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“Largest teach-in ever” focuses US on climate change

we get it.jpgIn what was billed as the largest teach-in ever, over 1,500 universities, colleges, schools, and community organizations across the US held seminars and events on climate change yesterday.

Organized by student volunteers and driven by a project called Focus the Nation, professors of science, economics, engineering and anthropology – among other disciplines – spoke on panels and brought their classes to the discussions. Meanwhile, students staged information fairs and awareness-raising stunts: in Missouri, they stacked up 20 tons of coal to create a 3D graphic of campus energy use, and in Vermont, the fictional protagonist of a one-woman show promoted a boycott on sex as an effective focusing strategy (Focus the Nation, Christian Science Monitor).

I talked to a few of the scientists involved about how the events went at their universities. Ecologist Tom Sherry of Tulane University in New Orleans was brimming with excitement about the sessions there, which were attended by a total of about 750 students and faculty and included a Q&A that carried on for a lively two hours.


“My goal was to scare the pants off people about the potential variety of effects on the natural world,” Sherry said; and although he thinks there’s still a long way to go in communicating the far reach of global warming, he said the seminars helped fill the gap.

map_large.JPGGeophysicist José Rial described himself as “exhausted but happy” after two panel discussions at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill where topics ranged from methane to Greenland ice to policy. He said that even in the conservative ‘bible belt’ of the southern US, “hope exists” that climate activism might succeed – but he wasn’t sure how much the teach-in had achieved. “I did not see a ground swell of support for policies that will ameliorate global warming here; students seem apathetic, except those brave souls who organize these events,” he wrote in an email.

On one panel with Rial was Jason West, from UNC-CH’s environmental sciences and engineering department, who also praised the breadth of the discussion. And whether or not a tide of opinion turned yesterday, he said, “It always helps when there’s a banner on campus, and [students] can see that there are people that care about this.”

At Brown University in the northeast, by contrast, ecologist Osvaldo Sala raved that the level of student engagement was “extraordinary”. There, a crowd of hundreds listened raptly to Rhode Island senator Sheldon Whitehouse speaking on his climate bill.

And Michael Oppenheimer, a leading IPCC scientist who earlier this week gave a keynote speech to students from throughout New York’s Hudson valley, was impressed by their seriousness. “Politically speaking, they are neither brazen nor inert, but pragmatic,” he said. “They want to figure out what they can contribute to fixing these problems.”

Anna Barnett

Images: top, Focus the Nation organizers at Clemson University in South Carolina, courtesy of Clemson University; bottom, teach-in sites across the US, courtesy of Focus the Nation.

Comments

  1. Report this comment

    Robert Coleman said:

    If you want to reach people about the profound threat of unbalancing the earth’s climate with greenhouse gas emissions, first stop falling into Frank Luntz’s framing trap. Every time environmentalists use the phrase “climate change” they are helping reducing the impact of their message. “The Climate Crisis” or “Catastrophic Climate Imbalance” more effectively communicate the scope of the threat, and more importantly imply that there is a threat. “Climate change” is neutral. Which is why right-wing pollster and corporate “framing” expert Frank Luntz recommended the use of that phrase over “global warming.”

    Scientists are usually poor public communicators. The very nature of peer-reviewed research promotes a reflex to equivocate and qualify everything they say. Politics, on the other hand, is a world of absolute sweeping statements, message framing and hyperbole. Yet fifty years ago a group of scientists gathered together to make the public aware of the profound threats of the miracle weapon they had created. In the face of well-funded opposition and public ignorance they were able to completely change the way the American public thought about the Atomic Age. Now you will have a very hard time finding someone who doesn’t know the phrase “five minutes to midnight.”

    We need that type of thinking applied to the climate crisis. We need our own powerful symbolic shorthand that communicates the nature of the threat and prompts action. Although we have come a long way in one year, we have a long way to go. And time, as they say, is short.

  2. Report this comment

    Steven Earl Salmony said:

    Dear Robert Coleman,

    Your words are a breath of fresh air.

    Because the global challenges before humanity are evidently human-induced, the human community has responsibilities to assume and duties to perform, ready or not, like them or not.

    Perhaps we have too often chosen to ignore whatsoever is somehow real in order to believe whatsoever is politically convenient, economically expedient, socially agreeable, religiously tolerated and culturally prescribed. When something real comes into direct conflict with what we want to believe, that reality is denied. It appears that too many people are content to hold tightly to widely shared and consensually validated specious thinking when it serves our selfish interests.

    What could be happening here and now? Are we living in a modern Tower of Babel……..once again, of our own construction?

    That is to say, has human thinking, judging and willing become so grievously and perniciously impaired by our idolatry of the artificially designed, manmade, global political economy that we cannot see or speak intelligibly about anything else except economic growth and profits without sounding like blithering idiots?

    Sincerely,

    Steve

    Steven Earl Salmony

    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population, established 2001

    http://sustainabilitysoutheast.org/

  3. Report this comment

    Steven Earl Salmony said:

    How about limiting per-human consumption of Earth’s limited resources as one way of addressing the emergent global challenges looming ominously before humanity?

    Let’s assume that all of us agree with the idea of having a discussion that seeks to find a reliable, secure, sensible and sustainable path to a good enough future for our children.

