Interview with Michael Quirke on “Climate Change National Forum 3.0″ and CCNF’s future plans

July 3, 2015 4:05 pm0 comments

[Note: This is an interview of Michael Quirke by CCNF guest journalist Heather L. Cohen, originally taped at Earth Day Texas. The transcript below was minimally edited for brevity and readability:]

So tell me more about CCNF?

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CCNF is a new journalistic initiative that I co-founded with a group of scientists and a law professor to inform and educate the American public on the science of climate change and its policy implications. The way we go about this is by first serving as a blogging platform; our blog, forum, and fact-checker website debuted on January 1st, 2014 as a public forum for scientists to blog on the science, openly deliberate on the most policy relevant aspects of the science, and fact check the media. We started with zero assumptions (this decision took courage by all and initially had a few critics) and CCNF has always openly solicited the scientists and Fellows of the American Meteorological Society, American Geophysical Union, and the American Institute of Physics to participate. And now, 18 months in, we’ve served as a platform and hosted a fairly comprehensive yet accessible examination of the science of climate change led by a diverse and fairly representative community of leading climate scientists. Again, we purposefully started from scratch, and now, having learned so much on the science from the scientists in the CCNF Contributor Community, we are opening up the Forum to policy discussion and debate by subject matter experts and policy makers on what can or should be done about climate change as a nation.

Michael Quirke, CCNF Executive Director & Founding Journalist

Michael Quirke, CCNF Executive Director & Founding Journalist, m.quirke(at)climatechangenationalforum.org.

So where are you guys based? Somewhere up in New England, perhaps?

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Uh, no.

Because I wasn’t sure with the cowboy hat!

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No. Ha. We are based in the liberal bastion, green-energy-capital-of-the world known as Houston, Texas.

Whoa!

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But seriously. We were founded and are currently headquartered in Houston, the lauded “energy capital of the world.” The way I see it, if we can make traction and be successful and facilitate a dialogue here and around Texas as well, we can do it anywhere.

What kind of hat is that?

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It’s a Stetson ‘Alpine,’ aka “the LBJ,” though Truman wore the same hat, just in a different way. The hats were ubiquitous back in the day for Southern gentlemanly attire. It’s found its resurgence among young Bluegrass musicians and, based on a recent Texas Monthly interview, Steve Earle these days. My Granddad wore the same hat, though not this exact one obviously.

So do you feel this is a means to an end? How would you describe your process?

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It’s an intellectual journey. That’s the way it has been since the beginning. I created this blog, forum, and fact-checker website as a journalism project first-and-foremost, but with the intent to facilitate a dialogue on really any controversial or complex national issue facing the nation.

What was the impetus for starting such an ambitious project? 

I was simply tired of the partisanship, and was full of can-do-Army-spirit, so I developed a cool WordPress website in between my military service and law school, and (with help from good programmers and part of my “Iraqistan Savings Plan” budget) I started customizing it with things like the separate comment thread for contributors. I chose the issue of climate change because it’s such a “super wicked issue,” as they say. (This is due to the different dynamics of the issue.) It also seemed needlessly partisan and tribalized. I thought I could pull it off. And I just thought climate change was the perfect issue to test the platform out on, so I ran it by a few scientists and, lo and behold, Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon, the Regents Professor of the Atmospheric Sciences Department at Texas A&M University and the Texas State Climatologist, was game. So CCNF began.

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How can an ordinary person connect with you? How can they benefit from what you offer?

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First off, we’re here for normal people. This whole project was made for normal people, and we are here for the scientists to communicate with and inform and educate regular folks. So we have a Public Comment Thread and a Forum Comment Thread; the latter was originally just for the scientists, but now, in Phase II, it’s for all CCNF contributors (scientists and non-scientists, members and non-members). So I would ask that normal folks ask the contributors questions in the Public Comment Thread. They will answer really any legitimate question, so long as it’s asked in a respectful and non-crazy way. Sometimes they’ll answer even if a person is being rude, which is a testament to the character and commitment of many of the contributors in the Community. And now, since we are in Phase II, you can ask any question on values [which can can be answered by any number of folks in the Forum]. Because if you ask something about “catastrophic climate change,” the scientists will probably mention that what is catastrophic to you might not be catastrophic to someone else; it depends on what you care about, and how much you value the well-being of future generations and how you compare that to the well-being of the current one.

As an educator, I am curious what involvement you might have or wish to have with schools and students? 

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We are actually open to and are currently exploring partnerships with a few university departments and high schools. We are looking to partner up with a journalism school, a sciences department, a few science teachers and more scientists from an accredited and respected scientific institution (one that actually does science but also has strong #SciComm and #SciEd arms), and even team up with a humanities department. Regarding the humanities, the discussion on what can or should be done, or why we should care: there’s no scientific answer for that. That question must be informed by the hard sciences, but the ultimate answer lies in the humanities; so we are open to a whole plethora of academic departments and want to partner with universities, but also high schools and perhaps an organization of science teachers as well. We could even partner with a museum or lab. We want to infuse the dialogue with the voices of experts and professors and students (graduate, undergraduate, and high school). The students are key; we want their open minds to be well represented in the Forum and for their voices to be heard, because their generation is going to be critical.

Wonderful, Sounds like you guys might be public enemy #1 for misinformation? 

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Not without funding! We are scalable. With corporate sponsorship, anything is possible. I will just say that, yes, we’ve demonstrated success, but this is totally unsustainable without corporate sponsorship. So that is why we are here, to really kick off the policy dialogue and show folks, hey, it can be had, you can have a policy dialogue that remains moored to the science; and you can have a bipartisan marketplace of policy ideas on this issue; but we are also doing this to reach out to corporate sponsors. Corporate sponsorship will enable us to hire a journalism staff to not only grow, cover, and moderate this new bipartisan debate on climate solutions, but also send out our journalists on assignments, send them to Paris to cover the COP21 climate negotiations, and dispatch them to investigate these big questions that crop up out of the dialogue; that and maybe harass the presidential candidates and elicit an answer from all of them on what can or should be done about climate change as a nation. The latter could be really fun and register a big impact. There’s low hanging fruit here. No one is doing what we are doing nor what we intend to do, but we can’t do this without partners and sponsors. It is time for a few institutions to step up to the plate, if this is something they care about. It’s not like opportunities like this pop up all the time. A handful of organizations could affect some real change here on the national level. CCNF has demonstrated success and established a brand on its own — one post at a time. You can’t purchase that level of authenticity and integrity. I really do think a robust partnership between CCNF and a few universities is our best hope to improve the climate literacy of normal Americans on a measurable scale at the national level before COP 21. The fact that we have no competitors here, and have a viable model, shows immense promise. I can led horses to water, but I can’t force them to drink. I hope some institutions put their money where their mouths are, and do so soon, because we only have 5 months till COP21.

Thank you Mr. Quirke.

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Thank you Mrs. Cohen.

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