Wednesday, April 30, 2008

One benefit of the Nobel: students cheer his lecture

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 25, 2008


The students greeted the professor like a rock star, their whoops and cheers an uncustomary reception for a lecture on climate change.

The professor was returning to the high school from which he graduated in 1979. Back then, he butted heads with opponents over the chessboard and on the rugby pitch.

“This hasn't changed one bit,” Andrew Weaver announced as he looked around the auditorium at Oak Bay High School. He thought the walls had been repainted. Maybe.

The school remains the same, but much else is different. He has earned a doctorate, got a professorship at the University of Victoria, won a share of the Nobel Peace Prize. And the world has got a bit warmer.

And the polar ice cap has melted a bit more. And action today is needed for tomorrow.

Prof. Weaver was the closing speaker in a day-long conference organized by students to mark Earth Day.

The students heard plenty of doom, but not so much gloom. They were encouraged to do a better job than their parents in seeking solutions to a warming world.

“This is pretty impressive. To see a younger generation take ownership of this issue is encouraging,” Prof. Weaver said before yesterday's lecture. “It gives you a sense of optimism and hope that there will be a better future.”

The professor earned his laurels as a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared last year's Nobel Peace Prize with former U.S. vice-president Al Gore for work on man-made climate change.

Wearing blue jeans and an untucked beach shirt, armed with a PowerPoint presentation and a laser pointer, Prof. Weaver took the students through a lesson in the history of the science of studying gasses in the atmosphere.

He warned them to be wary of media coverage, showing two headlines from the local daily newspaper. One read: “Study deflates global warming.” The other stated: “Global warming severity grows.” The headlines were published nine days apart. Lesson: Sensationalism encourages confusion.

He displayed the front page of a supermarket tabloid. “Oceans rising 150 ft.,” it reported. The image showed the Statue of Liberty drowning.

The professor asked: What is wrong with this? A student gave the correct answer right away: the statue's pedestal alone stands 154 feet (47 metres). Liberty's toes wouldn't even get wet. Lesson: Don't believe everything you read. Or see.

While he did describe John Tyndall, an experimental physicist who studied Earth's atmosphere in the Victorian era, as “the guy with the bad sideburns,” Prof. Weaver's talk had enough charts and figures and many-compounded descriptives to send some in the audience to more typically teenaged pursuits, such as whispering, munching Doritos and flicking paper at their neighbours.

Some girls were engrossed in a vegan pamphlet with gory colour photographs of slaughterhouses, a sort of carnivore porn.

During the day, workshops were conducted by MLAs, scientists and professors on such topics as “the hydrogen economy,” “the 100-mile diet,” and “treating waste as a resource.”

This is the school where a Grade 9 science class has been assigned to take their classroom off the electrical grid. Students have also been involved in reviving Bowker Creek, which runs behind the school grounds.

Between sessions, some members of the Environment Club – identifiable during the event in their matching lime-green T-shirts – were asked the purpose of the day-long conference.

“To raise awareness,” said Grade 11 student Taylor Daniel, 17. “Get the kids thinking more about it.”

“So they know about their options,” added Jenica Moore, 16.

What do their folks think about their eco-curricular activities?

“It's kind of us educating them for once,” Ms. Daniel said. “Us telling them what we need to do.”

“They're pretty positive,” Ms. Moore said.

“They seem to like that we're passionate about something instead of wasting our time,” Ms. Daniel said.

The students attracted a top-notch panel of politicians, including local MLA Ida Chong, the province's Community Services Minister; NDP MLA Rob Fleming; and Jane Sterk, leader of the provincial Green Party.

The politicians were kept to tight time limits by the crisp ringing of a triangle, a piece of equipment the Speaker of the legislature might wish to adopt.

They were asked about the worthiness of a public-private partnership to give Victoria sewage treatment; about free bus passes for all students; about the sale of publicly owned forests; about a change in the building code demanding solar panels and low-flush toilets in all new constructions; about getting a model green school to replace the high school's outdated structures.

“I'm amazed by these young people,” Ms. Chong said. She remembers being unable to speak publicly in Grade 12, never mind rustling politicians and asking such tough questions.

“Our generation is a lot more educated about our global footprint,” said conference organizer Ellen Hunter-Perkins, 17.

Her other projects include raising money to buy bicycles for health workers in Africa, for whom transportation problems interfered with treating HIV/AIDS patients.

After five minutes of conversation with her, you get the feeling you'll be voting for these kids some day.

2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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