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04.22.09

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Phaedra

Photograph courtesy NPR 2004 Photo by Steve Barrett
The Science Guy: NPR reporter Richard Harris discovered his flair for translating geek into English as an undergrad at UCSC.

Facts from Fiction

Science reporter and UCSC alum Richard Harris on why public access to good scientific information is more important than ever--and harder to come by.

By Jessica Lussenhop


Although NPR science reporter and UCSC alum Richard Harris is in town to discuss the dangers of climate change, there are some things round these parts he doesn't mind hot. "I must say, I always drive down Mission and see if Ferrell's donuts is still around," he says. "The old-fashioned came out at 10:30 at night and we used to get them piping hot."

That was back in the late '70s, when Harris was earning his bachelor's in biology and writing his first science articles under the tutelage of science writing program founder John Wilkes. Just a year after his graduation, in 1980, he penned his very first article on climate change.

"It was one of those things where people said, 'Ooh, yeah, that will be a big problem 100 years from now,'" he says. "I knew it was important, but there was no spark at the time. It takes a lot get people to go beyond thinking that this is some sort of vague threat in the future."

More than 25 years in science journalism later, Harris has now seen that spark kindled, but what to do next is another question altogether. That's partially what he'll be talking about at a panel discussion of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s talk the previous evening, titled "Our Environmental Destiny," at the UCSC Reunion Weekend 2009. Harris will share the stage with other prominent alumni like organic farmer Claire Strader, who won the most votes in an online poll of who should become the "White House Farmer," and environmental studies professor David Press, chairman of the Environmental Studies Program.

Harris will contribute his perspective on the role of the media in an age when going green is finally trendy but the challenges are bigger than ever. "My job is not to be an advocate per se, but help people understand what all the facts are, and the facts often lead us to an obvious direction we should be heading in," he says.

Harris says he also tries to show in his pieces that there is no quick fix, but rather that sweeping societal changes will have to be to made to slow the pace of global warming. "It's so much more than, you go buy a Prius and the problem is solved," he says.

In his many years behind the microphone, Harris has also witnessed the decline in the fourth estate, which he sees as having very real consequences--not just for the writers who've lost their jobs as newspapers ax their science sections but on the public's access to unbiased information about important issues.

"It does add to the polarization of the issues. It's not black and white. It's not certain to be a catastrophe, but you have to recognize that it is a very real possibility," he says. "Then some news outlets or blogs work full-time to say climate change is a hoax. There is a collection of people who focus their attention only on information that supports their own belief system." That, he says, given the extraordinary amount of work to be done, is just not productive. Because as trendy as the Klean Kanteens and sustainable cotton T-shirts may be, the real solution will be a revolution. "I think we need to quietly find out a way to transform our technology," he says. "You create technology so that everyone will naturally want to adapt and not be talked into it. That's an incredibly tall order. It may be impossible."

RICHARD HARRIS joins a discussion with Claire Strader and Daniel Press on Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s talk 'Our Environmental Destiny' on Saturday, April 25, at 10:30am at UCSC Humanities Lecture Hall, 368 McLaughlin Dr., Santa Cruz. Admission is free but advance registration is requested at www.alumni .ucsc.edu/reunions/events2009.html.

ROBERT F. KENNEDY JR. presents 'Our Environmental Destiny' Wednesday, April 29, at 7:30pm at Cocoanut Grove Ballroom, 400 Beach St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $27/$35/$50 at www.santacruztickets.com or 831.459.2159.


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