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Students put global warming in the spotlight

A campaign to galvanise students and policy-makers in the US is reminiscent of demonstrations in the 1960s. Kate Cheney Davidson reports on the educational effort dubbed “Earth Day for the climate”.
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Photo: Emily Todd

Not many people get excited about seeing a lump of coal, but Professor Wendy Anderson can hardly contain herself.

Standing on a grassy strip at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri, Anderson, a biology professor, waits impatiently for her delivery of seven tonnes of coal. The “coal dump,” as she calls it will kick off a day of intense discussion on energy conservation and global warming at the school. It takes seven tonnes of coal each day to power Drury’s main campus for three hours.

Across the country on over 1,500 university campuses, as well as high schools, faith-based organisations and civic groups, people will gather to discuss climate change and related topics as a part of “Focus the Nation” day. Organisers are calling it the largest teach-in in American history, with thousands of students, over 40 members of Congress and hundreds of state-elected officials taking part.

Teach-ins started in the United States as a type of non-violent protest against the Vietnam War. In 1965, a group of professors at the University of Michigan decided to use their classrooms as a platform to discuss the moral arguments against US involvement in Vietnam. Despite intense resistance by the school administration, and a bomb scare, the teach-in was successful and became a popular form of protest across the country.

Eban Goodstein, a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College in Oregon, and founder of Focus the Nation, seized on the idea of a nationwide teach-in as a way to engage students and political leaders on global warming. Although similar to other single day events like Step It Up and the Live Earth concerts, Goodstein stresses that this event is more educationally focused.

“What’s different about Focus the Nation is that we’re more institutionally based. It’s not just a bunch of activists organising rallies, but rather educational engagement.”

Bill Barnes, a professor of economics and environmental studies at the University of Portland in Oregon, helped organise his school’s teach-in, which involves 24 different sessions on topics ranging from climate science to the politics of global climate-change agreements. According to Barnes, this type of intellectual exchange doesn’t just happen on a regular basis.

“You would think that academics cooperate, but they don’t. You miss the big-picture problems when that happens,” Barnes said.

Students need the big picture, argues Barnes, to understand the complexity of climate change and what it will take to fight it.

“They don’t understand at 18 what’s happening. It’s not on their TV. Reading the newspaper is not something they do.”

At Missouri State University, biology professor Alexander Wait gave a talk at his campus entitled, “Birds, Bees, Beer and Other Reasons to Care About Climate Change.” Faced with a worldwide shortage of hops, Wait is hoping that a future without beer will spur  college-aged kids to act.

But some students do “get it” when it comes to climate change. Lacey Riddle, a senior Environmental Ethics and Policy major at the University of Portland, says her generation is ready to take a stand on the issue.

“We might have been a little too quiet for a little too long, but that’s okay. We don’t have to sit back and let it happen,” she said.

As a part of the daylong event, Focus the Nation is also connecting students to their elected officials in a variety of ways, from face-to-face meetings to video conferencing.

Riddle admits that there is a large amount of frustration and disappointment among her peers about the lack of political leadership on the issue.

“It’s really a disgrace that we’ve waited so long. The science has been around since at least the 70s,” Riddle said. “Now the time has come to tell them how we feel.”

Like many in her age group, Riddle is in favor of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, because, she says, his policy on global warming is so much stronger than Hillary Clinton’s.

Organisers insist their event is non-partisan, but recognise the issue of global warming is highly political. Which is why, they say, they chose to hold it in the midst of a presidential primary season, a time when top political leaders are most attuned to voters’ concerns.

Professor Barnes, who also serves on the Focus the Nation board of advisors, says they hope to make it an annual event that will culminate in a national policy on climate change.

“It’s going to become the equivalent of Earth Day, but for the climate.”

The event has already attracted international attention from countries like France and Canada who want to hold their own Focus the Nation day. But so far, says project director Goodstein, there is no word from China. He’s not surprised.

“America has the moral obligation to go first. We’ve been [contributing greenhouse-gas emissions] for much longer. Until America leads, it’s going to be very difficult for the Chinese to mobilise their own society to take up this challenge.”
 

Kate Cheney Davidson is US editor of chinadialogue

Homepage photo by Luke Redmond

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

美国行动的前景

气候变化不是政治问题,但就如文中所说,它的解决就是一个政治话题.

非常高兴地看到美国的青年在开始关注这一问题,希望他们的觉悟和行动能促进美国政界能尽早对一危机采取确实的行动.

Prospect for the US actions

Climate change is not a political issue, but how to solve the problem is a political one as suggested in the article.

I am very pleased and encouraged to see the growing attention given by the young people in the States to this issue.

Hopefully, their understanding, consciousness and actions will help call on the US administration to take measures to deal with the crisis soon.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

这主意棒极了!

“关注国家”日活动真是棒(这个网站也很棒)!

我们应该尽可能地把环境问题拿到课堂上(让学生讨论),这都是与他们利益攸关的事儿。

我们什么时候才能在英国见到这种精彩的活动啊!

普利茅斯市 哈格里夫斯先生

An excellent Idea

This is an excellent Idea (and an excellent website!). More of an effort should be made to bring this issue, which is so important for the next generation, to the classroom.When will we see something like this in the UK?

