Jim Lebans, Jim Handman, Bob McDonald, and Zerah Lurie

2009 Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism–Features Winner
lebans_jim

Jim Lebans, Jim Handman, Bob McDonald, and Zerah Lurie of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) Radio’s Quirks & Quarks program received the Walter Sullivan Award at the Joint Assembly, held 26 May 2009 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Lebans, Handman, McDonald, and Lurie were honored for “Canada 2050: Our Future in a Changing Climate,” an eight-part, audio portrait of Canada after 4 decades of expected climate change, depicted through the words of Canadian scientists at the forefront of predicting climate, ecological, and societal transformations.

Citation

It is an enormous honor for me to provide this citation for the presentation of the 2009 Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism to Jim Handman, Jim Lebans, Zerah Lurie, and Bob McDonald for their radio production “Canada 2050: Our Future in a Changing Climate.”

Many Canadians, like me, have grown up listening to Canada’s national science radio program —Quirks & Quarks— every Saturday afternoon from 12:06 to 1:00 P.M. on CBC Radio. Since 1975, the CBC team has kept Canadians abreast of the world’s scientific advances, from the smelling abilities of Tyrannosaurus rex, to the mathematical system of the Aztecs, to dead stars millions of light years away. The Quirks & Quarks team translates even the most technical scientific issue into a widely accessible and engrossing story line.

Many Quirks & Quarks programs follow a similar format, with probing and thought-provoking questions being posed to scientists about various new discoveries. In “Canada 2050: Our Future in a Changing Climate,” producers Jim Handman, Jim Lebans, Zerah Lurie, and host Bob McDonald serve up something different. Listeners in Canada and around the world via their popular weekly podcast are taken on a journey into the future through the eyes of 11 Canadian climate scientists.

From the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean and from the Arctic to the 49th parallel, these scientists paint a picture of a fundamentally different Canadian landscape. The calm, confident, and persuasive manner with which the scientists engage the listener is surreal. And herein lies the power of the production. Rather than take the listener down the predictable path of drama and sensationalism, the producers gently nudge the scientists to explore the boundaries of their knowledge and to translate that into a language accessible to everyone.

Global warming is without a doubt the defining issue of our time. Many in the general public do not realize that even if we immediately stabilized atmospheric greenhouse gases at current levels, the Arctic would likely still go ice free in the summer, between 10% and 25% of the world’s species would likely still be committed to extinction, and weather will continue to become more extreme. We have as much warming in store over the next few decades as has already transpired since preindustrial times when the Thames River in England used to periodically freeze over. It is this so-called and well-understood warming commitment that allowed the scientists to explore with some confidence the 2050 implications of global warming for Canadian society.

Today we are at a critical juncture. The 15th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will be held in December in Copenhagen to hammer out a post-Kyoto global warming treaty. Global warming is a problem created by our generation that will be solved by our children’s generation so that their children live in a more sustainable world. “Canada 2050” offers a glimpse of the country our grandchildren will inherit; it serves as a catalyst to instill the sense of urgency needed to harness the creativity and ingenuity of today’s youth in developing the technological and behavioral solutions to global warming; and it serves as a wake-up call for a generation of baby boomers accustomed to unsustainable lifestyles.

Like many in the field of climate science, I have been frustrated over the years with aspects of the media portrayal of the causes and consequences of global warming. But throughout the past 3 decades, the CBC Quirks & Quarks team has stuck steadfastly to science in their quest to inform the Canadian public. The producers and host of the show are national treasures, and their “Canada 2050” program represents the very best in science journalism.

—ANDREW J. WEAVER, School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

Response

First, I would like to thank AGU for honoring us, once again, with this prestigious award. We have been very lucky, over the past 35 years, to have won many awards for science journalism from colleagues across the world. But the Walter Sullivan Award is special: It comes from the scientists themselves. And as a science journalist, there is no greater honor than being recognized by the people we interview and write about every week. It means we got the science right, which really matters to us.

Second, I would like to acknowledge the incredible work done by my team at Quirks & Quarks: researcher Zerah Lurie, our host Bob McDonald, and most of all, veteran producer and writer Jim Lebans. Radio is a collaborative affair: We work together, and it takes a village of journalists, producers, and technicians to raise a documentary. But Jim Lebans stands above the crowd. He’s the guy you want digging in the corners, making the plays, waiting on the edge of the crease (sorry, but hockey analogies come naturally to Canadians). His strong story sense, his imaginative and irreverent writing, his intuitive production skills, and his vast knowledge of science all combine to make him the consummate science journalist he is. AGU’s wonderful recognition of Jim and his work is justly deserved.

Third, I would like to thank CBC Radio, Canada’s national public radio network, for supporting and encouraging our program. Public broadcasting is under attack these days in Canada, with a huge budget deficit, services and programs being chopped, and hundreds of our colleagues being laid off as we speak. But programs like Quirks & Quarks couldn’t exist without a true public broadcasting system. Despite the incredible popularity of our show (we have half a million listeners every week across Canada, and our podcast is one of the top 10 in the country), no commercial network would ever spend the time and resources on a program like ours. Sometimes I fear that Canadians—and especially our politicians—don’t realize what a precious jewel they have in the CBC, and how precarious its future is.

And last, but certainly not least, I want to thank the hundreds of scientists across Canada and around the world (including our citationist, Andrew Weaver), for being so generous with their time and knowledge. Every week, we ask researchers to take the time and make the effort to explain their work—in layman’s terms—to us and our listeners. And as we all know, that is often not easy for scientists. Yet week after week, they come through, some enthusiastically, some warily, some with trepidation, some with confidence, but all with an understanding of how important it is to engage the public and share their learning with the world. And nowhere was that more relevant than in our documentary, “Canada 2050: Our Future in a Changing Climate,” which is being honored with the Walter Sullivan Award.

This is the second time AGU has recognized us for a documentary on climate change. And I suppose that is appropriate, as there is no more pressing scientific issue in the world today. As Andrew Weaver said, it is, “without a doubt, the defining issue of our time.” And so, with the continued help of you scientists, we will continue to track this story as it unfolds and try to make sense of it for our listeners. And let us hope that when 2050 finally does arrive, the world will have indeed changed—for the better.

—JIM HANDMAN, Executive producer of Quirks & Quarks program, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio, Toronto, Ontario, Canada