By Martha Henderson, Director.
The Evergreen State College is a member of the National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE). Each year, NCSE hosts a conference in Washington, DC with the two goals of bringing environmental professionals from business, government and academics together to learn about a significant environmental issue and secondly, to craft suggestions for environmental policy and decision-making. This year, the 14th National Conference and Global Forum on Science, Policy and the Environment was entitled “Building Climate Solutions.” Generally, two or three Evergreen environmental studies faculty or students attend. I was fortunate to attend the meeting on January 28-30th. I have attended the meeting for five years and this year was by far the most informative and concrete (I admit to having to climb the steep learning curve for those of us from interdisciplinary environmental studies programs in the Pacific Northwest suddenly placed back into siloed academic settings in the other Washington!).
What made this meeting so accessible was the clear presentation of the climate change situation by clear speaking scientists. There is no doubt of the rapid changes Earth and its inhabitants are experiencing. Equally obvious is the slow response by the United States due to recent political wrangling that silenced the voices of our best scientists and denial of the potential impacts of climate change. Speakers at the conference this year, including Richard Alley as the opening keynote speaker and James Hansen as the closing speaker and recipient of the John H. Chafee Award, reaffirmed the need to address climate change as the most challenging issue of our time. President Obama also made a clear statement about the need to act on the impending crisis of climate change in his State of the Union address on January 29th.
Specific examples of an integrated approach to climate solutions were addressed in 28 different focus group meetings that ranged from urban issues to marine conditions at the conference. Each of these focus groups forwarded specific policy recommendations to the federal government. The interdisciplinary nature of our curriculum is exactly what is called for at this juncture in human habitation of Earth. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has made a wide and welcoming place for geographers and other social scientists who study local decision-making by different culture groups as they respond to climate change. The power of GIS is also being employed to help understand and predict changes in habitats, energy flows, and degrees of warming.
The consistent message throughout the conference was the immediate and looming impacts of a warming climate. As if to underscore the impacts of climate change, the meeting in Washington, DC coincided with an Arctic cold front a week after the Arctic Vortex swept across the Great Plains and up the eastern seaboard. At the same time, an avalanche of giant proportions swept across the only highway into Valdez, Alaska cutting off the port to land travel for the rest of the winter. For those of us of a certain age, these climatic events were only more poignant by the death of Pete Seeger. How many of his songs did I sing around an outdoor education bonfire with sixth graders in the rain on the Yamhill River in western Oregon? What happened to those dreams of saving Earth?
Well, a moment of memory and remembering Seeger is just about all we have time for if we hope to do anything about the impacts of climate change. The time to act is now. I can report that our faculty, staff and students are pro-active on climate change. I am thankful for the entire faculty especially the climate and energy faculty for teaching excellent classes that address climate change. I support adjunct faculty Paul Pickett’s call for a public protest against the Keystone Pipeline. I support all of our students’ research across the spectrum of environmental conditions. Even if the research is not specifically focused on climate change, all of our environmental issues are now related to climate change. Finally, I want to recognize Gail Wootan, Assistant Director of our program, for her leadership in creating public forums for the discussion of climate change. Members of our faculty and students are participating in this year’s planning for another TEDx on climate solutions.
One of the final plenary speakers of the conference, Rt. Hon. John Gummer, Lord Deben, Chair, Climate Change Committee, United Kingdom, summed up the state of world climate change as the most important issue of not our time, but of 500 years of human history: we must act based on social justice. We must act based on the promise we have made to the next generations. It is the most exciting time to be alive. I agree; while the challenges are immense, I believe we can, in small and big ways, make a difference. Our graduate program is addressing these incredible issues with social and natural sciences. As always, our students are the most creative and courageous.