Focus the Nation galvanizes campus

On Tuesday, Feb. 5, members of Thursday Night Group (TNG) organized a day of events for Focus the Nation (FTN), a nationwide effort on college campuses to promote environmental policy changes, local innovation and student activism. The community was invited to participate in workshops and discussions on sustainability, environmental challenges and opportunities to affect change on campus and in the local community. In addition, over 100 professors from the College pledged varying amounts of class time to discussing global climate change as it pertains to their disciplines.

The largest event during the daytime, a town hall forum in Brooks-Rogers Hall in which Dean Merrill, President Schapiro and other college experts participated in a panel discussion, highlighted the College’s carbon reduction goals and the impact of new building projects. Schapiro used the forum to outline the administration’s goal to reduce emissions to 10 percent below 1991 levels by 2020. He praised the Board of Trustees’ decision to move sustainability and emissions reduction to the forefront of issues to be addressed, vowing to include student input in administration decisions.

Also participating in Tuesday’s events were speakers representing the Williamstown COOL Committee, Williamstown Carbon Dioxide Lowering Committee and solar technology designer Craig Robertson, among others. Along with the speakers were panelists Morgan Goodwin ’08 and Will Bates of the Step It Up organizing team, who emphasized the significance of the involvement of students in the fight against climate change. “Youth have been at the forefront of social transformation,” said Goodwin in one of the discussions. “The youth vote is winning campus victories and gaining a national voice.”

During a workshop with architect Lee Clark, students were given the opportunity to discuss the design of the North and South Academic buildings currently under construction. The buildings, which will be LEED-certified, were the focus of some cautious criticism, as final designs are still pending.

The student organizers largely agreed that the events were a success. “The greatest thing about Focus the Nation was that the events and speakers came from all parts of the community, which is exactly the way we need to approach solutions to global warming,” said Elizabeth Irvin ’10, one of the student organizers of FTN. Irvin expressed some disappointment with the turnout at the workshops during the day, however, citing scheduling conflicts and publicity as possible areas for improvement.

Meredith Annex ’11, another student organizer, lauded the success of the faculty participation in the day’s events. “We got professors from almost every discipline,” Annex said. “The classroom is the only way to reach the entire campus. If students couldn’t go to Focus the Nation, Focus the Nation came to them.”

In terms of areas for refinement, Annex cited the need for a slight shift in focus. “We focused so much on educating about climate change,” she said. “If we do something like this in the future, it would be better to emphasize ways in which participants can take action in more concrete ways.”

Keynote address

The day culminated in a keynote address by Chris Flavin ’77, president of the Worldwatch Institute, a think tank focused on sustainability policy and technology. His talk, entitled “Climate of Hope: The Path to a Low-Carbon Economy,” focused on the urgent need for the entire world to transition from fossil fuels to a low-carbon economy based on renewable energy.

Flavin noted that while energy issues were a “hot” topic 30 years ago, depressingly little progress was made in solving these problems since he left the College 30 years ago. Calling this “very clearly one of the great failures of public policy” and “one of the biggest problems ever faced,” he said that we “cannot afford to screw it up again, or it will indeed be too late.”

Stressing the urgency of the situation, Flavin explained that there appears to be a clear tipping point with the climate. On June 23, 1988, Jim Hansen announced to Congress that the climate was clearly warming and that the correlation to the growing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere was clear. Greenhouse gases are now 30 percent higher than they were then, and the concentration is only increasing and placing unprecedented demands on the planet’s ecosystem. “To add greenhouse gases is to put not only the natural world at great risk, but also human society at great risk,” Flavin said.

According to Flavin, projections suggest that the world must cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2050 in order to deal with the issues presented by climate change. Currently, these emissions are increasing by 2 to 3 percent annually; the industrialization of China and India could easily raise emissions even more.

Calling this “the great challenge of the 21st century,” Flavin pointed to several key steps that must take place in order to achieve a comprehensive reduction in carbon emissions. He called for a total reinvention of the energy system, highlighting increased levels of efficiency, decentralization of the energy system and a shift to reliance on renewable resources rather than fossil fuels. Our current energy economy relies on fossil fuels for about 85 percent of its energy, but Flavin is optimistic that we can reduce this figure by a vast percentage thanks to new energy technologies.

Flavin remained relatively upbeat throughout the speech, saying that while it’s easy to be depressed by the amount of damage humans are inflicting on the natural world, the only way to truly solve a problem of this magnitude is to look at it as a great challenge. “His talk was a nice balance between doom and optimism,” said Caroline Goodbody ’08, a student who attended the address. “He pointed out the doom, but was also able to find optimism and hope in current advancements in technology and activism and mankind’s natural ability to change quickly.”

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