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”.

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