Rhian in America

Much to my surprise, I love America. We spend a lot of time in Britain bitching

about America, Americans, Americanisms and of course the American administration.

It’s very easy. But whenever I come here, I find some things very comfortable

– familiar, even. Part of it is the universal acceptance of things we

try to fight in the UK. Bad TV constantly in the background in bars and airport

waiting lounges. Overly enthusiastic customer care in shops and hotels. Massive

corporate chains, cars and food portions. All these things are just part of

America. No one seems to prickle when they walk into a Starbucks. It’s

almost refreshing.

I also like the belief that it’s my god-given right to be whomever I

want, do whatever I want, change the world, fuck the world, create my own world.

Whenever I come here I return to Britain inspired, fired up, ready to follow

my dreams, do the impossible, be that person and create that job. Back in Britain,

it’s good to be comfortable, secure, following an accepted path. It’s

good to be content with who you are, where you are. There is merit in that too.

Britain has its advantages. A good cup of tea is common, delicious and properly

made, scallops are served with the orange bit as well as the white, marmite

is a sensible spread for toast, museums and art galleries are usually free,

it is relatively easy to see a doctor and not be charged for it and the majority

of the population is suspicious of, and a little uncomfortable around, overt

nationalism. In addition, Christianity is not referred to either as the Truth

or a worrying extreme right wing movement and there’s no problem with

Darwin being buried in Westminster Abbey.

On the flip side, our shops close around the end of the working day and sometimes

never open at all on a Sunday. Late night licensing has only just been introduced

but many pubs still ring the bell at 11pm. And brunch, frankly, is a disaster.

Why have Brits not woken up to the profitable luxury that is brunch? Last Sunday

I had a divine crab and avocado benedict at my friend’s restaurant

but it needn’t be so fancy: good coffee, juice, various egg dishes, pancakes

or waffles, and plenty of time for refills and hangover recovery are, I think,

the main ingredients.

I did laugh during brunch though when my friend’s six year old daughter

pointed to her plate and asked, “Mama, are these potatoes organic? I hope

so cos otherwise we’d be eating Darth Tater”. Visit StoreWars

for clarity on this, it’s worth it. The day before, in the same town,

we went to see a Truckers Parade. Only in the US can I imagine having so much

fun watching multiple lorries driving past decorated to the nines with fairy

lights, Rudolphs, flashing candy canes and extra large Santas ho ho ho-ing.

I like the diversity of this country: the organic-food movement coexisting with

the truckers.

On a more challenging note, I have found myself caught between two visions

of America, and the world, that are impossible to reconcile. The primary reason

for my visit to the States is the annual meeting of the American

Geophysical Union in San Francisco. This is a huge and well respected affair:

twelve thousand people, disciplines ranging across all the geosciences, five

days of simultaneous poster and oral sessions from 8am to 5pm. The thing that

strikes me is that while the debate on the street still seems to be “is

climate change happening,” not once do I hear that asked inside. To these

scientists, the critical questions now are how climate change will come about,

what the implications are and what processes might be implemented that could

make the change slightly gentler. What changes are we already observing, what

are the models predicting, how accurate are they and what areas need particular


Some of these discussions happen in fields close to my own but most range

into places that interest me greatly but travel beyond my full comprehension.

The conference includes geophysicists, atmospheric scientists, climatologists,

chemists, biologists, physicists, geologists and mathematicians to name a few.

Hot topics include simulations which use super-computers to model everything

from molecular processes to the entire global climate. There are also results

from field experiments taking place everywhere from the tropics to the poles,

and covering land, forest, ice, ocean, desert and cities. Big picture, tiny

picture, theoretical, experimental, diverse interdisciplinary studies: each

one dedicated to understanding one particular aspect of the world a little better.

If I manage to follow the introductory slide and conclusions of a talk outside

my field then I walk away having learnt something. I trust that other experts

in the room will challenge the presenter if any of his or her arguments are

fundamentally flawed. It interests me to discover what the salient points are,

where the areas of debate still lie, and what the different disciplines are

concerned by. I realise that I trust the scientific method and I trust the people

presenting this material even if I don’t entirely understand their work.

