With several men in ties staring at laptops and talking over one another into headsets around a table laden with Ethernet cables on Wednesday, the cramped room looked like a call center. In fact, it was a conference room in the U.S. Capitol building, and the men on the headsets were members of Congress.
They were at the National Teach-In on Global Warming Solutions, a nationwide event involving more than 750 colleges and schools. Twelve representatives and one senator cycled through Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s fourth-floor suite to participate in live Web conferences with colleges and high-school students from their home districts. The subject of the day was climate change.
“The idea that basically four people in Portland can organize something that involves 750 schools … and create video dialogues with the Capitol and Congress,” said Eban S. Goodstein, an economics professor at Lewis and Clark University, in Oregon, who founded the event, “that’s obviously a function of the networked nature of technology that we have.”
The representatives used Webcams and the videoconferencing client SightSpeed to communicate with up to five classrooms at a time. Students asked questions on a broad range of climate-related topics, including mass transit, carbon sequestration, cap-and-trade, near-zero emissions power plants, and legislation being considered by Congress. It was a rare opportunity for the students and their representatives to chat face-to-face.
“It actually lets them know that I’m a living human being, and not just this guy on a yard sign or someone that they see in a 30-second campaign commercial,” said Rep. Phil Hare, Democrat of Illinois, who spoke to students at Knox College.
Rep. Bob Inglis, Republican of South Carolina, used the visual medium to his advantage by bringing a prop: a decalcified egg floating in a jar of vinegar. “As carbon sinks into the ocean, it increases the acidity of the ocean, and that acidification causes the shells of calcium-based organisms to dissolve,” Mr. Inglis explained to students at Wofford College, Furman University, Lander University, Clemson University, and the University of South Carolina Upstate. “You don’t want to open up a hole at the bottom of the food chain.”
“In the age of technology, bringing government to your doorstep in such a convenient style is very important,” said Rep. Paul Tonko, Democrat of New York, who spoke to students at the State University of New York at Albany, as well as several area high schools. “And for them to know where we’re at with our thinking on global warming and climate change is important, and for them to ask significant questions, as they did, puts you on notice that they’re watching and that they want to be consulted.”
Bruce Carlson, vice president for engineering at SightSpeed, was there to help oversee the technical logistics of patching students through to the Capitol, which he said was a delicate process involving poking “lots of tiny holes in the Congressional firewalls.” —Steve Kolowich