It took the heat wave and drought of 1988 to focus public attention on global warming, although then-New York Times writer Philip Shabecoff had first written about the greenhouse effect nine years earlier.
"Information and data are not enough to leverage change," he said at MIT last week at the annual meeting of the Alliance for Global Sustainability (AGS), a joint environmental research program between MIT, the University of Tokyo and the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology. "The truth will not, as of itself, make us free," he said.
On January 19-22, MIT hosted AGS's annual meeting, whose theme was "Agenda for Sustainability: Translating Knowledge into Action and Learning to Lead." The meeting's panels and working groups focused on ways to communicate environmental research results to corporations and policymakers.
Mr. Shabecoff and other speakers at the meeting, which drew more than 300 participants from business, industry, government and nongovernment organizations (NGOs), said scientific data has to have a more direct route to policymakers than the usual forms of academic dissemination. He and other speakers argued that traditional academic dissemination of scientific information is too slow in today's world, where daily decisions are made on the environment by governments and corporations.
"It's the inherent responsibility of those of us in the research enterprise to translate our results to private and governmental benefactors," said Jack Gibbons, senior fellow of the National Academy of Engineering and former director of the US Office of Science and Technology Policy. "Researchers should spend more time explaining their research results and integrating them into the popular press."
Several panelists bemoaned the media's practice of offering "equal time" to individuals who tend to downplay environmental concerns.
"We're the first generation in human history to recognize we can affect the habitability of the planet," said Anthony D. Cortese, president of Second Nature, an organization geared toward helping institutions of higher learning practice the environmental standards they preach. "Fundamentally, the issue of sustainability is an ethical issue. Do we make a conscious choice to achieve a sustainable future?"
The AGS was established to impact policy makers, educators, NGOs and others who are outside the traditional arena of academic discourse.
Its current research projects include reducing pollution and increasing energy efficiency in China's Shanxi Province; studying the effect of atmospheric aerosols on regional climate and air quality; and developing an approach to sustainable agriculture in parts of Africa, Asia and China where water is heavily exploited and there is a growing demand for food.
The alliance currently supports 22 international projects in six fields: water, energy, mobility, climate change, urban systems, and policy and communications.
Meeting participants discussed how universities can provide timely and productive input to environmental sustainability issues. Another AGS goal is helping students at the three universities to be informed, competent leaders for sustainable development.
"The main work of this year's annual meeting is to prepare us to move into a new phase of activity: the development of strategies for outreach and the dissemination of our growing body of new knowledge and technical capacity," said President Charles M. Vest in his opening remarks.
"We have entered a new era... In this new era, and given the scale of humanity's impact on the global ecosystem, the long term and the short term, the local and the global, the public and the private, have become interwoven as never before," he said
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 26, 2000.