Mr. Hargreaves, Plymouth

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

中国无疑会尽责任!

“关注国家”日活动具普遍意义。
自信中国教育界在这方面有潜力可作为。
中国关注、参与全球气候问题已卓有成效,日后更会不遗余力!

杭州 包绍华先生

China will no doubt take the responsibility

'focus on country'day has universal meaning. I believe Chinese education has great potential in this aspect. China's participation in global climate issues has significant effects and China will play a much more important role in future.

Shaohua Bao, Hangzhou

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

面对气候变化:我们需要克努特式的领导者!

在我八岁的那年参加了班级的戏剧表演, 饰演了克努特国王一角. 威严的坐在讲桌上, 我起身命令海潮回头,又坐回宝座看着"海浪"在我的四周升起.
这段往事中最有意思的是, 这么多年以来, 我一直坚信克努特相信自己可以掌控潮水, 而他的人民却会嘲笑他的无知与傲慢. 事实是, 那些宫廷里阿谀奉承的小人为了排除异己,总是吹嘘国王的无限权力, 直到有一天吹出了这一操控自然, 逆转潮水的奉承只言.
聪明的君主看到了这种过于夸大的吹捧之词的不合理性, 告诉他的官员们, 虽然国王的权力巨大, 却怎么都不可能超越自然的.
21世纪, 全球化以一种二十年前很难想象的速度扩大发展,科技的进步, 生产线的复杂化进一不推动的经济列车的告诉前进, 使我们看到了更多的合作,更多由全球化所带来的利益.
但没有改变的是,我们仍然缺少保持增长, 掌控发展的能力.
在创造新科技的同时, 我们仍然秉持旧的观念, 使我们的地球家园的原始资源被洗劫,使发展的步伐错乱不稳.我们似乎不可能减缓脚步, 而是急冲冲地奔向地域之门, 不懂得冷静下来, 思考我们的行为,以及可能的后果.
海啸,洪水,气温上升等等各种自然的怒吼正不断地给我们发出警告,甚至惩罚.而人们的态度, 就犹如对待车祸,意外一样,"那些事情只会发生在别人身上!".
正如克努特的官员一样, 我们已过于高估了自己的能力,我们愚蠢的相信,金融管理可以解决一切问题, 蒙蔽了自己的双眼看到现实,认不清自己.
比以往任何一个历史时期, 我们都需要克努特国王一样的领导者,冷静地质疑我们现在的思考方式, 重新认识我们所不能超越的自然的力量,给出更加合理的发展途径.
(作者按:我总在想, 人类的发展史上,总是商业在推动人类去探索,进步,壮大自己的种族.它确实给我门带来了文明进步,但是我们似乎也因此将自己带到了一个陌生的领土,操纵着超过我们自己能力的神秘力量去实现共同的利益. 正是这种不知道适可而止的进步, 不知道方向的前进,使我倍感焦虑. )

Climate Change: We desperately need the “Canute Factor” – NOW!

When I was 8 I played the part of King Canute in a classroom play. Sitting on a chair on top of the teacher’s desk I majestically rose and commanded the tide to turn back, and sat back down again as it rose ever higher around me.
What is interesting is that for many years after this event I believed that the King really thought he could turn back the tide, and that his courtiers laughed at his arrogant stupidity.
The truth of course is that the many sycophants who filled Canute’s court were constantly trying to outdo each other in their estimation of the King’s powers, until they arrived at the ultimate impossibility of performance – to take on the power of nature and turn back the tides of the sea!
The King was wise enough to see through this misplaced belief in his “greatness”, and so went through with the charade to make the point to his courtiers - though the deeds of kings might appear 'great' in the minds of men, they were as nothing in the face of the power of nature.
As globalisation evolves in this 21st century, we are seeing corporations grow at a rate and size only dreamed about just 20 years ago. Technological development and greater sophistication in production lines has fuelled the demand for economic growth and the resultant, and seemingly continuous rise in corporate profits.
What remains unchanged however is our own lack of development as a species in trying to stay apace with, and manage, this growth. We are managing new technologies with traditional beliefs which see us plundering this planet in ever more sophisticated and super efficient ways that we seem incapable of slowing.
Neither do we seem capable, at the very least, in abating our lemming like rush to hell in a handcart for just a short while, whilst we reflect upon our actions and their possible consequences.
Tsunamis, flooding, rising temperatures and all of the other natural elements that are now growing in intensity are lost on us. Like a car accident or burning home, “it is happening to someone else and could never happen to us”!
Similar to the Kings courtiers, we have elevated our belief in our capabilities to a point where we are convinced financial management will resolve and manage everything, blinding ourselves to the reality of who and what we are and our place in the grand scheme of things.
Never before in our history have we needed leadership with the “Canute Factor” that can wisely and carefully get us to question our current thinking and consider the need to elevate our own personal development by once again learning to respect that which is mightier than the bottom line!
(Authors Note: I have always believed that throughout history it is our business activity has been one of the primary means by which we have explored, investigated and developed as a species. Indeed it will take us into space, as the “next frontier”. However it seems as though we are operating a level of global intensity we seem incapable of regulating for our collective benefit at the present time. It is this inability to call a momentary halt and take stock of where we are headed that gives me serious cause for concern.)