Charter school students talk climate change in Woods Hole

The Martha’s Vineyard students learned about the effects of climate change from prominent researchers in the field.

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Susan Natali explains her research with this graph, showing how much Arctic permafrost will be thawed by 2050 under a range of scenarios, which reflect the low and high estimates of how much greenhouse gas will be emitted by 2050. — Photo by Sam Moore

A group of 18 high school students from the Martha’s Vineyard Charter School in West Tisbury got a rare opportunity. On Friday, they met with environmental researchers at the Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC) to talk about climate change and the upcoming round of United Nations climate policy negotiations in Paris.

Initially, the meeting was to be a warmup for the students prior to their planned trip to Paris and the U.N. climate summit (COP21) next month. However, on Monday Charter School director Robert Moore canceled the trip in response to the terrorist attacks on Friday.

Researcher Susan Natali arranged the trip so that students, one of whom is her son, could meet several of her co-workers at the center. She, along with several other scientists the students met Friday, will attend the upcoming COP21.

Social studies teacher Jonah Maidoff and science teacher Louis Hall accompanied the group, which represented most of the school’s juniors and seniors.

Research associate Patrick Jantz greeted the students in a center conference room and took them on a tour of the building. As the students walked around the sunlit research center, Mr. Jantz explained sustainable attributes — solar panels, a large wind turbine, double-glazed windows, and renewably sourced wood floors — as well as the center’s global work monitoring biodiversity, deforestation, and climate change.

The last stop on the tour was the research laboratory, where students craned their necks to look at sophisticated equipment for evaluating soil, air, and water samples. Although much of the research undertaken at the center is either done abroad, or is what Mr. Jantz calls “pixel-pushing” (i.e., working with large digital datasets), the lab still gets its share of use.

Back in the conference room, Susan Natali presented her work on thawing Arctic permafrost to the students.

“We need to communicate the science to everyone,” Ms. Natali told The Times, “because if we want policy decisions to be based on science, then the people who are voting, the people who are making decisions, the people who are talking to the people who are making decisions need to understand the science.”

As part of that effort, seven of Natali’s fellow researchers talked at length to the charter school students about their work and their efforts to advise policy makers on relevant science. Among the researchers present was the center’s president and executive director, Phil Duffy, who served as a senior advisor to the Obama White House on climate policy.

After hearing from Mr. Duffy and Ms. Natali, as well as experts Robert Maxwell Holmes, Glenn Bush, Scott Goetz, Wayne Walker, and Richard Houghton, the students swapped strategies with the scientists for communicating about science and advocating for policy change.

Mr. Houghton told the group, “When people talk about being ‘realistic,’ all sorts of red flags should go up. I think it’s unrealistic to dump 10 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year.”

Astrid Tilton, a senior, said, “It’s really important for the general public to be aware of these things, because a lot of policy makers and scientists are aware of this, but regular people really aren’t, and I think that people will do the right thing if they know everything that’s going on.”

After the meeting, Ms. Natali said that the scientists found it useful “to see a new generation who is very interested and very informed.”

She said, “I was actually pleasantly surprised by this group of high school students. Their questions were great … we need people who are paying attention, people in high school who are going to college, who will be scientists and policy makers and business people and artists and farmers and so on.”