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Film review: Revolution

Film review: Revolution

It’s not every day you are asked to review a film, and since it’s a documentary that encompasses a few of EGU’s sciences (such as climate sciences, biogeosciences, and energy, resources and the environment), I couldn’t say no. I’ll start by giving it a rating, 3.5/5 stars, though I would probably give it more if I were part of the film’s main target audience.

Revolution, by biologist-photographer turned filmmaker-conservationist Rob Stewart, is about some of the most pressing environmental issues of our time. It aims to educate the audience about ocean acidification, climate change, overfishing and deforestation, alerting them to how these issues can impact our planet and, in turn, humanity. But it’s also about much more than that.

The film starts with Stewart telling his own story, revealing how his personal experiences lead him to make his first documentary, Sharkwater, and how researching and promoting that film made him want to tell the broader story of Revolution. This makes for good story telling, and it’s an interesting and candid introduction (Stewart says at one point that he had no idea how to make a movie before Sharkwater). But it seems a tad overly dramatic at times and not always scientific in its claims. For example, to illustrate how humans, responsible for many environmental problems, can also be part of their solution, Stewart tells a crowd in Hong Kong that the “holes in the ozone layer are almost a figment of our imagination now”, which is not exactly true. According to a 2014 NASA release, the ozone hole is still roughly the size of North America, though it has been shrinking over the past couple of decades. I should point out, however, that while there are some minor scientific inaccuracies here and there in the film (and a glaring typo in a sentence where CO2 appears incorrectly written as CO2) the majority of the facts and figures cited in the movie do roughly seem to be accurate, even if rather dramatic and seemingly exaggerated at first.

The movie becomes more exciting (though, at times, depressing too) when Stewart changes the focus from his story to the story of how life evolved on Earth, and what its future might look like. The backdrop is beautiful footage, worthy of a BBC wildlife programme. Stewart starts where life itself started, underwater, and the images showing a diversity of corals and colourful fish (and the cute pigmy sea horse) are breath-taking and work well in illustrating his points. For example, as the colourful imagery gives place to shades of grey, Stewart describes and shows how corals have been affected by ocean acidification and rising temperatures.

Coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef has declined by 36% over the last 25 years. That's an enormous loss. Photo © Rob Stewart. From the documentary film Revolution.

Coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef has declined by 36% over the last 25 years. That’s an enormous loss. Photo © Rob Stewart. From the documentary film Revolution.

If the footage, both underwater and on land, makes for a stunning background, the interviews with various scientific experts bring home the film’s key messages. To me, they are the strongest aspect of Revolution. Stewart talks to credible researchers who are able to communicate their, often complex, science in clear language. Some of the readers of this blog may be able to relate to scientists Charlie Veron and Katharina Fabricius, whose field work is shown in the film, while viewers less familiar with the effects of ocean acidification on coral reefs will likely be moved by the dramatic words of these researchers.

What the scientists tell us will happen if humans continue in the business-as-usual path is indeed gloomy: deforestation increasing, fisheries collapsing, greenhouse gas emissions and temperatures on the rise at unprecedented rates, species going extinct en masse… the list goes on. The issues of deforestation and mass extinction are addressed when Stewart travels to Madagascar: the island’s tropical dry forests are home to unique animals and plants, many of which have seen their habitats destroyed by the burning of trees to make room for pastures and crops. Humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels is illustrated when Stewart talks about the Alberta tar sands, and how resource intensive and polluting it is to extract oil from them. A key message of the film is again illustrated here by one of the experts interviewed. Hans Joachim (‘John’) Schellnhuber, a scientific advisor to the German Government and director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, explains how stopping the Canadian tar sands project “is one of the decisive battles in the war against global warming”.

Indeed, Stewart sets out not only to inform people about the environmental issues faced by humanity, but also to encourage the audience to act on them: “Revolution is not just about the environment – it’s a film about hope and inspiration.” As such, Stewart balances out this negative outlook with examples of people who are standing up for climate justice and fighting for an end to fossil-fuel burning (and, sometimes, with clips of flamboyant cuttlefish and jumping lemurs!). Although it may not seem like it halfway through the film, the overall message is positive.