Perhaps it’s because I received a scientific training. I prefer to think

that it’s because that training showed me how the scientific method works

and I have been convinced by many of its merits. I believe that this method

is, on the whole, applied ethically and responsibly across all of the disciplines

I have been listening to. And so, ultimately, I have been convinced that climate

change is a reality we will face during the next few generations. In some hot

spots around the world such as the antarctic peninsula and the arctic, we appear

to be observing its effects already.

The scientific community is convinced of the reality of human-induced climate

change. We do not know how it will manifest itself, as the world is an extremely

complex place with many interactions and feedback processes that we don’t

understand. This is what the current science is focusing on, this is where debate

lies and these are the aspects where experts disagree. It is the nature of scientific

interrogation to debate and question, and hence all the more convincing that

the overwhelming majority of the scientific population agrees that climate change

is a reality. (This isn’t that uncommon though: gravity and evolution

are generally accepted theories these days too.) The question, “how am

I supposed to know what to think when the scientists themselves seem to disagree?”

drives me up the wall. Of course they disagree, but it’s the detail, not

the general trend, that is being argued about. That’s how we find stuff


So, what is my challenge? Well, I am wondering: What more scientific results

could be discovered that would make any substantial change to public opinion

or policy? Although I see the validity in more science being done, including

more extensive simulations of climate change that in turn require more field

data, it seems to me that the real work now has to be in public education and


Do we need to explain the scientific method better? Do we need to explain climate

change better? It would be a start if we could get the main points across, and

increase the public trust in science in general. Without public concern, policies

won’t be changed, as the timescale for effect is much longer than a goverment

term. Without policy change, the climate system will be pushed extremely hard

and extremely quickly and none of us can say for sure what the result will be.

What we can say is that no one has yet come up with a model that predicts that

all will be just fine.

Part of what I love about America is its boldness. Part of what I hate is its

belligerence. How can scientific argument turn things around so we make bold

steps in a different direction?

15 thoughts on “Rhian in America

  1. What can you do?

    Not much more than to keep talking about the issue, and writing posts like this one.

    But that’s how politics works ó with slow, incremental building of awareness.

  2. A foreigner visits and wonders

    Rhian Salmon says: The primary reason for my visit to the States is the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. This is a huge and well respected affair: twelve thousand people, disciplines ranging across all the geosciences,…

  3. I was in London a few weeks ago. I like London a lot and I’ve been there a lot.

    I was distressed by how many places I went that had televisions blaring nonstop, starting with the train in from Heathrow (I’ve never seen that in America), and several “traditional” pubs in the West End.

    In America, tvs in bars show sports or are turned off. In London I saw several pubs showing the BBC news channel.

    Whassup widdat?

  4. I agree that London has an increase in background tv and I don’t like it either. In no way did I mean to slam america, rather was making the point that in Europe we say these changes are due to an american influence but in the US you can’t really say that. Not sure why background sport should be ok but news not though.. maybe that’s just a reflection of the local clientele?

  5. Part of what you can do vis – public awareness and education involves what we talked about at the wedding (ah the wedding, hic) -right, anyway – working the media in small chunks, from blogs to audio podcasting to video podcasting to satellite and cable to dvd. Statistics can be presented with dynamic graphics/animation, theory and fact can be presented via interviews with colorful folks who can break things down in layman’s terms which are further broken down in to digestable bytes (pods), points can be illustrated with all manner of found and/or created video b-roll and photography. The web with things like itunes/rss feeders and videopod portals, new networks like current and linktv, home video direct sales, school video libraries – these are your potential resources. email me and we can discuss it further if you like. – Eric

  6. for John M. – some observations of tv in public space america.

    – LA has video billboards on certain boulevards, near some bars, that advertise booze to people driving home.

    – NYC has flatscreens above some subway entryways, which are usually neccessary for getting to bars.

    – In Chicago bars I’ve stood at urinals that had flatscreen monitors tuned to whatever the bar tv’s were set to, which was of course a Cubs/Bears/Sox game.

