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Climate Talk's Cancellation Splits a Town
CHOTEAU, Mont. - School authorities' cancellation of a talk that a Nobel laureate climate researcher was to have given to high school students has deeply divided this small farming and ranching town at the base of the east side of the Rocky Mountains. The scholar, Steven W. Running, a professor of ecology at the University of Montana, was scheduled to speak to about 130 students here last Thursday about his career and the global changes occurring because of the earth's warming.
Dr. Running was a lead author of a global warming report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the 400-member United Nations body that shared last year's Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore. But when some residents complained that his presentation here would be one-sided because no opposing view would be offered, the superintendent of Choteau School District No. 1, Kevin St. John, canceled it.
Dr. Running was surprised.
"Disbelief was the primary reaction," he said in a telephone interview. "I've never been canceled before. But it was almost comical. I had a pretty candid discussion with the superintendent and the school board, and they said there were some conservative citizens who didn't want me to speak."
Mr. St. John said that numerous residents had complained to school board members and that they in turn had suggested that the program be called off.
Those who complained misunderstood the content of the talk, Mr. St. John said, but there was no time to explain to all of them that Dr. Running was a leading scientist rather than an agenda-driven ideologue.
"It was my failure to articulate who he is and what he was here for," the superintendent said. "He's a Nobel scientist, highly distinguished, but people thought he was something else. Academic freedom is very important here, and science education is very important here."
Still, as in much of the West, Choteau is home to a deep-seated mistrust of environmentalism, which many here see as a threat to their agricultural way of life. The town has also been largely on the pro-development side of a long and sometimes bitter battle over whether to exploit oil and gas reserves along the wild Rocky Mountain front or to preserve it primarily for wilderness and wildlife.
Finally, there is the raw politics of the matter. Dr. Running specializes in an issue associated with Mr. Gore, not a popular figure among many in this predominantly Republican town.
But Mr. St. John said he had in no way intended to censor Dr. Running, who in fact presented a previously scheduled evening lecture on climate change at the high school the day he was to have spoken during school hours. Only a handful of students were among the 140 or so people at the evening talk, however, because it coincided with a high school basketball game, a big source of entertainment in small-town Montana. Dr. Running did not mention the cancellation or the resulting controversy in his presentation, "The Five Stages of Climate Grief," which was sponsored by the Sonoran Institute, an environmental group.
The first two of the five stages are denial and anger, Dr. Running said in the phone interview, so he understands the opposition to his addressing the students.
The controversy here intensified when a local student's article criticizing school officials was published Monday on the student-created "Class Act Page" of The Great Falls Tribune, a statewide daily.
"I was insulted as a high school student prepared to enter the world I need to hear both sides of the story," the student, Kip Barhaugh, 17, said in an interview Tuesday. "I don't feel there is another side. Global warming is not a controversial issue, it's a fact. We need to be prepared to deal with it."
People on Main Street here were divided over the cancellation. Melody Martinsen, the editor of The Choteau Acantha, a local weekly, said that while she rarely received letters to the editor, "this week I have nine and seven are on the subject, and they are all chastising the school board."
Kirk Moore, the owner of a farm and ranch store, is a school board member who favored canceling the talk. But he declined to say why. "No comment," Mr. Moore said. "Go talk to the superintendent."
Jill Owen, the owner of an organic grocery and bookstore, wrote a letter to the school board that opposed the cancellation. "We were disappointed the school board would turn down an opportunity for a Nobel laureate to speak," Ms. Owen said. "We need to inspire kids in math and science, and it would have been great."
Dr. Running, 57, said high school students were an important audience for his message about climate change. "Our generation caused the problem," he said, "and I want to talk to high schools because they are the generation that will solve the problem. And we can't solve the problem without a free discussion."
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company