Sociology students’ survey shows few deniers, but lingering apathy on campus

Spencer Glendon speaks at the UMass Lowell Climate Change Teach-In Image by Tory Germann

Spencer Glendon, researcher and partner at Wellington Management Co., speaks at the Climate Change Teach-In.

By Ed Brennen

Before hundreds of students attended the seventh annual David Lustick Climate Change Teach-In to learn about the challenges facing our warming planet, a small team of sociology students took the university’s temperature on the issue.

Two weeks before the Nov. 3 teach-in, students in Assoc. Prof. Charlotte Ryan’s “Sociological Perspectives on Communication and Social Change” course surveyed 125 undergraduates across all majors to find out what they think about climate change’s future impact on their lives and careers, and whether climate change is a topic of discussion in their classes.

What they found was both encouraging and surprising.

While just 3 percent of students surveyed were outright deniers of climate change, 51 percent fell into the “not concerned” category.

Provost Michael vayda pumps up the crowd Image by Tory Germann
Provost Michael Vayda gets the crowd pumped up.

“That was the most shocking thing to me,” said Sarah Steinberg, a senior liberal arts major from Newton who helped conduct the survey. “A lot of people said, ‘It’s going to happen but it’s not going to affect me. It’s something for my children and my children’s children to worry about.’”

The survey was conducted on behalf of the Climate Change Initiative, which co-sponsors the annual teach-in with the Office of Sustainability. The survey results were used to give this year’s featured speakers, Michael Gordon, executive director and founding partner of the Climate Action Business Association, and Spencer Glendon, partner and researcher at Wellington Management Company, a snapshot of their audience’s thinking.

Ryan noted that a comparable survey conducted five years ago by the CCI showed that 30 percent of students didn’t think climate change was real.

“So we’re seeing huge progress in what our students think,” Ryan said, “but we still have a lot of work to do.”

Student Sabrina Pederson speaks at the Climate Change Teach-In Image by Tory Germann
Student Sabrina Pedersen, president of the Climate Change Coalition and the Evolution and Ecology Club, encourages students to get involved.

Chancellor Jacquie Moloney opened the teach-in by highlighting the university’s inclusion of sustainability in its 2020 Strategic Plan — along with this year’s formation of the Sustainability Academic/Research Committee, which seeks to promote and enhance environmental stewardship, sustainability and climate change literacy throughout campus.

“We all own this problem, and here at UMass Lowell we know that everyone contributes to the solution,” said Moloney, who noted that the university has been successful in reducing its carbon footprint while expanding its infrastructure and enrollment. “A hallmark of UMass Lowell education and research is that we take what we’re doing, as we’re rebuilding this campus infrastructure, and use it as a laboratory so we can have a positive impact on the next generation.”

A pair of student speakers, Sabrina Pedersen, president of the Climate Change Coalition and the Evolution & Ecology Club, and Shyam Sheth, president of Engineers for a Sustainable World, encouraged attendees to become involved on campus, while several student groups, including DifferenceMakers, Cool Science and Support Our Students, had information tables.

Student clubs gave out information about how to get involved. Image by Ed Brennen
Student groups tabling with information about clubs and initiatives.

This year’s teach-in was named in memory of Assoc. Prof. David Lustick, a founding member of the CCI who lost his battle with cancer in August at age 53.

Prof. John Wooding, who is serving as the CCI’s acting director this year while Assoc. Prof. Juliette Rooney-Varga is on sabbatical, remembered Lustick as a “magnificent educator, colleague and friend.”

“We know we’re living in a world gone wrong, and David tried to correct that world,” Wooding told the nearly 400 students in attendance. “He did so by going out in the community, by singing songs, writing music and arguing with people about why we should care about the environment and climate change. In his memory, I ask you to think about how David lived his life, and go out there and do something for sustainability.”

The teach-in kicked off the two-day 2016 National and International Partnerships in Sustainability Workshop, a collaborative effort between the Office of Sustainability and the Center for Irish Partnerships that brought together sustainability educators, practitioners, NGOs and industry and government leaders.