This is most evident when Stewart talks to young people, particularly those who travelled to Cancun, Mexico for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2010 (COP16). It is heartening to find out how committed and courageous some young people are in fighting for our future, their future, and in wanting to make the Earth a better place by changing human behaviour. This fighting spirit is best encapsulated in a speech by Mirna Haider, from the COP16 Lebanon Youth Delegation, which is particularly bold and moving, if impatient: “You have been negotiating all my life, you cannot tell me you need more time.”

Flamboyant Cuttlefish. Photo © Rob Stewart. From the documentary film Revolution.

Flamboyant Cuttlefish. Photo © Rob Stewart. From the documentary film Revolution.

Young people are those who may have the most to benefit from watching this film, and I think are the primary target audience of Revolution (there’s even an accompanying Educator’s guide with pre- and post-viewing resources and classroom activities teachers and parents might find useful). It inspires them towards (peaceful) revolution against corporations who profit from burning fossil fuels and from destroying natural resources, and against governments who take no action to stop them. It is a shame the film doesn’t address other ways in which individuals could help fight climate change, deforestation and ocean acidification, such as divesting from fossil fuels or eating less meat. But perhaps that’s something that resonates better with older people. Children and teenagers tend to be more optimistic about their power to save the Planet through revolution, and this film is sure to inspire them to act on the most pressing environmental problems the Earth faces.

Revolution premiered at festivals in 2012/2013, but has only been widely released earlier this year. You can watch the film online at: http://ykr.be/hn62dkp6v (sadly, it’s not free, but you can either rent it or buy it for only a few dollars, so it’s certainly affordable!). If the film is not available in your country through this link, please check http://therevolutionmovie.com/index.php/watch-the-movie/ to find out where you’d be able to watch it.

 

By Bárbara Ferreira, EGU Media and Communications Manager

GeoEd: I’m a Geoscientist 2015

Imagine a talent show where contestants get voted off depending on their skills in their area of choice. Then imagine that this talent show is populated by geoscientists with school students voting them off based on the scientist’s ability to communicate their research well. This is the basis of an educational initiative called I’m a Geoscientist, a spinoff of UK’s I’m a Scientist. I’m a Geoscientist is funded by the EGU and, as such, it’s open to Union members, as well as all teachers who have participated in EGU’s Geoscience Information For Teachers (GIFT) workshops.

The first event of the programme ran in the summer of 2014 and following its success, was repeated in March of this year. A total of 200 students, from across 13 international schools, were able to engage with and learn from five European geoscientists. Students connected with the scientists by talking to them directly during hour-long live chats, by posting questions to them (ASK) or by reading the scientists on-line profile. The participating students enjoyed the event, with 99% (!) of registered students actively taking part by putting questions to the scientists and/or voting for them to remain in the competition.

I'm a Geo_Report1

Over the two week event, the scientists were faced with in excess of 250 ASK questions! The students were particularly interested in aspects of the geoscientists’ research, meaning they came up with well-thought-out questions covering a number of fields: the geoscience of other planets, extreme events and super volcanoes. “Oceans are very big and vast, can they really be threatened by human action?” It wasn’t just geosciences the students wanted to know about. The scientists also had to field questions about the practical aspects of their, such as: “What was your biggest challenge while working in the field?”, and share study and career tips.

ImAGeo_Report2

The on-line chats where lively too. The scientists proved to be good at communicating the essence of what geoscience is, allowing students to start making connections between the geosciences and wider culture such as referencing books and sci-fi. Students were enthused by the discussions and often wanted to know more, asking ‘what if?’ style questions. Faced with some challenging queries the scientists did a great job of making even the most complex science accessible to the inquisitive students.

“How long could we survive without the atmosphere?” (student)

“We wouldn’t survive very long at all without the atmosphere! We need air to breath, but also the atmosphere keeps us safe from the sun! Without the atmosphere the heat from the sun would boil away all the oceans :s” (Rhian Meara, scientist).

