A spoonful of drama makes the climate science go down

Denver play uses guidance from local labs at NCAR and INSTAAR

Emma gathers climate research on the ice sheets of Greenland in "Two Degrees."
Courtesy of DCPA/AdamsVisCom

Tira Palmquist has written multiple plays throughout her career. Her latest play Two Degrees arose from an unlikely source: a conversation she had with an actress friend.

“She said, ‘You know what sucks? Being an actress over 40 and having the parts dry up,’” Palmquist recounts. “And she pointed to me across the table and she said, ‘That’s what you need to do for your next play, you need to write a play for a woman over 40!’”

Also in that same age bracket, Palmquist was up for the task. She began searching for a character who would avoid common tropes, “women of a certain age” going through menopause or divorce, or a woman only defined by motherhood — all important narratives, but stories that have been told multiple times.

“If we’re going to be better feminists, we have to do a better job of telling more diverse stories,” Palmquist says.

In a stroke of inspiration, the character she had been waiting for manifested: a climate scientist fighting to save the environment. And with that, Two Degrees was born.

Now playing at the Denver Center of Performing Arts through March 12, Two Degrees follows Dr. Emma Phelps, a paleoclimatologist studying climate change in Greenland who recently lost her husband. Emma is invited to Washington D.C. to present her research at a Senate hearing in hopes of preserving the environmental protections currently in place.

Palmquist started writing the show back in 2013, hoping to highlight the ticking clock on environmental stability. The characters and situations in Two Degrees are fictional, yet the political dealings feel eerily similar to the current precarious state of the environment in the hands of today’s presidential administration.

And while the play deals heavily with Emma’s grief, science takes the stage often as Emma passionately fights to preserve Greenland and its ice sheets. Plus, the information in the play is factual. 

“Nothing drives me crazier than watching a play or a movie in which either the writer or producer or whoever has glossed over the science. Like, ‘Oh that’s not important. The audience won’t know that.’ Well, somebody in the audience is going to know, and you’re going to look like an asshole,” she says. “If you’re not willing to do the research about the subject or be educated by a particular subject then don’t bother writing about it.”

Always interested in the environment, Palmquist set to work learning everything she could about climate change. She then enlisted the help of laboratories around Boulder including the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the Institute of Alpine and Arctic Research (INSTAAR) at the University of Colorado Boulder.

At INSTAAR, Palmquist and her team met with Senior Professional Scientist Bruce Vaughn, who was able to provide background on working in Greenland and the scientific approach of a paleoclimatologist. Vaughn explained to the group how scientists gets temperatures from ice cores by using stable isotopes, talked about sea level and greenhouse gases, and showed them a piece of an ice core extracted from Antarctica that’s more than one thousand years old.

Palmquist’s job was then to make the information palatable and accessible to an audience, along with telling an emotionally moving story.

“I saw the play, and I thought they did a really remarkable job,” Vaughn says. “I think like many of these things, a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. Wrapping [science] in the backdrop of human drama, loss and adult content makes it hold people’s interest.”

Emma grieves the loss of her husband as she tries to prepare for her appearance at a Senate hearing. Courtesy of DCPA/AdamsVisCom

Two Degrees focuses not only on the science but how to translate facts into political policy. As Emma learns early on in the play, politicians don’t want to read pages of statistics, charts and research. As Emma spouts off figures and data, a senate advisor tells Emma to boil down her argument to the key reason Greenland is so important. Emma says, “Greenland’s the canary. We’re all down this great metaphorical mine shaft, and if Greenland goes, then the rest of us are fucked.”

As a scientist, Vaughn was particularly moved by the scene.

“They gave me a chance to review the script … and I told them that was in a nutshell, from a scientist’s point of view, exactly what we all need to learn,” he says. “We want to give the backstory and all the complete facts, but it’s like, no, cut to the chase.”

The relationship between science and politics is a complicated one, but to move toward solutions, scientists and politicians must learn to communicate and negotiate.

Vaughn cites education as the most crucial step in moving forward to curb environmental decay. Ensconced in the ivory tower of Boulder, he says, it’s tough to remember not everyone in the world is as informed about the severity of global warming.

“I’m astonished at the conversations I still have,” Vaughn says. “A few years ago, I had a news anchor on a plane say, ‘Do you believe in climate change?’ I was just so incensed I said, ‘No, I don’t believe in climate change any more than I believe in gravity.’ It’s not a belief system, it’s physics. … You can have your own opinion, but you can’t have your own physics. I don’t know how this became a partisan issue or belief system.”

The Earth is heading toward irreparable damage, and Vaughn stresses it’s humanity that pays the price.

“We’re taking our Earth to a place it hasn’t been in a very long time. The last time it was there, humans weren’t around, and we will not do so well under the circumstances for which we’re headed,” he says. “The Earth is going to be just fine. It’s just our species, our food production, our coastal cities, our political infrastructures — it’s not going to be an easy thing to cope with. So sticking our heads in the sand doesn’t exactly help.”

With Two Degrees, Palmquist hopes to galvanize the audience, whether to take action or do more of their own research. While there’s no silver bullet solution, there are small changes to make on a personal, local, state and national level, in many sectors from industry and technology to science and policy.

As Palmquist says, “If everyone thinks, ‘Huh, if I change a little bit of my habits and you change a little bit of your habits,’ maybe this is something we can fix together.”

On the Bill: Two Degrees. Denver Performing Arts Complex, 1345 Champa St., Denver, 720-865-4239. Through March 12.