    – Other bars in Chicago like Exit and Berlin show amazing videos that helped create the music video craze before Mtv was even dreamed up.

    – The pub near my house only tunes in to Animal Planet.

    – Most bars in Texas tune in Fox News unless there’s a Texas team playing somewhere.

    – Some bars in DC tune in CSpan.

    – Somewhere I was going to a bar on a bus with flatscreens above the standing hand holds.

    -Tokyo and Osaka are chock full of monitors. Everywhere (but not really in bars, unless it’s karaoke. And it’s usually karaoke).

    – Canadians don’t watch TV in bars, unless there’s hockey. And there’s always hockey. Hockey isn’t TV, it’s their religion.

    Wussup widdat is that drunk people like to stare at something bright and shiny with motion and cool colors and occasionally weird sounds. (hic**)

  7. Rhian,

    I am having trouble posting to the penguin thread, but I need to get into contact with you.

    I saw the March of the Penguins today and absolutely loved it. Learned tons.

    In any case, I work for a newspaper in Quebec (the Aylmer Bulletin) and they always put a long, horizontal picture on page 4. I’ve forwarded this thread to my editor–would it be possible to use one of your pictures?

    You’d receive credit and I can mail you a copy, if you’d like

  8. Thanks for your comments, Eric, (both). You’re right, I’ve got to get with the picture if I’m serious about this. Latest developments in measuring atmospheric concentrations in the sub parts per trillion I might understand, but there’s lost of catching up to do with regard to modern media. I could blame ice shelf isolation but it’s also my nature to be a step behind the times, cooing at clouds.

    To that measure, however, I may be moving into climate change and polar science communication when my current job ends later in the year so I will certainly contact you. Any other helpful ideas out there, fling them my way!

  9. I just found Simons blog and through him I found you. I spent hours reading both. I love your writing and would buy the book in a heart beat. I know I am coming in at the end of the game but just wanted you to know how fasinating it all was. Thank you for writing in the first place.

  10. Rhian,

    Are you sure that climate change IS something that can be altered by man’s intervention? If it is I imagine it would need something much stronger than saving energy and re-cycling. It would need drastic changes such as banning all ‘planes and vehicles while re-planting forests in vast swathes.

  11. That’s a really good question. No, I’m not sure, but equally I’m not convinced that it’s ‘too late’ either. Some level of climate change is now inevitable as a result of emissions during the last century. However, we haven’t yet seen the Earth’s complete response to those emissions as there’s a time lag associated with climate change: greenhouse gases are emitted – more radiation is absorbed than emitted -earth system has an energy imbalance- earth system responds in many ways. Currently, most of that excess heat is being stored in the oceans, which we observe in rising sea surface temperatures. Eventually, something else might give, such as melting ice caps, ice sheets etc, which could then have any number of implications. Drastic sea level rise is the most obvious but also ocean circulation systems could change completely which in turn would alter the climate, and our local living conditions, dramatically.

    It would, however, take a long time for entire ice sheets to melt. Studies suggest that the ice sheet response time is somewhere between centuries and millenia. This, and the amount of heat absorbed by the ocean, is therefore a crucial part of the time lag, or response time of the earth system.

    The time lag is key. It means it’s not too late. It means that measures we take now could have a dramatic difference on whether ice sheets will melt a century from now.

    Relatively strong action is required, yes, but nothing unrealistic or impossible, to point the direction of future climate warming on a shallower slope than the one we’re currently on. Increase of renewables, alternative transport ideas, hydrogen powered vehicles, alternative fuels, reduction of aviation, yes, all of that. Plus, perhaps looking at reducing some of the greenhouse gases other than CO2 like methane and ozone (ground level, not stratosphere).

    We need to make changes where we can, now. We also need to put more time, energy, money and resources into researching and implementing viable alternatives. There is no deadline. The earth system will warm anyway but what we have control over still is how much it warms and whether this occurs gradually, leaving the earth system time to adjust gently, or dramatically and chaotically.