After a hectic two weeks of questioning, probing and voting, Andi Rudersdorf, a PhD candidate in seismology at Aachen University, Germany, was crowned the winner of the 2015 event. Of his time in the competition Andi says “I learned a lot! I learned from the other contestants, from finding answers to challenging questions, and also from the students!” Being voted for by the students as the event champion, Andi wins €500 to communicate his work with the wider public. “With the money I would prepare a day out for many, many interested students to understand what earthquakes and natural hazards mean to all of us in real life.” It’s not just about the scientists! In recognition of great engagement and questions during the event, one of the participating students will also receive a certificate.

The scientists who took part in the 2015 event.

The scientists who took part in the 2015 event.

If you would like to get in contact with the EGU about I’m a Geoscientist or any of our other education initiatives, please contact Bárbara Ferreira at media@egu.eu. You can also read the full report on the event here.

General Assembly 2015 – Highlights

It’s been just over a month since the EGU General Assembly 2015 in Vienna. The conference this year was a great success with 4,870 oral, 8,489 poster, and 705 PICO presentations. There were 577 unique scientific sessions, complimented by an impressive 310 side events, making for an interesting and diverse programme.

The conference brought together 11,837 scientists from 108 countries, 23% of which were students. Keeping abreast of everything that was going on throughout the week was made easier due to the distribution of 15,000 copies of EGU Today, and as a result of a keen media presence and their reporting of the scientific sessions. Thousands of visits to the webstreams, as well as GeoLog, meant  those at the conference and those who couldn’t make it stayed tuned to the best of the conference! We thank all of you very much for your attendance and active contribution to the conference.

Why not watch this video of the best bits of the conference and highlights of a productive week?

The conference this year, as showcased in the highlights video, celebrate a theme: A voyage through scales. The theme was an invitation to contemplate the Earth’s extraordinary variability extending from milliseconds to its age, from microns to the size of the planet. The range of scales in space, in time – in space-time – is truly mindboggling. Their complexity challenges our ability to measure, to model, to comprehend. The range of scales were explored across four exhibition spots throughout the conference centre.

One of the exhibitions, ‘The scales in art‘, invited conference participants to participate in the dialogue between science and art. At the space, attendees watched the artistic interpretation of the theme developing over the week, with artist Eva Petrič.

We hope to see many of you at next year’s EGU General Assembly 2016 which takes place on: 17 – 22 April 2016, in Vienna, Austria.

GeoEd: A risky business

In this month’s GeoEd post, Sam Illingworth explores the pitfalls of being a scientist in the public eye. Following the recent acquittal of 6 geoscientists on manslaughter charges after ‘failing’ to predict the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake, is it time we thought about improving how risk is communicated to the wider public?

At the beginning of November of this year, six Italian scientists were acquitted of manslaughter; an appeals court in L’Aquila (a medieval Italian city on the edge of the Aterno river) overturning the 2012 guilty verdicts that were originally cast against the researchers.

In their initial trial, the scientists were convicted of multiple manslaughter charges, by failing to predict the devastating earthquake, which struck at 03:32 CEST on 6 April 2009, and which was responsible for the deaths of 309 people. It has taken the past two years to acquit these six scientists, and the initial ramifications of the convictions were far reaching, with other researchers from across the globe wondering if a precedent had now been set, regarding liability for the conveyance of information.

Aerial view of the city of L'Aquila east-centre (Photo Credit: Public Domain, via Wikipedia.org)

Aerial view of the city of L’Aquila east-centre (Photo Credit: Public Domain, via Wikipedia.org)

Sadly, scientists are far from unaccustomed with judicial proceedings, from Galileo vs. the Catholic Church, to more recent examples of scientists being sued by a gym regarding injury rate statistics, or NASA being sued for trespassing on MARS. However, the recent allegations against the L’Aquila six (actually there were seven experts in total; more on this later), calls into question the fundamental belief system of accountability. If a building surveyor were to tell you that the foundations of your house were sound, yet you were later to find evidence of subsidence you would expect compensation from the surveyor. So why not also from the scientists, after all are they not too experts in their own field?

