Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Bill McKibben & the Power of Science Communication

On February 16th, Bill McKibben will be visiting this blog's home, Allegheny College, as a guest speaker and (hopefully) a workshop instructor.  Presumably, McKibben will teach students about effective communication, and how to advocate for a cause.

For McKibben, the cause is to lessen the human contributions to global climate change.  He is an author of nearly fifteen books, all of which, directly or indirectly, revolve around that central theme.  Of the books which I have read, it is clear that McKibben demonstrates the scientific bases behind his assertions in a clear and effective way.  His writing motivates a broad audience, including the science-minded and otherwise.   By drawing from a variety of sources and teaching the science, he legitimizes his claims, yet still engages with the layman, as his language is understandable.

Apart from writing books and blog posts, McKibben has launched, a "global grassroots movement to solve the climate crisis."  There exist innumerable organizations, websites, and blogs that share a similar motive, but has gained exceptional popularity in the past two years.  Why is this so?  I speculate that the presence of understandable scientific explanations behind the mission have made it both accessible and credible.  For some less successful organizations, excessively technical illustrations may be their downfall, proving too difficult for non-scientists to follow.  Or, on the other end of the spectrum, some organizations may lack adequate scientific bases and, consequently, will prove untenable.  Certainly, an activist group with comprehensible and sufficient science to support its mission is more likely to flourish. 

In the case of McKibben's, the 350 refers to the number of CO2 molecules (in parts per million) that would be considered “safe” in our atmosphere.  Currently, the atmosphere holds about 390ppm, putting us at risk of "reaching tipping points and irreversible impacts such as the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and major methane releases from increased permafrost melt" (  The number of CO2 molecules directly impacts climate change, as CO2 is a green house gas capable of blanketing the earth by residing in the troposphere, thereby trapping in heat (source).  Albeit a controversial topic, the debate does not usually lie in whether climate change is happening as a result of residual greenhouse gasses or not.  Rather, the issue essentially questions whether humans have contributed to the change or not, and whether the consequences will be detrimental.

( employs various media to get their message across.  Without words, this video tries to explain the theory behind's mission.)

Most scientists agree that humans have contributed to climate change, thus deeming it anthropogenic global warming (AGW), and the repercussions of AGW look, unfortunately, quite grim.

Luckily, suggests that we can still reduce the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.  This is where scientists must play a powerful part in communicating with the public.  There is still widespread rejection and misunderstanding among non-scientists about what and why climate change is.  As we are at a pivotal moment, scientists and organizations like must continue to expound the science behind climate change in a meaningful way, reaching and motivating scientists and non-scientists alike.


McKibben spearheaded another organization, Tar Sands Action, to prevent the implementation of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which was expected to extend for 1,700 from Alberta, Canada, through the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska, and into Texas.  The pipeline would carry bitumen, which is a thick, tarry oil product that must be diluted with organic solvents to flow through the pipeline.  The petroleum and the solvents put the Ogallala Aquifer at risk for contamination.  The Aquifer is a water source that is heavily relied upon for residential and agricultural uses; thus, it became a major environmental health concern.

In order to halt the building of the pipeline, McKibben and his organization called for a protest.  Tar Sands Action employed several media outlets to explain the situation, urging potential protestors to truly understand the risks from a scientific standpoint. 

On the day of the protest, it was clear that the majority of the 12,000 protesters that encircled the White House were honestly dedicated to the cause, and understood it well.  (Some of the picket signs had graphs... some with cited sources!)  I interacted with many "non-scientists" that were able to describe the challenges of transporting bitumen, and the excessive biproducts that result from the refinement process.  Effectively communicating the science behind the risks gave people a reason to protest.  For protestors to grasp the science that drove the movement was more compelling than being told instructions with science that gets overly-simplified or omitted altogether.

Good science communication is absolutely integral for successful activism.  McKibben, luckily, is skilled at communicating science to a lay audience, and it has helped his cause immensely.

Bill McKibben, circling the White House on Nov. 6th with 12,000 other protestors. 

-Sara Schombert

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