A panel of experts debating the issue of global warming at on Tuesday afternoon agreed on two points: the threat is very real, and very misunderstood.
"All of this is absolutely happening," said environmentalist Carl Safina of melting glaciers, ocean acidification and other destructive effects on the planet attributed to human-caused climate change. "Clear and present danger," he said.
Safina is president of the Blue Ocean Institute, an organization that tracks changes in the Earth's oceans and the influence of human activity on those changes. He said conventional scientific wisdom has shifted greatly in the last decade, from understanding global warming as a problem of the future to a problem whose consequences we are already suffering.
"Now every place I go – except in the United States of America – people talk about and show me all the things," Safina said of presently-occurring damage to the environment due to climate change. He lamented the subject's transformation into a political argument in the U.S.
"Reality used to be agreed upon in America. Now billionaires and corporations control political discussion," he said.
Lee Koppelman, a political science professor and director of the university's Center for Regional Policy Studies, articulated a different criticism of the national debate.
"I'm always troubled by any end-of-the-world talk," Koppelman said. He criticized scientists and environmentalists who he said interpret data with the purpose of advancing their cause, calling it "huxterism," and said it is a case of justifying the means with the end. He took issue with the use of models that predict catastrophic consequences, as well as the targeting of carbon emissions as the primary "evil" responsible for many environmental problems.
"The problem is a departure from the scientific method," he said, accusing activists and experts alike of misrepresenting data in order to alarm a complacent population. Koppelman noted former vice president Al Gore as an example. He said this method of arguing for solutions purports inaccuracies and further confuses the issue rather than focusing on real causes and solutions.
Elizabeth Bass, interim director of Stony Brook's Center for Communicating Science, also addressed how the crisis is presented to the public.
"By a show of hands, who thinks the media has done a good job of covering climate change?" she asked the audience.
No one raised a hand.
Bass, whose center was established last year to teach scientists how to more clearly communicate their findings and resulting implications to the public, said the coverage of climate change has lacked the kind of storytelling that makes people care about an issue. She said it is stories about people that can make the problem relevant to skeptics. Bass also blamed the gradual nature of global warming's destructive consequences, such as tens-of-thousands of deaths due to prolonged drought, for its ability to stay below the radar.
Panelist Elaine Kamarck said the crisis needs to be linked to other issues that people do care about, such as national security. A former Clinton White House aide who currently lectures on public policy for the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Kamarck noted dependence on foreign oil as an issue that can be better used to push for climate-friendly legislation.
Kamarck said the political divide between Democrats and Republicans on the subject is a recent phenomenon, having been a bipartisan issue up until the mid-nineties. She blamed a lack of understanding of the issue on both sides for the impasse.
Also on the panel was Malcolm Bowman, a professor of oceanography at Stony Brook. The debate, part of the university's Provost's Lecture Series, was moderated by journalism professor and former Newsday editor James Klurfeld.
The panel spoke to an audience of more than 100 people, mostly students and faculty.
After the debate, Koppelman said the audience lacked those to whom the messages most need to be communicated.
"The problem here is that you're talking to the choir," he said. "It's a university crowd to begin with, so they're more environmentally attuned."