    Inasmuch as human beings appear to be members of a species that appears to be inadvertently threatening to outgrow the planet it inhabits, the idea of at least not over-consuming Earth’s dissipating resources could be an idea whose time has come.

    Given the relentless plunder and obscene per-capita consumption of Earth’s finite resources we are seeing in our time, choosing not to fecklessly plunder and grotesquely squander might be a bit too much to hope for.

    Perhaps a more modest goal will be achieved when human beings agree to do what is humane and necessary by eschewing conspicuous over-consumption and, alternatively, beginning to voluntarily restrain themselves from literally “eating the family of humanity out of house and home.”

    By suggesting this alternative, we would be consciously choosing to consume less resources as one reasonable and sensible way of responding ably to the gluttony and morbid obesity rampant in ‘advanced’ societies in our time?

    Perhaps our children will soon enough come to understand that the choice to “consume less” is the most efficacious and powerful thing any person in the “overdeveloped” world can do to preserve life as we know it and the integrity of Earth.

    If consuming less resources occurred collectively among individuals in the human community who are conspicuously over-consuming, as my generation of notoriously voracious elders is doing now, then a sustainable, “consume less” behavioral repertoire could make a huge difference, one that really makes a difference. It could help the family of humanity save itself from its unhealthy, recklessly increasing and soon to be unsustainable per-capita over-consumption activities.

    Just this week a friend of mine said he possesses at least one of everything in the world he wants….and he is only getting started. Life is all about wealth accumulation and consumption, he advises. He is going for all the gusto, he says.

    Is this an example of the one ‘right’ way to live or else the dream to which the human community is to aspire?

    The Earth can barely sustain several million people behaving like my friend (and me). What can 6.6 billion (soon to be 9 billion) of our brothers and sisters reasonably and sensibly expect “to possess” in the course of their lives?

  4. Report this comment

    Steven Earl Salmony said:

    Dear Friends,

    Please forgive me for saying that I believe my not-so-great generation of elders is literally on the verge of devouring the birthright of its children and mortgaging their future, while not giving so much as a thought to the needs of coming generations. My generation may be remembered most for having ravaged the Earth and irreversibly degraded its environment, leaving our planetary home unfit for life as we know it or for human habitation or both.

    Unfortunately, many too many of our brothers and sisters as well as virtually all of political leaders, economic powerbrokers and ‘talking heads’ in the mass media are not yet acknowledging the distinctly human-induced predicament looming ominously before humanity, even now visible on the far horizon. Because human overproduction, over-consumption and overpopulation appear to be occurring synergistically, at least to me it makes sense to see and address them as a whole. Picking the most convenient or most expedient of the three aspects of the human condition could be easier but may not be a good idea. The “big picture” is what we need to see, I suppose. At some point we are going to be forced to gain a “whole system” perspective of what 6.6 billion (soon to be 9 billion) people are doing on Earth. That is to say, the human community needs to widely-share a reasonable and sensible understanding of the colossal impact of unbridled production, unrestained consumption and unregulated propagation activities of the human species on Earth……. and how life utterly depends upon Earth’s limited resource base for existence.

    If human beings can share an adequate enough grasp of the leviathan-like presence of the human species on Earth, then we can choose individually and collectively to behave differently from the ways we are behaving now, lest my generation could lead everyone to inadvertently precipitate the massive extinction of biodiversity, the irredeemable degradation of environs, the pillage of our planetary home and, perhaps, the endangerment of humanity.

    Sincerely,

    Steve

  5. Report this comment

    Steven Earl Salmony, Ph.D., M.P.A. said:

    Something is happening that many too many people appear not to be seeing, I suppose.

    Scientific evidence is springing up everywhere that indicates the massive and pernicious impact of the human species on the limited resources of Earth, its frangible ecosystems and life as we know it.

    Guided by mountains of carefully and skillfully developed research regarding climate change, top rank scientists like Dr. Rajendra K. Pachauri, Dr. James Hansen, Dr. Hans J. Schellnhuber and Dr. Christopher Rapley issued a Climate Code Red emergency declaration this month to leaders of governments and to the family of humanity proclaiming the necessity for open discussion and action by politicians and economic powerbrokers.

    From my humble perspective, many leaders of the global political economy are turning a blind eye to human over-consumption, overproduction and overpopulation activities that can be seen recklessly dissipating the natural resources and dangerously degrading the environs of our planetary home. The Earth is being ravaged; but it appears many leaders are willfully refusing to acknowledge what is happening.

    Because the emerging global challenges that could soon be presented to humanity appear to so many fine scientists as human-induced, leaders have responsibilities to assume and duties to perform, ready or not, like them or not.

    Perhaps leadership in our time has too often chosen to ignore whatsoever is somehow real in order to believe whatever is politically convenient, economically expedient, socially agreeable, religiously tolerated and culturally prescribed. When something real directly conflicts with what leaders wish to believe, that reality is denied. It appears that too many leaders are content to hold tightly to widely shared and consensually validated specious thinking when it serves their personal interests.

    Is humanity once again finding life as we know it dominated by a modern Tower of Babel called economic globalization? That is, has human thinking, judging and willing become so egregiously impaired by our idolatry of the artificially designed, manmade, global political economy that we cannot speak intelligibly about anything else except economic growth and profits without sounding like blithering idiots?

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