Kitchen Klimate Science; an approach to understanding climate change

By Peggy Mackenzie

Climate change. We hear about it all the time now, but it’s still a confounding mystery that the entire earth could be altered so dramatically. People ask whether it’s really a concern even as clear scientific evidence is presented. But we can all agree, when people see what they care about is being threatened, they are inclined to respond.

Earlier this month, the Lewisburg Master Gardeners sponsored a demonstration and lecture by Thomas Rodd, an environmental law attorney of nearly 30 years, to illustrate the interactions of the chemicals in our atmosphere that are the main causes of these changes, and to give children and adults a better understanding of what is happening to our planet. He is also director of Friends of Blackwater’s Allegheny Highlands Climate Change Impacts Initiative.

Cloaked in an apron and a chef’s hat, Rodd looked something like a rumpled, bearded grandpa seated before a cluttered assortment of “props.” Rodd’s Kitchen Klimate Science presentation in the WVU building at the WV state fairgrounds, was touted as “everything you need to know about climate change.” About 30 attendees enjoyed a highly entertaining and informative presentation primarily geared to middle and high school students.

Over the last five years Rodd has made around 40 versions of the hands-on presentation. The science learning activities have been successfully tested and enjoyed by hundreds of West Virginia students and teachers. They are based on proven atmospheric science and illustrate fundamental natural processes. He uses props, charts, posters and volunteers from the audience to pose as actors in the unfolding demonstration. What begins as a juxtaposition of a high school chemistry class and a kindergarten outing is thrown into high gear when Rodd picks up his banjo, strikes up a familiar tune and invites everyone to sing “Country Roads.” Since everyone knows the words, there’s nothing to do but join in and start participating.

“Activity and participation is the key,” Rodd says. The science can be detailed and dry, hence, the creative approach. Rodd may wear a funny hat but his intent is serious. For people to fully grasp the challenge of climate change, it’s important to understand the role of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the Earth’s atmosphere, including the impacts of human-added gases.

He begins with a history lesson: Before the Industrial Revolution, around 1850, the earth’s mean temperature was 56.6 degrees F with 280 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide, the main contributing gas to the warming of the earth. That temperature mean has been in operation for the last two and a half million years, Rodd explains. But since the 1850s, we humans have contributed considerably to the heating of the atmospheric temperature in a short span of time with our aggressive extraction of coal and oil. And in so doing, the carbon dioxide ppm has grown as well.

Basically, as Rodd presents the process, protons streaming from the sun to our earth pass right through the nitrogen and oxygen, which make up most of our atmosphere – nitrogen at 78 percent, and oxygen with 21 percent, followed by argon at about one percent. The protons only activate (or generate heat to) a small proportion of the earth’s atmospheric gases –  minute traces of water vapor, neon, helium, methane, krypton (4.42 %), hydrogen (2.13%) xenon and ozone. These are the greenhouse gases, so called because, like a greenhouse, full of windows, the sunlight is let in. That sunlight creates warmth. The big trick of a greenhouse is that it doesn’t let that warmth escape.

“Greenhouse gases are a good thing,” Rodd assures the audience. “Without them, our planet would be too cold, and life as we know it would not exist. But, maintaining balance is the thing.”

That’s the point. Over a short 150 years, the balance has been upset. The scientific evidence is clear that the impacts of climate change and global warming – rising temperatures and heat waves; more intense precipitation, flooding and severe weather; changes to historic growing seasons; degraded streams and rivers; altered forests; and plant and animal extinctions – threaten our world as we know it. The energy increase in the system will only grow. West Virginia, like other parts of the country, will have more intense precipitation and longer droughts to look forward to in the coming years. Rodd said, “This is only the beginning.”

In terms of solutions, Rodd advocates urgency and using every option available. “The time window is getting too short to opt only for renewables,” he said. “Coal is too dangerous now. It is madness not to develop nuclear power, in spite of the wastes produced. In fact, there is no perfect solution, but we must compromise with this much at stake.”

He urges everyone to tell their local and state representatives to get moving on climate change legislature to put a price on carbon emissions, opening the market to creating a profit incentive. “They must be made accountable. There are still different paths available for humans to slow things down that will make a big difference,” he said.

Rodd echoed remarks made by Dr. Marc McDill, Associate Professor of Forest Resource Management, Penn State University, at a lecture at Blackwater Falls State Park in June 2014, who stated: “It’s not just what the models are predicting for the future, but it’s what we’ve actually seen, the trends that we’ve observed over the last 50 years – or longer than that, really. The rate of change is accelerating. For the younger people here, you’re going to be around in 2050, and the changes by that time are going to be quite severe. It’s a long-term problem, but we have to start changing today. We’re creating those future problems through the actions that we’re doing today.”

In closing, Rodd reminded the gathering of the words spoken by Walt Kelly’s famed swamp dwelling possum, Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

The West Virginia Center on Climate Change (“the Center” or “WV3C”) is a nonprofit organization headquartered in Morgantown and Thomas, WV.  The Center is an initiative of Friends of Blackwater, a regional conservation group.

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