“M*A*S*H” and “Providence” star Mike Farrell told a packed Dunham Hall about the history and dangers of climate change through the portrayal of the late climatologist Charles David Keeling last week as part of this year’s Arts & Issues series.
Keeling devoted his life to measuring atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, and his findings credited him with sounding one of the first alarms of climate change.
Playwright George Shea said he was first introduced to the problem of climate change by author Kurt Vonnegut during a magazine interview in 1988. According to Shea, this conversation sparked his interest in the growing problem, leading him to discover Keeling’s contributions.
“Later on I did a whole lot of research, and the one name that kept coming up and coming up was Keeling, and I thought, ‘Gee, if I could tell Keeling’s story in an entertaining sort of way, I could explain climate change,’” Shea said.
From there, Shea enlisted the help of Mike Farrell to begin the process of telling Keeling’s story.
“I lived near Mike Farrell in Studio City and one day I was walking past Mike’s house,” Shea said. “I looked around and I saw Mike taking out his garbage and I said, ‘I have to do this,’ so I ran up to him and said, ‘What do you think about global warming?’ and he said, ‘I think it’s terrible,’ and that started [the play].”
The whole production is written in Keeling’s voice, as if the climatologist is directly telling the audience about his research and that of those before him. Shea said the portrayal of Keeling in the production was not a direct reflection of his character, and that these deviations were necessary in keeping the audience’s attention.
“I’ll tell you the truth, if we put the real David Keeling up on this stage, I don’t know that we could hold an audience for very long,” Shea said. “He was a very driven guy, he didn’t care much about social graces, all he ever wanted was to measure carbon dioxide. He was obsessed with it, and thank God for him.”
The play has been presented for over seven years, so Shea said he has had to revise the script to keep up with current rhetoric surrounding climate change.
The panel at the end of the production consisted of SIUE faculty, Shea and Farrell introduced the audience to how climate change intersects with many other issues faced both locally and globally.
Panelists criminal justice associate professor Dennis Mares and professor and chair of the department of political science Kenneth Moffett discussed their research on how climate change impacts crime rates.
“In looking at homicide rates in different countries, the thing that we found was that each degree celsius increase, relative to the average, gives you a six percent increase in homicide rates worldwide,” Moffett said during the panel.
Moffett also said in the panel their findings showed an increase in crime rates beyond homicides in St. Louis with the increases in temperatures, including crimes of rape and vehicular theft.
Adding more to their findings, Mares said communities of low socioeconomic status are hit the hardest when it comes to the correlation between climate change and crime rates.
“The higher the poverty rate is in a neighborhood, the larger the effect of climate change will be on crime rates,” Mares said. “We think that has a lot to do with the issue of not being able to afford air conditioning, so people end up spending more time outside, which translates to higher crime.”
Also hitting close to home, panelist and assistant geography professor Alan Black found that St. Louis drivers are more likely to experience car crashes during winter precipitation than drivers in other cities.
“The risk is highest in St. Louis compared to the north and I think it’s because people there are more experienced in driving in snow,” Black said.
As the show mentioned, there are many ways that students can get involved in the issue, such as using renewable energy, being conscious of what they eat and using their right to vote to make a change.
During the panel, Shea suggested students contact media outlets to urge them to acknowledge issues as a result of climate change.
“Something that everybody can do is write letters. Send letters to CBS, ABC and CNN and ask them why don’t they connect the dots on climate change,” Shea said in the panel. “The term is rarely mentioned on network television, and that has a great deal to do with the general ignorance.”