In 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.
Geophysicist 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.”
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.