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A rural teacher with global reach

Greg Craven of Monmouth, Ore., shot a low-tech video on climate change that is attracting a major online audience.

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Greg Craven is flat out. The fifth-period physics class he teaches is about to start, and there's still lesson planning to do. But at his cluttered desk over by the window, he's e-mailing last-minute changes to his guest column scheduled to run tomorrow in The Oregonian newspaper. And a producer from National Public Radio in New York has called about setting up an interview.

You could say this all illustrates chaos theory, he observes – searching for underlying order in things that seem random. Which relates to global climate change, as Earth heats up from a multitude of causes. Which relates to why this young high school science teacher in rural Oregon is juggling so many things on a wintery gray afternoon at Central High School here in Monmouth.

It all started last spring. Mr. Craven posted a nine-minute, 33-second clip on YouTube, the video-sharing website featuring everything from "stupid pet tricks" to presidential candidates pandering to voters.

Called "The Most Terrifying Video You'll Ever See," it attempted to explain the reality and risk of what he says is "likely to be the greatest threat that humanity has ever faced."

The video is low-tech – just a guy in a purple T-shirt standing at a whiteboard drawing a simple diagram to illustrate his point: The best available science shows us headed toward a global-warming disaster unless we take urgent steps to prevent it.

Craven also produced a follow-up YouTube clip, which takes into account criticisms he received, called "How It All Ends." Together the videos have "gone viral." They've rocketed around the Internet, spawning postings elsewhere and the creation of special websites by those impressed with his work. So far, the videos have attracted more than 4 million views, a query from a book agent, and a call this week from ABC's "Good Morning America" TV show.

The work also has received kudos from experts who've seen it.

"It's amusing, and transmits the idea of risk management very effectively," says Michael Oppenheimer, professor of geosciences at Princeton University in New Jersey and a lead author of this year's reports by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). "About two-thirds of the way through, he takes off his neutral cap and decides to advocate for the 'let's act' side," Dr. Oppenheimer says. "After that, the pitch is a little more traditional, but no less effective."

Bud Ward, editor of The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media, says Craven's work "sets an exceptional example of effective communications on a complex subject."

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The Oregon Science Teach­­ers Association, which recently named Craven its "Outstanding Teacher of the Year," calls his main video "a very well thought out discussion of climate change."

After Craven made "How It All Ends," he spent six weeks fueled by pizza and energy drinks producing an "expanded package" of 44 YouTube videos delving into climate issues in more detail – such things as "the mechanics of global climate change," "scare tactics," and "why there is still debate." He had to break it up, because YouTube videos can't exceed 10 minutes in length. The project finally totaled out at six-plus hours of videos and 108 pages of script, amounting to nearly 70,000 words.

It was all a little rough on the family.

"He would work at home when we were asleep and at school when we were awake," says his wife, Jodi Coleman, who taught grade school for eight years before becoming a full-time mom. "We just didn't see much of him, and I tried to keep the kids out of his hair."

The productions are simple and plain-spoken. Craven talks rapidly into his home computer, occasionally trading comments with his "foil" – himself wearing funny hats and occasionally firing off tabletop pyrotechnics of the type he uses in class.

The first video received several thousand comments – many of them dismissive or critical, some of them scary and threatening. And though he cites such highly regarded sources as the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (but not the IPCC, which itself is controversial), many climate-change skeptics remain unswayed by his arguments.

Climate-change skeptic Warren Meyer, a Phoenix businessman whose blog includes many detailed postings and videos on climate change, calls Craven's video "a clever kind of sleight of hand," particularly regarding the likely economic costs of major government policies.

"He argues that one buys car insurance without actually knowing if he is going to crash his car or how much such a crash might cost," Mr. Meyer says. "I would retort, 'Yes, but you wouldn't pay $35,000 for car insurance if you only had a $30,000 car.' Costs matter a lot, as does the magnitude of risk."

Thomas Demelo, a junior in Craven's chemistry class, is not totally convinced by his teacher's arguments about global warming. "It really did get me to think about it, though," he says. Thomas, who's been taught by Craven since freshman year, calls him "a really good teacher who likes what he's teaching and gets the class involved."

Alicia Brown, a senior in Craven's physics class, likes his emphasis on critical thinking, as well as his ability to get students excited about the subjects he teaches.

"He's made a history and English nerd like me like math and science," she says.

So far, the 44 additional videos have not taken off like "The Most Terrifying Video You'll Ever See" and "How It All Ends."

"That's the nature of a nonlinear system," Craven says with a hint of disappointment. "But I get a number of contacts a day, and that keeps me going. People have said I've changed their behavior.... People have made websites and discussion forums."

He realizes it's all a bit quixotic.

"My mission in this is to change the culture," Craven says, "so that a policymaker can't turn around without somebody saying 'Hey! What are you doing about climate change?' We need significant changes in the basis of our modern society, which is cheap, easily accessible fossil fuels."

His efforts have become a bit bewildering and sometimes exhausting. "It's been hard to think I'm not delusional.... I need to get back to being a husband and a daddy," he says, speaking of Jodi and their young daughters, Katie and Alex.

But something keeps pushing him forward.

"This line from a Dave Matthews song – 'Did I do all that I could?' – kept running through my head," he says. "If this doesn't save the world, it at least allows me some moral absolution. It allows me to know that my daughters will forgive me because I did the best I could."

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