Well, for one thing, finding evidence for subsidence is far more of a precise art than trying to predict earthquakes. On the one hand you are looking for something that already exists, and on the other you are searching for something that may or may not be. In addition to this, surveyors are usually protected by professional indemnity insurance.

Are scientists adequately protected (Photo Credit: Sandstein via Wikimedia Commons)

Are scientists adequately protected (Photo Credit: Sandstein via Wikimedia Commons)

However, in the case of scientists communicating risk, is not being able to accurately predict an earthquake or a volcanic eruption really professional negligence, or is it simply to be expected given the impossibility of fully accurate predictions?

What is potentially worrying to scientists is that the line between professional negligence and unforeseen circumstance would appear to be very blurred indeed. Although, in some instances the distinction is far more clear-cut, for example the behaviour of the seventh member of the panel of experts in the L’Aquila case, Bernardo De Bernardinis. The then deputy director of the Civil Protection agency had, prior to the earthquake, advised locals to “sit back and enjoy a nice glass of Montepulciano” wine. Bernandinis was not acquitted, although his prison sentence was cut, from six to two years.

Although many might view Bernandinis as being guilty of nothing more than pompous over confidence, it is important to remember that as scientists we still have a role to inform the public as to the seriousness of any potential dangers, even if we are not ultimately to be held accountable for our inability to predict them. In other words, failing to predict a natural hazard (or other such incident) should not be seen as professional negligence, but failing to adequately inform the general public of the consequences of any potential threats, probably should be.

Of course, communicating risk goes well beyond natural disasters, and is something that many of us do when we talk about the effects of both current and predicted climate change. In these situations, scientists also regularly put themselves in the firing line, although this time often with regards to the media and pressure groups with an anti-climate change agenda.

One of the most well known examples of this was when a Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) analyst made the following, frankly horrific statement, about Penn State University climate researcher Michael Mann:

“Mann could be said to be the Jerry Sandusky of climate science, except that instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science.”

Dr Michael Mann: fighting the fakers (Photo Credit: Reason4Reason via Wikimedia Commons)

Dr Michael Mann: fighting the fakers (Photo Credit: Reason4Reason via Wikimedia Commons)

Dr Mann has subsequently sued the CEI, but such legal proceedings are both incredibly expensive and time consuming, and often represent a completely alien world to many scientists who are simply just doing their job.

In the US, scientists working for government or federal labs are now offered free legal counsel and support by the organization Protecting Our Employees Who Protect Our Environment (PEER). In addition to this, some scientific professions are now requiring their researchers to have professional indemnity insurance, for example in the UK, legislation was recently introduced that requires all health care scientists to have a professional indemnity arrangement in place, as a condition of their registration with the health & care professions council.

According to Jeff Ruch, the director of PEER, threatening scientists for their science “is a bully strategy,” and “bullies don’t like to be pushed back at.” Whilst the work of PEER and their contemporaries is admirable, is this a position that scientists should ever be finding themselves in? And is there anything that they could be doing to avoid such potential pitfalls?

In some cases, these pitfalls could be avoided by a more careful consideration of how to communicate risk, by explaining to the general public that there are many uncertainties associated with the calculations and predictions that are being made. However, I think that this is something that many scientists are already reasonably adept at, and if scientists are guilty of anything it is sometimes of being overcautious with their predictions, or of waiting to comment until they are absolutely 99.9% sure (with the obligatory 0.1% margin of error).

Media and science communication training can help scientists prepare for how to deliver their research and advice in potentially alien and hostile arenas, but there will always be instances where people have a set agenda to follow at any cost.

There may well be a public perception that scientists failing to predict natural disasters, or underdetermining a certain problem, are like the proverbial bad workmen who blame their tools. However, in trying to communicate risk I think that it might well be a case of “don’t shoot the messenger,” even if it turns out that they have no message to convey.

By Sam Illingworth, Lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University

 

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