    For those interested in more details, there was a talk on just this at AGU:


  12. Rhian,

    Back to the basics: I don’t think Americans (and probably others) don’t have a good understanding of the scientific method. If the scientific method was better understood, I think our society would have made a more comfortable accommodation to issues such as teaching evolution and not creationism; the debate on climate change might be different.

    I recently read “Big Bang” by Simon Singh which is not just a story about how the big bang came to be the accepted idea of the universe’s creation, but also a case study in the scientific method; change the details and it could easily be a book about adopting a consensus view on climate change or evolution. Of course among scientists there is broad consensus, with lively debate about particulars; but not among the American public.

    There is in fact a great deal of skepticism of science and a disturbing embrace of mysticism in America, and while this may always be the case, the extremes can be blunted. I have recently come to believe that if the general populace has a better understanding of the scientific method, then particular fields – biology, physics, etc – will become more interesting and less threatening.

    Regarding the American tradition of brunch, two thoughts:

    1. Don’t forget the Bloody Marys.

    2. Marge Simpson once considered an affair with a dashing stranger passing through Springfield, and he wanted to take her to brunch. Marge furrowed her brow and asked, “What is brunch?” To which he replied, “Well, it is not exactly breakfast and it is not exactly lunch, but it comes with a slice of canteloup at the end.”

  13. Hey Rhian! Long time no see.

    While the majority of scientists may agree on the general aspects of climate change, there are a few sceptics out there with really loud voices, and they give rise to the perception that “scientists don’t agree”. And it seems that the tactics have been to ignore them, and hope that then they’ll go away or won’t be heard by anyone. I get the same questions as you get about climate, and I can’t answer most either. But why is it so difficult to find a website that rebukes specific sceptics’ arguments?

    Outreach is very important, but perhaps first and foremost by stopping to ignore the sceptics, and argue loud and heavy against them. Just for the record, it’s of course laudable to be critical, but “sceptics” are often either journalists or paid by or linked to the oil industry, or both; critical (or blind?) they are only in one very narrow direction.

    There is enough known about climate change to know that we should do something. It all comes down to educating the public and thereby persuading the people in power. I stopped thinking long ago that science itself brings us closer to a solution. It’s interesting though, which is why I’m hangin’ in there.

    No such thing as having brunch outside of your home in Switzerland. Probably because of the neatly scheduled time for everything here. Where else would you see a sign that says “train delayed by 2 1/2 minutes”?

  14. Jame, Bart,

    yes. Yes to the scientific method, yes to acknowledging the skeptics, and a loud reverberating yes to the bloody marys.

    I haven’t yet read Big Bang but know of Simon Singh and some of the work he does. Absolutely,-if the public trusted, and understood, scientific method more, then climate change would be more accepted. I’m not talking brainwashing here (for any skeptics reading this), it’s just asking a lot when you’re trying to explain climate science to have to start with the whole principle of how science works. I’m not trained in history and philosophy of science but sometimes it feels that’s where I need to begin.

    As for the skeptics, you’re absolutely right, Bart, we have to recognise that they’re there. There is however a good website written by climate scientists specifically to debunk some of these arguments and bring to light new developments. I only came across it recently, worth a look:


  15. Hi Rhian,

    Just browsing and checking in from the Antarctic – strange as that seems from this end of world which should be isolated. But of course it isn’t and that’s just being brought home to us as the BBC are here recording and preparing for live news broadcasts at the end of the week. It is interesting observing the process of turning science into sound bites and one that I can see might suit you well. I could see the thoughts in your blog even before you explicitly mentioned it in the comments.

    Interestingly we were also visited last week by the head of our funding body whose message was that we need to change our public image as scientists from one of doom and gloom merchants to providers of information to make informed decisions and offering solutions. There are no quick solutions to climate change of course though.

    realclimate.org was also the first thought that came to me from the questions above. Good luck if you do choose the public awareness path. For the first paragraphs I thought you might be making a bid to fill the Alistair Cook spot!!

    Take Care, off to check out StoreWars.

Comments are closed.