NBC films launch of ‘Changing Planet’ series at Yale

By now, many people know at least something about how climate change is affecting the world’s ecosystems. But what about the link between climate change and human health? Or economic opportunity? Or religion?

These connections were the basis for a panel discussion moderated by NBC News Special Correspondent Tom Brokaw at Kroon Hall last night. The event, which was sponsored by Yale, NBC News, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Discover Magazine, was the inaugural edition of “Changing Planet,” a series of town hall meetings on climate change being launched by NBC across the country.

Brokaw, who returned to campus after visiting as a Poynter Fellow in the fall of 2009, led a panel of experts in exploring how climate change is affecting the lives and values of today’s youth. The audience of about 100 was made up of local high school and Yale College students, who intermittently asked questions throughout the event. The discussion will be broadcast on the Weather Channel, in addition to Discover’s and the NSF’s websites, in mid-February.

Panelists included Rajendra Pachauri, director of the Yale Climate & Energy Institute and chair of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; Katharine Hayhoe, research associate professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas Tech University; Billy Parish, co-founder and president of Solar Mosaic; and Linda Fisher, vice president of Safety, Health & Environment and chief sustainability officer at DuPont.

Throughout the discussion, Brokaw and the panelists examined how climate change is impacting human health, economic opportunity and religious values, as well as the impact on youth.

“Today’s youth is interested and engaged in trying to understand climate change and its impact on our world,” Brokaw said. “It is important that we involve them in finding solutions through events like this.”

In one NBC News segment that was aired during the event, the audience saw the effects of climate change on other parts of the world and how a warmer, wetter world is already leading to more infectious disease outbreaks. Dengue fever, for instance, is now turning up in surprising parts of the world like Australia and even Florida, which hadn’t reported any cases of the mosquito-borne disease for more than 50 years.

While Pachauri stressed that the poorest people in the world are being hardest hit by the effects of climate change — dealing with increased flooding, drought, heat waves and vanishing agricultural lands, Parish emphasized that climate change is going to have a major effect on Americans as well. “Almost every aspect of our economy is going to have to be redesigned, rethought and rebuilt,” he said.

When one Yale senior asked the panel how to promote sustainability in the face of the current economic recession, the panelists pointed out the costs that will be incurred if American doesn’t take action against climate change, noting that the country currently spends $5 billion importing oil every week thanks to its dependence on foreign fossil fuels, and that the revenue generated from putting a price on carbon, for instance, could help fund research into more sustainable forms of energy.

But all four of the panelists were quick to point out that a shift in the economy toward a more sustainable model shouldn’t be viewed as a necessary evil. Fisher pointed out that DuPont has decreased its energy use by 19% since 1990 — despite the company growing by 40% in that time — and has saved $3-$4 billion in the process, adding that the company views climate change as an opportunity to invest in new ideas and technologies.

“We’re either going to create the technologies and the jobs here [in America] or the technologies and the jobs will be created elsewhere,” she said.

Local high school students as well as Silliman and Branford College students were polled about their attitudes toward climate change via an online survey developed by Anthony Leiserowitz and Lisa Fernandez of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. The survey ensured that a group of students representative of the different attitudes about climate change that exist in America would be selected as audience participants for the panel discussion.

“This event provided an important opportunity for students to grapple with the meaning of climate change for their generation and the potential impacts it will have on values that Americans care deeply about,” Leiserowitz said.

Although some students still remained skeptical when Brokaw informally polled the audience at the end of the discussion, many hands went up when he asked how many of them had changed their beliefs about climate change and its impact as a result of what they’d learned during the event.

“I believe, in the end, truth will prevail,” Pachauri said in response to a question about why some people still don’t believe that climate change is man-made and is having a devastating impact. “Business as usual is just not acceptable.”

The next event in the series will be held at George Washinton University in April.

— By Suzanne Taylor Muzzin

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Media Contact

Suzanne Taylor Muzzin: suzanne.taylormuzzin@yale.edu, 203-432-8555