Education or Advocacy? Engaging a Hotter World

Professors have an obligation to respond to the crisis of global climate change with a new form of engaging their students, writes Eban Goodstein.

January 20, 2009

This winter, I am doing an unusual thing for a professor of economics. Working with thousands of other professors across the country, I am organizing a national teach-in on global warming solutions. Together we are urging campuses and communities to debate an ambitious goal for America: cuts in carbon of 40 percent below current levels by 2020. Events are happening at more than 600 colleges, universities and K-12 schools across the country -- with lectures, faculty and student symposia, debates, theater performances, technology fairs, art shows. And at every school, we are encouraging students to engage directly with their political leaders about polices for a stable climate.

A few of my colleagues wonder: Have I gone rogue? Crossed some inviolable academic line? Not the way I see it. We are alive at an extraordinary moment, one that demands especially from educators, an extraordinary responsibility.

A confluence of biophysical and social processes -- the physics of heat trapping gases, the faltering of the consumption-driven, global economic system, and the re-energizing of our own democratic political process – all this has created space for deliberate human action to reshape the future. As a nation, the decisions that we make -- or fail to make -- in the next year will have profound consequences, not only for our children, and for their children, but in fact, for every human being who will ever inhabit the earth from now until the end of time.

Many people refer to my parents’ generation -- who were raised in the Great Depression and fought and won World War II -- as the Greatest Generation. But in fact, today’s young people must become, quickly, the Greatest Generation.

To hold global warming to the manageable low end, by the time today’s students reach my age -- in 2040 -- they will be bringing an end to the fossil fuel era. Within the next decade, they will have to begin to rewire the entire planet with clean energy technologies; redesign every city on earth; re-imagine the global food system; reinvent transportation. In so doing, they can create tens of millions of jobs, help lift billions of people out of poverty, stabilize the global climate, and lay the foundation for a truly just and prosperous world. This is their profound challenge, and with the stakes so high, they simply cannot fail.

As educators, where does this leave us? Over the coming years, we must prepare young people for the heroic task ahead. This means, across the curriculum, giving them the tools to think creatively and practically, to solve the complex engineering, ecological and social design problems that they must solve in the coming decades. At a recent gathering of 2,000 faculty, staff and students at the meetings of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Education, these topics were very much on the table.

But in the very short run, we have another job to do. As did my parents’ contemporaries, today’s young people must assume the mantle of the Greatest Generation at age 20 -- in this case, not on the beaches of Normandy, but rather in state capitals across the country, and in Washington. For students, global warming is not about partisan politics, left and right, Republican and Democrat. Rather, it will define the actual world that they and their children inherit and in which they will live, love and die. Only young people posses the moral authority to demand the kind of action from our government needed soon: laws stabilizing and then cutting global warming pollution, and channeling tens of billions of dollars into clean energy research. It is their future, and no one else can speak for them.

Over the coming months, we owe our students readings, seminars, paper assignments, lectures, quizzes and exams, colloquia, internship experiences, and co-curricular opportunities that expose them to the vast historical stakes of this political moment. We must equip them to engage in informed and skilled ways, now, with the inhabitants of statehouses and the White House, and empower the voices of young people to help shape solutions for their future.

This is not crossing a line into advocacy. Advocates have the narrow -- and important-- social task of lobbying for a specific piece of legislation or agenda. Advocacy runs counter to education when understanding is sacrificed to political expediency. And yet, from fear of being falsely characterized as advocates, educators cannot now shy away from the implications of global warming science. Almost three years ago, the head of the NASA Goddard Space Research Institute at Columbia University, James Hansen, said this: “How long have we got? We have to stabilize emissions of carbon dioxide within a decade, or temperatures will warm by more than one degree [C, 2 degrees F] That will be warmer than it has been for half a million years, and many things could become unstoppable… We don't have much time left.”

Last year, Rajendra Pachuari, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), the body charged with assessing the consensus science, said this: “If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.”

What Hansen and Pachauri meant is without serious action before 2012, a window will close, forever. The IPPC has shown that if we are to hold global warming to the low end, 3-5 degrees F, then emissions in the industrial countries must stabilize and begin to decline rapidly in the next few years. If not, then the best our kids will be looking at will be a global heating of 4-6 degrees F.

And as Hansen and other scientists have been telling us with increasing desperation, the last time the world was 6 degrees F hotter than it is today, sea levels were 75 foot higher and the island of Manhattan was largely submerged. Every tenth of a degree matters, because it raises the possibility that we might cross an emissions threshold that would lock in a temperature increase that would trigger some catastrophic outcome -- not only massive sea level rise, but also, potentially, fire-driven deforestation in the Amazon and elsewhere, or large scale methane releases from the tundra. The full impact of crossing these biophysical tipping points might take hundreds of years or more to be completely felt, but once set in motion, they would be unstoppable.

Most Americans do not know this. Increasingly the public accepts that global warming is real, and scary, but very few people understand how critical are the policy decisions that will be made in 2009 and 2010. Will Congress pass laws that stabilize and begin aggressive cuts in global warming pollution in the United States, and fund large scale investment in clean energy technologies? If so, we keep that window -- for achieving a stable climate in a recognizable world -- cracked open. If not, we dramatically raise the risks that our grandchildren will inhabit what Harvard economist Martin Weitzman has called a “terra incognita biosphere," driven by a swing in global temperatures of ice-age magnitude only in the opposite direction.

For the last 30 years scientists have conducted an exhaustive international assessment, searching desperately for some other explanation then the blanketing effect of carbon dioxide to explain the rapid warming of the planet. It is not solar variation; it is not natural cycles; and the simple carbon blanket story explains the data with frightening elegance. The IPCC has shown that the window to initiate action to hold global warming to the low end is measured in months, not years. And while many political leaders do not understand the profound risks posed by the non-linear dynamics of the climate system, as educators we do. If we do not help our students to engage now in these critical decisions, we will fail them, and we will fail ten thousand generations to follow.

The science is clear; the solutions are not. Political action is needed to lower the risks of catastrophic consequences, but what kind of action? How much mitigation and how soon? How much adaptation and what kind? Can we insure a “just transition”, protecting low income people from higher energy prices, and compensating workers who might lose their jobs? Young people are eager both to debate these ideas, and fight for their beliefs.

Last year I addressed several thousand young climate leaders in Washington D.C., who had gathered there for a weekend of training, followed by the biggest youth lobby day in the history of the United States. Students fanned out across the capital visiting the offices of over 300 representatives and senators. These are impressive young people, among the best and the brightest, the most sophisticated and capable, that America has ever produced. Our primary job as educators now is to help them become – very quickly – the leaders that they must be.

Since Plato’s founding of the Academy, promoting civic leadership has been integral to our mission. Today, training leaders is an unusual focus for educators, buried as we are under piles of papers and the requirements of research. These are, however, unusual times. Three decades of peer-reviewed science, producing thousands of publications, all synthesized by the IPCC, has laid out the extraordinary challenge.

None of us asked for this. And yet, here we are, over the next few years, demanded to show of what grace and intelligence the human species is capable. With the support of educators focused on this mission, today’s young people can carry us towards a stable climate, and a just and sustainable future.


Eban Goodstein is professor of economics at Lewis & Clark College and director of the National Teach-In on Global Warming Solutions, scheduled for February, 2009.


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