The director of the Nobel laureate IPCC, lectures region-wide on climate change
in a single, interactive videocast
Story by SHAWN KELLY
Story by SHAWN KELLY
Students and fellow academics listen attentively, drawn in by the words of the man who, along with Al Gore, best personifies the scientific warnings of human-induced global warming. ``Next slide please,'' says Dr Pachauri as he politely directs the projectionist. But he's not talking to a colleague in India - he's speaking directly to the technician at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) in Pathumthani, 40 kilometers north of Bangkok.
`Climate change is unequivocal'
In fact, under the auspices of the innovative Asia Pacific Initiative consortium (API), Dr Pachuari's recent lecture on November 2 entitled, ``The IPCC Fourth Assessment and Beyond'', was broadcast live via satellite video conference to eight prominent academic centers around the Asia-Pacific region.
With AIT serving as the visual mediation point for the multi-institution collaborative lecture, Dr Pachauri's talk from The Energy Research Institute (Teri) in India instantaneously criss-crossed nine time zones and an international dateline.
The lecture was chaired in real time by Dr Kimio Uno, professor emeritus of Keio University, at United Nations University (UNU) in Tokyo. Besides at AIT and UNU, audiences were in attendance at Keio University, the Tokyo Institute of Technology; the University of the Ryukyus; the National University of Samoa; and the University of Hawaii. Everyone seemed fixated on the exacting details of the IPCC's latest findings on climate change.
``Climate change is unequivocal,'' Dr Pachauri told the digitally connected class-rooms, emphasizing that a hotter world is indeed a reality, and a major cause of it is very likely to be human-driven production of greenhouses gases (GHG). He underscored the expected trends and impacts of global warming, including the major ways in which it will impact humans into the future. Asian vulnerabilities are, he said: poor communities, coastal areas, human health, water resources and food production.
IPCC's fourth and most telling report
The IPCC was established in 1988 by two United Nations organizations, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Program (Unep), to evaluate the risk of climate change caused by human activity. It produces assessment reports on climate change. This year's Fourth Assessment Report (Fourth Report) contributes significantly to worldwide awareness of climate change issues.
Armed with the conclusions in the Fourth Report, Dr Pachauri emphasizes that global warming is unavoidable (due to past emissions of GHGs), and thus it is imperative that the world adapts to climate change and works to mitigate emissions in the future.
Striking a reserved and cautiously optimistic tone throughout, Dr Pachauri said that it is possible to stabilize the production of GHG concentrations in the atmosphere by deploying existing energy supplies, and employing transport logistics, effective building designs and energy efficient construction technologies. Other methodologies are close to being commercialized, he explained.
AIT president explains
AIT's president, Prof Said Irandoust, joined the satellite discussion as he explained to his regional colleagues the perspectives of developing countries and the practical difficulties in implementing new technologies intended to mitigate the effects of climate change.
``Many times we forget that in introducing new technologies to developing countries, systems and accessories to support such technologies may not be available locally, and if available, come at a high cost,'' President Irandoust said. ``Moreover, we overlook the fact that developing countries in the Asia-Pacific region have research and development infrastructures and institutional capacities that are too weak to absorb these new technologies,'' he continued.
Finally, he reminded all eight signal-receiving institutions of the extreme need for regional efforts to build, enhance and support sustainable development, which will help to mitigate climate change.
Silence palpable among split-screen viewers
Live feeds from each of the eight venues were simultaneously shown in split-screen fashion, allowing the virtual lecture-goers to collectively and simultaneously witness each other's reactions to the assessments of Dr Pachauri.
``It was a very intimate experience,'' commented an impressed Dr Salil K Sen, who studies corporate social responsibility issues related to the environment. He added, ``After a little while you tended to forget that Dr Pachauri and the others were actually thousands of kilometers away from Thailand.''
Indeed, when Dr Pachauri announced that the earth was at its climatic ``tipping point'', and that humankind had a mere seven year window of opportunity to mitigate the impacts of climate change, a palpable silence could be felt from Samoa to New Delhi, and from Hawaii to Tokyo.
Launched at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2002, the API encourages extensive collaboration between universities and research institutes in the Asia-Pacific region to build online educational materials on human development and environmental sustainability.
Recent outputs from this project include a collaborative semester course on Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance and the Advanced Seminar in International Environmental Studies, which are delivered through weekly multi-site videoconference sessions supported by an open source learning management system.
This mode of operation draws on the availability of low cost telecommunication facilities and tools offered through the Internet. The Asian Institute of Technology joined the API in 2005 and is an active partner in the above courses.
Apart from chairing IPCC since 2002, Dr Pachauri is also director-general of Teri, a leading research facility on issues related to energy, the environment and sustainable development. Dr Pachauri's lecture on November 2 was actually planned before the IPCC received the Nobel Peace Prize on October 12, according to the video conference organizers at AIT.
Advantages of online learning at AIT
According to Jean-Phillipe Thouard, an advisor to AIT, the results of API's online learning are three-fold. First, it enables the creation and delivery of advanced courses at the graduate level by a wide diversity of specialists holding multiple points of view. Thouard believes that no single academic institution would be able to deliver such diverse programs, so API lectures focus on case studies in order to maximize the exchange of practical knowledge among participants.
Second, it facilitates interaction among students of the various participating institutions, thereby allowing students to share learning and background experiences. Lastly, it enables exchanges between lecturers and participating researchers, leading hopefully to collaboration on joint research activities and to the facilitation of policy dialogues at the regional level.
A young Filipina exchange student at Japan's Keio University - who prefaced her comments with a vivid description of freakish snowfalls in her native tropical Philippines in September - asked the 2007 Nobel laureate how the IPCC could influence developed countries to reduce their carbon emissions and adhere to the Kyoto Protocol. This highlights the possibilities of a learning medium that integrates Asian schools.
Later, a Bangladeshi master's student in Okinawa took the microphone and queried Dr Pachauri on how his country could cope after being told it is ``at extreme risk'' from climate change. At a similar risk is the ecosystem of the South Pacific islands, according to an online participant at the National University of Samoa.
Information technology officials at AIT believe the Pathumthani-based post graduate institute can now take the lead in the region and push this important message to the masses.
``Such online lectures are a notable application of e-learning and demonstrate the high added value that information and communication technology can bring to higher education,'' Thouard said. He added that it would be nearly impossible and cost prohibitive to organize a lecture on this scale with Dr Pachauri by traditional means.
Instead, the lecture cost virtually nothing, he emphasized, as everything was done using simple and readily available Internet technologies, and in such a way that it was unobtrusive to the lecturer, who just spoke in his usual manner.
The future calls for collaboration
Many say the challenges facing higher education in the twenty-first century are so complex that almost no institution can answer them alone. As such, the API and its potential as a new mode for higher education are in line with AIT's vision of itself as a Thai-based network university, linking institutions at the global, regional and national levels.
President Irandoust explains: ``My mission for AIT is to be a regional institute and a network university. Unlike other universities, we are not under a national agenda for research and education of any specific country. It means we can provide a neutral platform for networking.''
This videocast is just a small sample, he said, and in the future AIT will continue ``to provide faculty and students access to the highest levels of expertise, wherever it is available.'' Today, the impetus came from ``Dr Pachauri in New Delhi, India, as we listened along with other universities around Asia to a lecture of a Nobel laureate in the comfort of our own schools.''
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Last modified: November 12, 2007