I spent much of the past 4 years directing Shored Up, a film about coastal development, sea level rise and the science and policy debates surrounding these issues. It was a long process with many twists, the biggest of which came when Superstorm Sandy hit and brought a dramatic new context to the film.
North Carolina figures prominently in Shored Up, initially as a contrast between the state’s forward-looking coastal development policies and the slippery slope of groins, jetties and beach replenishment in other states like New Jersey. But this contrast was turned on its head as the North Carolina Legislature started to reverse many of these laws in 2012.
As a result of North Carolina’s role in the film I’ve been actively planning a screening tour across the state this coming January. It was to kick off with an event in Wilmington and culminate with a showing and panel discussion at a Science Café event in the North Carolina Natural Science Museum. All seemed to be going well and this was shaping up to be a great opportunity to reach press and politicians with the science and policy issues that the film covers.
So imagine my surprise Friday when I read this headline: “N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences director puts kibosh on documentary about sea level rise.”
Huh? Cue the “banned in North Carolina headlines.” But why wouldn’t a state-funded, educational institution…the largest museum of its kind in the Southeast, the biggest tourist attraction in the state, and a bellweather for good science presented smartly, want to show this film that is rooted in science and so relevant to North Carolina and its future? Indeed, we feature Stan Riggs and Orrin Pilkey, two prominent NC scientists and while we aren’t presenting their arguments as fact, we also present the views of NC20 representative Tommy Thompson dispassionately. Regardless of your position on the issues you can’t watch the film and not recognize the importance of this debate for the future of the NC coast, in fact for all of our coasts, and that the science we use to base our decision-making will be driving life and death decisions for communities in the future.
In the article the museum’s director, Emlyn Koster is quoted as saying that the Museum “…want(s) to engage the public, marshal the progress of our unique learning-rich setting and take advantage of our collaborative network, rather than focusing on an hour-long film in a theater”.
But the museum appears to show movies every hour, every day. Currently playing are Titans of the Ice Age, the Last Reef, Dinosaurs Alive and Tornado Alley. These sound fun and educational, but they’re not necessarily going to challenge anyone's assumptions about the world and the role that science plays in determining our collective future.
We had suggested, as we do at all of our screenings, that the film be followed by a Q&A and discussion with panelists from across a spectrum of viewpoints because the purpose of a film like this is to create dialogue. Just as science is an iterative process where one hypothesis is presented and then challenged until an eventual consensus or theory is reached, so is public policy a process of give and take. And what better institution to provide this public service than the largest museum of Natural Sciences in the Southeast, just across from the state legislature? And it seems that the Museum shares these ambitious goals, as their website states that: “The human species is actively altering the Earth’s natural processes and reducing its biodiversity. As the sentient cause of these impacts, we have the urgent responsibility to give voice to the Earth’s immense story and to secure its sustainable future.”
Shored Up was crafted for exactly this kind of event. It is a film grounded in consensus science that addresses the far-reaching impacts of climate change now and in the future. The event we imagined was intended to reach across the political spectrum, fostering debate and dialogue between scientists and the public and the public and politicians so that we can find common ground and a way forward to solve the enormous problems we face. Sure these are complex problems, but we’re sophisticated people. We can find solutions. But how can we begin to tackle these issues if even our most prominent science museums sidestep a role in the debate? I’m sympathetic to the fact that some of the subjects raised in the film could be perceived or construed as being politically sensitive, but now more than ever we need our stalwart institutions of science and reason to provide a framework for these critical discussions. I sincerely hope that Mr. Koster and the museum leadership re-considers this decision and works with us to hold the kind of event and conversation that is so desperately needed.