January 25, 2007

Prof Argues Global Warming Solvable

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Prof. Don Kennedy was crystal clear when speaking of carbon dioxide and the greenhouse effect: “There’s no doubt what’s going on. What people are doing now is trying to anticipate the future, and the future doesn’t look good to anybody.”

Kennedy, Stanford’s former president and now the Bing Professor of Environmental Science and Policy, may be better known, however, for his position as the editor-in-chief of Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
His audience was large enough to leave people sitting on the stairs in Kennedy Hall.

In his lecture Tuesday titled “State of the Planet,” Kennedy discussed the tragedy of the commons and the problems that arise from a group sharing a common resource. Kennedy also applied the problem to a wide range of scenarios, from a group of friends at a restaurant sharing a bill to a mattress laying on route 128. The problem with the mattress, he explained, is that it blocks a lane and causes traffic to back up.

“As our friends on Car Talk might say, ‘It’s a pawkin’ lot out der.’” quipped Kennedy.

While the mattress is an easy problem to fix, by the time a driver realizes the problem, he has no incentive to move it — he’s already gone by the mattress. “If we’re going to do something, it makes a good deal of difference in how timely we do it,” Kennedy explained.

Throughout his speech, Kennedy argued that the issue of global warming was not impossible to solve, and that the individual can make a difference. As an example, he explained the power ordinary people have in the depletion of ocean fisheries. The only thing that impacted the situation, Kennedy explained, was consumer information efforts.

“They had their slogans, ‘Give Chilean Sea Bass a pass … Don’t Eat Swordfish,” Kennedy said, admitting that he could not completely remember the second one.

Although the topic of global warming is rarely comical, the entire talk had a light mood and several laughs. Prof. Tom Eisner, operational research & industrial engineering, gave Kennedy a warm and personal introduction and helped set the atmosphere. Calling Kennedy a person of great accomplishment, Eisner shared memories from their days together as Harvard students.
“They were glorious days,” said Eisner.

However, he was careful not to share too much. Mentioning their bachelor days, Eisner struck a deal with Kennedy: “I won’t tell if you won’t tell.”
Kennedy’s lecture was the official launch of the course BIONG 321: State of the Planet. Eisner and Visiting Prof. Mary Lou Zeeman, Neurobiology and Behavior, are the main instructors of the course. Zeeman explained that when she told Kennedy of the course and invited him to come speak, he was more than happy to.

“He’s a gift to us,” she said.

James Mandel grad, the organizer of the course, was impressed with Kennedy’s ability to dissect imposing issues.

“He took a set of global problems and brought it back to the individual,” Mandel said.

After his introduction, Kennedy allowed a student to explain the petition to make Cornell carbon neutral that she was passing around. Kennedy was happy to give the student the floor.

“Back at Stanford, they didn’t ask for the microphone,” he remarked with a grin. “They seized it.”

Correction appended: Prof. Tom Eisner, ecology and evolutionary biology, was mistakenly identified with the department of operations research and industrial engineering. The Sun regrets this error.