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Students Get Straight-Talk on Climate Change

Teach-In Speaker Naomi Oreskes Says Ignore Doubters, Focus on Solutions

Climate Change Teach-In

Naomi Oreskes explains why there is no debate about global warming during the sixth annual Climate Change Teach-In at Cumnock Hall.

By Ed Brennen

Naomi Oreskes is one of the world’s leading experts on climate change. The Harvard University history of science professor has not only advised Pope Francis on the topic, she wrote the introduction to his encyclical “On Care for Our Common Home.” She’s also co-authored several books, including the best-selling “Merchants of Doubt,” which spawned a documentary film this year.

And yet standing on stage at Cumnock Hall during the university’s sixth annual Climate Change Teach-In on Oct. 7, Oreskes still felt the need to assure the nearly 500 students in attendance that she’s “basically a happy person.”

“I’ve spent the last 12 years of my life writing about the pretty depressing topic of climate change denial. I don’t want to depress you too much,” said the good-humored Oreskes, whose overarching message to students was actually more hopeful and empowering than gloomy: Don’t get bogged down by the climate change deniers and instead focus on solutions.

“We can’t control what’s going on in Washington D.C., but we can control what’s happening on our campuses,” Oreskes said before taking the stage. “And that’s a place of empowerment. That’s a place where we don’t get depressed. … The reality is (climate change) is really, really bad, but we have to actually embrace the badness of it in order to be motivated to really act. And I see universities as incredibly important models for our communities.”

Presented by the university’s Climate Change Initiative, which brings together faculty, students and local leaders to address ways to improve the environment, this year’s Teach-In included presentations by the Office of Sustainability and three student groups: Engineers for a More Sustainable World, the Evolution and Ecology Club, and the Student Alliance for the Environment.  

“It’s a chance to get people excited, bring new people in and find new collaborations,” said CCI Director Juliette Rooney-Varga, associate professor in environmental biology. “No matter what your interest or discipline, this is something that’s going to touch your future.”

What, me worry?

Oreskes covered 150 years of science, politics and economics during her keynote address. Drawing on “Merchants of Doubt,” Oreskes examined the parallels between climate change deniers and those who used to downplay the dangers of cigarette smoking, acid rain and ozone depletion. 

“They deny the problem because they don’t like the solutions,” said Oreskes, who described climate change as a market failure, one that creates external costs that are passed on to future generations.

“We in the wealthy, industrialized West have been burning fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution. We became wealthy, but the cost of climate change will be borne by people all over the world, and of course the poor and vulnerable will be hit hardest,” said Oreskes, who added that market-based solutions like a carbon tax must come from governments — just as governments acted to address smoking, acid rain and ozone depletion.

“None of these solutions came from the invisible hand of the marketplace. They all came from what I call the visible hands of governments,” Oreskes said. “So it’s time for all of us to reject the deified market and to reject the demonized government, and to figure out a way for governments to correct the failures.”

Mechanical engineering student Matthew Kay said he came to the Teach-In as “an ambivalent skeptic.” He remained a skeptic afterward, although he did agree with Oreskes’ point about the importance of government regulation.

“I think there’s a lot of fear-mongering going on about government control. People need to put things in perspective. This isn’t a dictatorship,” said Kay, who added that he was “moved” after hearing Lowell native Rich Lemoine, executive director of administrative services, environmental and emergency management, describe how the once-polluted Merrimack River is now safe again for swimming.

“I came here with that dark attitude that everything is getting worse,” Kay said. “I suppose on a local level things can be turned around. I think that’s where a lot of people are going to feel power.”

Faith Malay, a senior civil and environmental engineering major who was attending her fourth Teach-In, enjoyed hearing about climate change from the perspective of a historian like Oreskes.

“She was incredible. She has done so much research on why no one cares about this issue besides scientists, even though there’s been consensus for 50 years,” said Malay, who as president of Civil Engineers for Change plans to pass on what she learned when the club travels to Haiti in January to work on a wastewater management system.

Leading roles

Just prior to this year’s Teach-In the CCI hosted a special program called the “Climate Leadership and World Climate Simulation Event,” which attracted nearly 30 faculty members, state legislators and local business leaders. The simulation, which will be used at the upcoming COP21 United Nations climate change negotiations in Paris, gave attendees the chance to experience the geopolitical and social dynamics of climate negotiations by playing the roles of U.N. delegates from a variety of developed and developing nations.

Delegates from the most developed nations like the United States and Germany were seated at a large conference table and provided platters of fruit and cheese, while delegates from under-developed nations like Pakistan were required to sit on the floor with no food.

“It’s such a rich exercise and opportunity for reflection,” said Rooney-Varga, who ran the simulation. 

Afterward, participants were asked which emotion best described their feeling about the challenge of addressing climate change: sadness, fear, anger or joy. Ruairi O'Mahony, associate director for the Office of Sustainability, was in the “fearful” majority. 

“I think the fear is real that there are groups out there trying to debunk this on a daily basis and sway public opinion, when all of the science and all of the data points to this being a very real problem,” O’Mahony said.  

Mechanical engineering lecturer and CCI member Michele Putko is such a fan of the simulation that last year she ran a variation of it for her program’s 150 graduating seniors, requiring them to develop plans for a power plant in the age of a carbon tax.

“It changes the whole economic analysis, and all of a sudden they’re talking about social, political and environmental issues,” said Putko, who hoped her students took what they learned at the Climate Change Teach-In to heart.

“Engineering students have so much mandatory math and science that they don’t really have time to think about the global environmental impact of what they’re studying,” Putko said. “I’m so happy that the university puts on this special day for students to give them a little bit of real climate change analysis.”