can You Hear Me If I Talk A Little Louder: Hope, Hype and Communicating Climate Change.”

When it comes to getting the facts out about climate change—and creating jobs, says McCown—“Why not do it in Asheville?”

The free presentation is slated for Tuesday, March 17, at the Diana Wortham Theatre, starting at 7 p.m. It will be followed by a reception for Borchelt at the Colburn Earth Science Museum. For more information, call McCown at 670-7873, or Kathleen O. Davis at the museum at 254-7162. Upcoming presentations include “Climate Change Impacts on U.S. National Security” (April 21, Air Force Lt. Col. Scott Hausman, commander of the Asheville-based 14th Weather Squadron) and “The State of Our Climate: An Overview of the Latest Research Findings and Projections of Climate Change” (June 2, Thomas R. Karl, director of the National Climatic Data Center).

Send your environmental news to mvwilliams@mountainx.com, or leave a message at 251-1333, ext. 152.

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About Margaret Williams
Managing Editor Margaret Williams has been at Xpress since 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987.

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