Nationwide 'teach-in' planned to address climate change
Piles of coal, battling windmills, and political leaders descend on college campuses.
Mary Knox Merrill - staff
In Springfield, Mo., college students are about to see quite vividly how much energy they consume. Piles of coal will be on display in proportion to what's needed each day to power their dorms, computers, and dining halls.
At the University of Vermont in Burlington, audience members will be encouraged to bike or walk to a one-woman show in which the fictional first lady calls for a boycott against sex until the nation starts a serious dialogue about climate change.
The creative tactics are designed to draw students into a series of events this coming week known as Focus the Nation: Global Warming Solutions for America. Organizers bill the culminating day, Jan. 31, as the largest teach-in in the nation's history, drawing parallels to the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s and '70s. More than 1,500 institutions, most of them colleges and universities, will host classes, documentaries, performances, energy-saving competitions, and discussions with political leaders.
Eban Goodstein, the man behind the mission, speaks about it urgently: "What our kids have to do is truly heroic," he says. "If they're going to stabilize the climate for their children, they have to rewire the entire planet with clean-energy technology."
Mr. Goodstein is an economics professor at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., and an author on environmental issues. The pace needs to pick up in order to hold global warming to low levels before it is too late, he says. "We owe our young people some focused discussion about the critical importance of the choices that are going to get made over the next couple years."
The impact of Focus the Nation depends on whether it preaches to the choir or fulfills its potential to reach a broader audience and inspire long-term commitment. A key question is, "Will [the students] take the message to their parents and grandparents?... Will it move from the campus teach-ins to the backyard barbecues of early summer?" says Gordon Mitchell, a communication professor at the University of Pittsburgh who has studied rhetoric and social movements. "That will in large part determine if this is a wave, versus a ripple."
The Focus the Nation website (www.focusthenation.org) has offered templates for activities, but a decentralized network of faculty, students, and other volunteers has seized the opportunity to tailor events for local audiences. Professors in fields as diverse as astronomy, economics, and classics will use class time to link their subjects to climate change.
That's what appeals to Galen Brown, the 19-year-old student coordinator for events at the University of Colorado, Boulder. "It targets everybody," he says. "One of the biggest problems with the climate campaign over the past few years has been the negativity.... I think it's best to harp on the positive – how we can stop [global warming] and how businesses can be efficient and make money while being green."
For Paul Weihe, a biology professor at Central College in Pella, Iowa, the scope of the event is unprecedented in his 10 years there. "People understand that this is the issue of our time," he says. His campus is affiliated with the Reformed Church in America, and the keynote speaker there will be Cal DeWitt, a minister and scientist who founded the Evangelical Environmental Network. "We've got so many different people from different backgrounds [participating]. In the past, this would be something the science geeks were into," Mr. Weihe says.
Alexander Wait, who teaches biology at Missouri State University in Springfield, will be heading to some local hangouts to help "break through the apathy." He'll give a talk at local bars during the "Save the Ales" pub crawl. With breweries facing a hops shortage, he says, "if you care about beer, you should care about climate change."
On the edge of Lake Champlain, the University of Vermont is hosting a week of events, which organizers hope will be just the start of continued action. They expect crowds at the Sustainable Burlington Design Charrette, a structured brainstorming session on ways the city can improve everything from transportation to energy usage. Local officials will be on hand to hear ideas, which will be archived for use by the mayor's recently created environmental council.
"It seems like climate change can just be overwhelming, [but these activities] show that we can actually do things personally and collectively to fight it," says Valerie Esposito, a PhD student and organizer at UVM. In April, the winner of a student sustainable-design contest will receive $3,000 to implement his or her idea on campus.
Timing Focus the Nation during the presidential primaries was deliberate, to encourage voters to press candidates on global warming. The related "Green Democracy" forums are designed to be nonpartisan, featuring groups and speakers of all political stripes, including governors and members of the US Congress.
There's much that adults can do to set the stage now, by investing in the creation of green technologies, Goodstein says, but only today's young people "have the moral authority to speak for the future.... So it's really important to engage [them] directly in dialogue with political leaders."
Outreach to established political leaders is one way in which these events differs from the Vietnam era teach-ins, Professor Mitchell says. Those were offered as the "more palatable carrots" paired with the "sticks" of sit-ins. But such pressure "is missing from this [Focus the Nation] exercise," he says. "People are not saying, we have to divest the university from stocks in Exxon, [for example].... It's all about 'Let's contact our congressional representatives.' It's very reformist, and in that sense it's a very sharp contrast with the message of the teach-ins from the Vietnam War era, that the establishment is corrupt.' "
Goodstein sees a different parallel: people feeling empowered to make change. Between 1960 and 1964, the American mood shifted from accepting segregation – even if most thought it was morally wrong – to a determination to end it, he says. By the same token, "The ultimate purpose of Focus the Nation ... is to move America by 2009 to the point where we say, 'Of course we can stop global warming. Of course we must.' "