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Experts Sound the Alarm on Climate Change

Over 600 Students Participate in Annual Teach-In

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This year’s Climate Change Teach-In, held Oct. 7, attracted a record crowd of more than 600 students.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

We are playing Russian roulette with our future with regard to climate change. That’s the dire warning that MIT Prof. John Sterman, a leading expert in system dynamics of climate change, told a packed audience in Cumnock Hall auditorium during the recent Climate Change Teach-In.

“But unlike conventional Russian roulette, where you’ve got one bullet in six chambers, we are playing with a weapon that has 19 chambers loaded and only one empty,” said Sterman. “What is happening now is that we are holding the guns up against our heads, the heads of our children and grandchildren. Are we ready to pull the trigger?”

We are, in fact, pulling the trigger right now, he noted. The “business-as-usual” attitude of industry is carrying us “toward a future that is about 9 degrees Fahrenheit warmer by the year 2100, and then it just keeps going up after that.”

The Climate Change Teach-In, now in its fifth year, is co-sponsored by the university’s Climate Change Initiative (CCI) and the Climate Action Plan. The event, which is free and open to the public, features renowned climate-change scientists and advocates who discuss the choices that need to be made today in order to avert climate change’s potential consequences.

In addition to Sterman, this year’s speakers included Executive Vice Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney, who delivered the opening remarks, Boston University Prof. Bruce Anderson and Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, whose city has been voted by the Boston Globe as the “best-run city in Massachusetts.” The event also showcased research posters and exhibits by UMass Lowell students and faculty.

“There are ample warnings where our global climate is heading in the next 150 years, yet we’re continuing to roll the dice with our future, even though we know the odds are stacked against us,” said Anderson, who has written more than 50 peer-reviewed research papers and several textbooks on climate change.

As global temperatures continue to climb, rising sea levels from melting glaciers and polar ice sheets, coupled with storm surges generated by super typhoons and hurricanes, will severely increase flooding impacts in low-lying islands and cities. Anderson said a rise of 6 meters or more above current sea level would have “catastrophic” effects on Boston. The same is true for other areas like New York, Florida and Bangladesh.

He said the choices, decisions and actions we make today will have an impact 50 years down the road, so any solutions we come up with have to be implemented long before any effects are felt.

“That’s why we need to start acting now, where and when we can,” explained Anderson.

A Call to Action

Sterman stated that if the government doesn’t have the political will to do it, then it’s up to the young people to advocate for that change by electing public officials who are willing to act and undertake the necessary steps to avert global catastrophe. And the students are heeding his call.

“I do plan to vote for government representatives who are conscious of climate change and are willing to discuss ways of correcting the problem,” said David Bowie, a senior majoring in environmental sciences.

Biotechnology senior Khalid Williams agreed. “I want to become more involved with future climate-change events,” he said. “I have always been an active thinker within my own mind when it comes to climate change, but I have not been an active voice.”

Added Nana Agyemang, student social media manager for the UMass Lowell Office of Student Activities: “I think the Teach-In definitely inspired me to be more proactive because the next generation would be the one to suffer from what we have created.”

A Campuswide Commitment

Biology Assoc. Prof. and CCI Director Juliette Rooney-Varga described the university’s growing resources dedicated to climate change research and education.

“We now have 30 faculty members from across 13 academic departments  involved with the Climate Change Initiative and the Student Environmental Alliance, including arts and humanities, science, engineering, business, health and education, and we’re still growing,” she said.

To date, the initiative has received more than $6.5 million in external funding from the National Science Foundation, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institutes of Health and others.

“We are also offering two new interdisciplinary minors — environment and society and climate change and sustainability — as well as seminars, courses and other events throughout the year,” said Rooney-Varga. “So no matter what your interests are, there are plenty of opportunities to become engaged in addressing climate change and sustainability here at UMass Lowell.”

UMass Lowell is one of the signatories to the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, a pledge signed by 683 other American colleges and universities. UMass Lowell aims to take the university to net-zero emissions of heat-trapping pollutants by 2050.

“Despite the fact that our campus is growing, we’ve reduced our emissions by about 8,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalents per year, and we will increase the energy we get from solar power by 80 percent by 2017, all while saving the university well over $1 million per year in energy costs,” said Moloney.

She added: “The real impact of this work is not about kilowatt-hours, emissions or even dollars — it’s about the very core of who we are: a university whose mission is to push the frontiers of knowledge and understanding, and to serve as a resource that guides our Commonwealth and broader society.”

If you missed this year’s Teach-In, you can watch the entire program. To see photos of the event, go to the CCI Facebook page.