Climate Change End Game

President Obama went on record in his second inaugural address with his strongest statement ever about climate change.  He made an unequivocal declaration that the United States would lead on this crucial issue that will determine the viability of civilization.

His science advisor John Holdren followed up by stating that we should expect action.  Outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar promised that more detail would be forthcoming in Obama’s State of the Union address.  Indeed, the world is hungry for U.S. leadership, and convincing detail is needed if Obama is to recover any credibility on this issue of overwhelming importance.

With arguably less than a decade remaining to take meaningful action to avert catastrophic climate change, Obama’s declaration heralds the beginning of the end game for climate.  Failure to take action within the remaining narrow window of opportunity will make it increasingly likely that our species and the planet that we dominate will witness a millennium of  consequences.  Given the warming underway, the present generation of college students will experience a dangerously disrupted climate progressively during the second half of their lifetimes. This warming is already in the pipeline and there is little that we can do to change this. Climate change will effect every aspect of their lives and will be the defining environmental issue of the 21st century.   If we take action now, however, it is still possible to secure the viability of civilization for the next generation.

The stakes are enormous and we must mobilize the nations of the world to act.  This will require U.S. leadership and concerted coordination among governments everywhere.  By any reckoning, the changes that must take place are massive.  We must change our energy sources from fossil fuels within a few decades and this will require investments in infrastructure that are unprecedented during peacetime.   Similarly, we must mobilize our best scientists and scientific institutions to engage in development of strategies for mitigation and adaptation.  Without doubt there will be major challenges to our food supply, and it is urgent that we engage in the research and planning required to avoid widespread hunger.  Moreover, we can expect that existing biological communities will be dramatically transformed over decades, and we must develop dynamic adaptive management plans if we hope to maintain reliable ecosystem services.  It should be obvious that climate change will command a response from every profession and every walk of life.

Because the impacts of climate disruption will be pervasive throughout all sectors of our society, I see sustainability education as the obligatory mission of our educational institutions.  As administrators and educators, we are charged with providing students with the tools to renew civilization.  In the current crisis this means that we must make sustainability the thread that connects every discipline at the university.  Drawing on the successful pedagogy of writing across the curriculum, we must create pathways for sustainability education across the curriculum.  Relative to other institutions, Unity College is advanced in this paradigm shift through our adoption of sustainability science as the framework for academic programming.  In the coming years, I believe that Unity will shine a light on the path so that other institutions can follow.  There can be no higher value proposition for higher education than providing this generation of college students with the skills to meet the sustainability challenges of this century.  At Unity College we have planted the flag on the high ground, and we must now honor it by holding true to this noble and urgently needed mission.

As we enter the end game for action on climate change, I have one overarching recommendation for students and faculty: become activists.  Now is not  the time to be comfortable in our intellectual domains.  The consequences of inaction are unthinkable, yet the challenges before us are immense.  Thus, all other important issues in our academic universe pale by comparison.  Our future is on the line, and there is simply no more important issue than this one.  I am deeply frustrated with my academic colleagues who have not stepped up to the challenge of leadership.  We need their voices of understanding and authority.  As I have said in the past, I hope that each of us can look in the mirror in 20 years and know that we did everything we could.

One of the most inspiring voices that I have heard came from the recent COP 17 in Rio when a student from College of the Atlantic finally acquired the podium.  Her message was clear and direct: “Deep cuts now!  Get it done!”

Join us in Portland on Saturday as we rally to oppose the Eastern version of the tar sands pipeline.  Also plan to be on board one of the buses to D.C. to be part of the massive national rally on 17 February.

3 thoughts on “Climate Change End Game

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About Stephen Mulkey

Stephen Mulkey has recently served as Director of Research and Outreach/Extension for the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Florida, and as science advisor to the Century Commission for a Sustainable Florida. During this period, he was tenured faculty in the Department of Botany, and a research associate with the School of Forest Resources and Conservation at the University of Florida. He received a PhD in ecology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1986. Prior to coming to the University of Florida in 1996, Mulkey co-founded and later directed the International Center for Tropical Ecology, a nationally ranked graduate training and conservation program at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. Mulkey's research was focused on tropical forest form and function, and he was affiliated for over 20 years as a research associate with the Smithsonian Institution, Tropical Research Institute. He is a scholar of the interdisciplinary literature in climate change and sustainability. Mulkey is active as a public interpreter of climate change science. His recent research focuses on the role of landscape carbon stocks in climate mitigation. Beginning in August 2008, he joined the faculty at the University of Idaho as director of the program in Environmental Science. He has been the lead in obtaining National Science Foundation funding for the creation of the new Professional Science Master’s degree at the University of Idaho. Supported by major funding from NASA, he is presently directing a project focused on climate change education. Stephen Mulkey is the current president of Unity College in Unity, Maine. Efforts led by Mulkey have resulted in Unity College being the first college in the US to divest its endowment from the top 200 fossil fuel companies, and the first college in the US to adopt sustainability science as the framework for all academic programming.