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Professor Discusses the Challenges of Communicating Climate Change

Rooney-Varga Wants to Engage Campus, Community

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Biology Assoc. Prof. Juliette Rooney-Varga, standing, addresses the students during last year’s Climate Change Teach-In.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Juliette Rooney-Varga is passionate about climate change. The biology associate professor, who is an expert in environmental microbiology and ecology, directs UMass Lowell’s Climate Change Initiative (CCI). She is a member of the University’s Climate Action Plan Steering Committee, which has committed the institution to carbon neutrality by 2050. She also organizes the annual Climate Change Teach-In, which will be held Tuesday, Oct. 9, at Cumnock Hall on North Campus from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. We talked with her about the challenges that the movement faces as well as success stories from her students.

What are the biggest challenges in teaching climate change on campus?

First, we have very little time to respond to an urgent and growing need for new curriculum and approaches to education, in order to ensure that our students have the knowledge and training in areas related to climate change and renewable energy that they will need in a rapidly changing world.

Second, the traditional academic organizational structure — schools, colleges, departments, majors, etc. — can present barriers to the type of truly cross-disciplinary work that is needed to address climate change. We must continue to find ways to overcome these barriers because training in one discipline is not enough in understanding climate change. For example, a course on earth science may address how greenhouse gases cause climate change but would not discuss why human systems are not responding to climate change in a timely manner.

What is the greatest strength of the Climate Change Initiative?

Our greatest strength is that we bring faculty and students together that cross many, many disciplines — from art, political science and history to meteorology, health, engineering and many more.

What is the greatest weakness?

In a way, our strength is also our weakness — we all come together through the CCI, but all of us go through tenure and promotion through departments. So it can be difficult to move some of our ideas forward when we are all constrained by the academic “silos” we inhabit. What can we do about it? My hope is that, as the University makes progress on the Climate Action Plan and the deans, chairs and faculty members hear more about the Campus Leadership Team’s commitment to addressing climate change, it will become easier to move new ideas forward.

Are you getting enough support from the campus community?

I feel the time is right for tremendous growth in support for this work from all interested parties — the students, faculty, staff and administrators. We have already seen dramatic change in the last couple of years and my sense is that this is just the very beginning. There’s a little bit of “waking up” that needs to happen. But once it happens, and people realize how much UMass Lowell can do to lead in addressing climate change, many of them are more than supportive — they are passionate, inspired and want to do as much as they can.

How are the University’s climate-change-related programs making a difference?

We are only at the very early beginning. We know we are making an impact by working with the community. For example, UMass Lowell students are showing videos and leading discussions during Lowell Sustainability Week; we have a local cable TV show that airs once a month; we open many of our events to the public; and we are starting to reach out to state agencies. But if we coordinate more closely with other UMass campuses, as a system we could have a major impact on our region, our state and beyond.

Can you share a student success story?

There are a lot, but here’s one example: Devan Hawkins, who just graduated in May, was selected as part of the youth delegation from the United States at the UN climate-change negotiations in Qatar this December. Thanks to our program, Devan has both in-depth understanding of climate-change science and communication as well as media production. That combination of skills is quite unusual and also quite valuable in the role he is about to play.

So your students go on to work on climate change after graduating?

Absolutely. For instance, two of our other recent graduates, Cecelia Hunt and Patrick Lynch, recently ran a workshop at MIT to teach students focusing on energy technology about climate-change science and policy.

And your team has also worked with younger students, right?

Yes. A team of public high schoolers from Cambridge, for example, produced a climate-change documentary through our NASA-funded project and won a national award at this year’s Hometown Video Festival, sponsored by the Alliance for Community Media.

What are your future plans for the Teach-In? How about the CCI?

It’s hard to tell what the future will bring, but with our current momentum, it’s hard to imagine that the Teach-In won’t continue to grow and serve as an opportunity to galvanize the campus around addressing climate change. I’m optimistic that the Teach-In will be alive and well next year and beyond. The CCI also continues to grow and attract people who are inspired to become part of moving UMass Lowell, our community, our region and, indeed, our planet, toward the goal of addressing climate change. We have a very, very long way to go. But we also have many people who understand the enormity of the task of averting catastrophic climate change and who feel a moral imperative to try.