Climate change expert uses art, music to communicate scientific concerns

Sunday , February 18, 2018 - 5:00 AM

Rob Davies is an accomplished scientist. He worked in Russia helping with the International Space Station. He researched quantum optics in Oxford, England. He’s now an associate professor at Utah State University in the Department of Physics.

Above all, however, Davies might best be known as a talented science communicator.

In 2012, he started the Crossroad Project with the Fry Street Quartet. Together, they merge science with music and art for a moving performance about climate change and the way humans are impacting their planet. It’s been performed around the nation.

Weber State University is bringing Davies and the Crossroads Project to Ogden’s Peery’s Egyptian Theater at 7 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 28, to kick off their Intermountain Sustainability Summit.

The performance, called “Rising Tide,” is free and open to the public, ages 8 and older.

The Standard-Examiner spoke with Davies about communicating science, why it matters and why people need to take action now to leave a better world for the future.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Audio from the entire interview is available online, along with musical clips from the performance, on the Standard-Examiner’s Out Standing in a Field podcast.


S-E: How did you end up in Logan?

Davies: You know, I first came to Logan for graduate school. I always loved it here in Cache Valley and wanted to come back. About 10 years ago, when I finished at Oxford, I decided to come back and do climate change communication for a year.

I was taken with the large gap between what the science understood about climate change and what the public understood and thought that I would take a year public service sabbatical. That was 12 years ago and it hasn’t really stopped.

Does it feel like we were gaining ground in communicating climate change, but now we have a new president and administration that seriously casts doubts on the science?

There’s data on this, there’s polling. It shows no impact from this administration on public perception. A very strong majority of the public understands climate change is real, it’s human-driven and it needs to be addressed. More than two-thirds are either somewhat or very concerned about climate change and that number hasn’t changed with Trump. It’s certainly true this administration has done their best to stymie efforts, certainly at the federal level, to address the problem. That has not been helpful.

I would argue, though, that the impact has been limited. This train has left the station, the vast majority of meaningful efforts are at the city, local and state level. They’re beginning to grow and amplify and overlap.

Do you feel you have to be an inherent optimist to be good at your job?

You’ve touched on a deep subject. I don’t like the term optimism at all. To me, it sounds brainless, like, “oh, I just feel like things will turn out.” There’s no guarantee that is the case. This needs to be very intentional.

I think the better way for me to phrase it is I believe the pathways exist for us to successfully navigate this landscape. I can’t see every step, but I can see the next step so I’m going to take it.

Is your goal with the Crossroads Project to reach a new audience or to reach an existing audience that already cares about climate change?

You’ve zeroed in on the whole intent of the project. Yes, the intended audience is people who get on some level that we have these problems. The Crossroads Project is a collaboration of a group of artists and myself creating various performance projects to address this. The “Rising Tide” performance was the first and has by far been the most successful performance. It’s what we’ll do in Ogden.

The intent is to use the artistic framework to connect people, on a very personal level, to this topic and to move them to a place of meaningful response. I believe our challenge right now, as a society, is not convincing every last person that we have these problems. In fact, I don’t spend much time at all with people who are unreachable or difficult to teach. The gain is taking people who get we have these problems and moving them to a place that they’re behaving like it.

Sometimes we get accused of preaching to the choir. Well, there’s a great quote that says the reason you preach to the choir is to get them to sing. We’ve got a big enough choir, we need them to start singing.

What do you do when you encounter someone who says something to the effect of, “I don’t know how I feel about climate change. How can people impact something that big?” How do you explain it to someone without a science background?

If it’s articulated very aggressively, like “Oh, that’s just nonsense. There’s no way people can affect it,” I just don’t engage at all. You can see people who are not moveable and not interested in engaging in a good-faith conversation.

But if it’s a tone that says to me they might be receptive to a discussion, the first thing I say is, “If you’re confused, I understand why.” The first step is to give people permission to not understand it. There’s so much confusing and conflicting information on this topic. If it’s not your living or something you’ve decided to dive into, from the media environment it can seem like nobody quite knows.

I ask them where they get their information. A very succinct thing one can say is, “The science can be complicated. The gist of the scientific story is not that complicated, but the details are.” You might consider this: The National Academies of Sciences is telling us this is a problem. The American Geophysical Union, the biggest collection of the world’s earth scientists, is telling us this is a problem. In fact, every relevant scientific organization in the world is telling us this is a problem. This is the same sort of human enterprise of science that’s given us the iPhone and digital toasters.

How do they know this isn’t just natural? That’s a good question, an absolutely fair question. But maybe, you can then say, “I’m guessing this really competent group of scientists that have given us all these other things have probably asked that pretty obvious question.”

What do you say to those who think we can engineer our way out of this or come up with some technology that mitigates the impacts of climate change?

Technology has a role to play. Is it the end-all, be-all? Absolutely not. Fix climate change tomorrow and we are completely unsustainable. Wheels are going to come off the cart that have nothing to do with climate change. We’re over-consuming our resource base right now at 160 percent. In other words, we need 1.6 planets to sustain our current consumption level. We are on track to be over-consuming at 300 percent in the next two decades and 600 percent in the next four decades. We see it in the natural world all the time, systems that over-shoot their resource base like that collapse.

It’s more than just changing the technology that moves us around, the technology that feeds us, the technology that powers us. It’s also about changing whole mindsets. We simply cannot organize our society the way we have.

Since the end of World War II, Americans have more than doubled their individual material consumption. At the same time, our self-assessed happiness has gone down pretty substantially. That suggests to me that there is a pathway that makes us simultaneously happier and less impactful on our environment. There was a time where we consumed less and we were happier. We need to chart a course back to it.


What: The Crossroads Project | Rising Tide

When: 7 p.m., Feb. 28, 2018

Where: Peery’s Egyptian Theater, 2415 Washington Blvd, Ogden, UT

Cost: Free

What else: Open to the public, ages 8 and over. Doors open at 6:15 p.m.

 Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or Follow her on or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen.

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