Danger in Degrees: Scientists swap notes at Aspen gatherings

Allen Best

For such an ambitious-sounding name, the Aspen Global Change Institute occupies a small, cramped office.Located on a back street in Aspen, just west of the Paepcke Auditorium, the office is in a small, creaky house that seems devoid of 90-degree angles. The place has character.In this building of imperfections come plans to address another imperfection, namely the tendency of scientists to stay stuck in their own corners of expertise. The goal is to get those researchers involved in the many aspects of global climate change together, away from their offices and ordinary obligations, synergistically sharing their expertise.”You could spend a lifetime of research just studying how clouds form and not ever brush shoulders with, say, microbiologists or sociologists who are also concerned about global climate change,” explains John Katzenberger, director of the institute since its founding in 1989.In theory, the universities and government agencies that employ most scientists seek to foster cross-fertilization, he explains, but in fact it rarely happens. “We try to focus on improving the quality of the science by encouraging interdisciplinary relationships,” says Katzenberger.Such meetings are held several times annually, usually in summer, and almost always in Aspen or Snowmass. Commonly they last five days, with several dozen attendees. Attendees usually present papers. “It’s very stimulating and very exciting at times,” says Katzenberger, a former science teacher.It’s hard to chart the accomplishments of most conferences, and those sponsored by the Aspen Global Change Institute are no different. Katzenberger can point to a 1997 conference that became the foundation for a broader report by a U.S. governmental panel regarding climate change. More generally, he says, the sophistication of the dialogue about climate change has improved as a result of these and other conferences conducted.Funding comes primarily from government agencies with budgets devoted to climate change and to nonprofit funding groups, such as the Packard Foundation. So far, though, funding hasn’t been large enough to get Katzenberger and his fellow employees out of their cramped and drafty house and into a newer building.”Our goal would be to demonstrate how a new building can be run entirely off the sun instead of by using fossil fuels, as now occurs,” he says. “Our goal would be a building that results in zero carbon emissions, so that we would be more consistent with our topic.”