Saturday, December 8, 2012

A Question to the Campus Community: Why Should We Care?

I write now both as a member of the college delegation that just returned from the U.N. climate conference (COP18) in Qatar and as co-chair of this year’s In Focus theme on sustainability.  The global phenomenon of climate change is likely the biggest challenge to a sustainable future.

The U.N. negotiations in Doha ran over into Saturday, and thus far, no significant outcomes or agreements have been reported.  Instead, what you get from groups like RTCC (Responding to Climate Change) are tweets (and linked news stories) such as:

- Protests: Doubts grow over Qatari leadership at UN climate talks
- Blackmail: Venezuela accuses rich states of holding developing world to ransom
- NGO anger: Climate talks “sleepwalking towards disaster
- Brazil: Absence of acceptable Kyoto deal threatens UN climate process.

Many of you might ask, "Why should we care?"  For one answer, I suggest that you read my most recent blog post entitled "The Cost of Inaction" at and read the news report below about the “Loss and Damage” negotiations.

The US response to proposed new financial compensation for nations worst hit by climate change threatens to define the UN summit’s finale.[1]

As negotiations ran into the early hours of the morning [Saturday] the US clashed with the Alliance of Island Small Island States (AOSIS) on the issue of Loss and Damage. This is the proposed mechanism to compensate countries worst affected by climate change.

The dispute spilled into a separate meeting room last night where protesters gathered to back AOSIS.

A small island state negotiator was seen leaving in tears. The BBC’s Roger Harrabin reports that before the text was agreed Todd Stern, the US chief negotiator, was heard saying: “I will block this. I will shut this down.”

The EU is understood to be trying to persuade AOSIS to weaken its stance in Doha and carry the debate into later round of talks. Whether the US accepts any mention of a future mechanism remains to be seen.

As we break for the holidays, many of you may go to see the new movie release Les Misérables.  The book on which the film is based, first published in 1862, has been called "one of the half-dozen greatest novels of the world".  In Upton Sinclair’s 1915 book The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest, he references Hugo’s remarks in the Preface of Les Misérables”:

So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.
Where are the books, the authors like Hugo and Sinclair, calling attention to the social injustices resulting from climate change?  Although more of a journalist report than an enduring literary piece, Christian Parenti’s Tropic of Chaos:  Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence describes how climate change will exacerbate violence in areas already prone to conflict.[2]  Poverty and lack of access to water are common themes in the book.  Countless research studies and NGO reports have been published that show how the poor are already experiencing the impacts of climate change, despite contributing little to the causes.  Areas that are prone to drought are predicted to become even drier.  Both the Pentagon and the State Department have included climate change and its impact on national security in their strategic plans (making Todd Stern’s comments above even more puzzling).  One of my current students who plans to enlist in the military after graduation this spring told me how, while in basic training, they were told about the expectations for growing conflict due to both climate change and water scarcity.  His seminar on water scarcity this semester was riveting.  (All of this reminds me of the French Revolution and other such historical events when there were large disparities between the “haves” and the “have nots”.)

We don't have campus-wide discussions about climate change.  I don’t know how many from the campus community follow our blog.  I hope that the responses from the students in my three environmentally-themed courses this semester (who were strongly encouraged to read our reports from Qatar) aren’t indicative of the rest of campus.  Marla, the student who was part of the Moravian delegation this year, commented several times about the different level of engagement between the U.S. youth compared to those from other countries.  This is a sentiment we have heard each year when students join us at the U.N. meetings.  Today, Nikki DeLuca, a student from York College in PA who is still in Qatar representing the American Chemical Society, writes about an “action” by U.S. Youth at COP18:

I have decided that this disappointing action shows a lot about the U.S. We seem to be unmotivated and uninvolved internationally, and do not possess the spirit that the other countries here obviously have.  I was just at a talk by the Costa Rican delegates, who have announced (and whole heartedly believe) that their country will be "carbon-neutral" in 9 years' time. Where is that ambition in the U.S.? Are we capable of being that ambitious and optimistic about anything? I am personally sick of the negativity, doubt, and lack of commitment I have been seeing.[3]

This week, two op-eds related to COP18 appeared in the Huffington Post that included quotes from Marla and mentioned Moravian College (see and ).  International coverage about the activities of a student from Moravian!  I was hoping that this would generate some buzz on campus about our involvement in the U.N. conferences and about climate change.  Instead, I received an email yesterday: “Must See T.V.:  Moravian College Alumnus Noah Rachels '00 in Winner’s Circle on Jeopardy!” 

There is hope, however.  I was encouraged to see the movement on some college campuses, including Swarthmore (also in Pennsylvania) that was described in a New York Times piece this week.[4]  A number of faculty members sent me the link to this article.  I was also contacted this week by an alumna, Rebecca V. Zoellner ’78, to see if Moravian is committed to this movement:

I’ve been receiving information about’s “Do the Math” tours and their push to get colleges and universities to divest themselves of holdings in fossil fuel companies. I found your name by searching for information about Moravian and sustainability initiatives. I’m proud to see that Moravian has such a commitment to this issue. What I’m wondering is whether there is significant investment in fossil fuel industries in the Moravian endowment and, if so, whether there is any effort on campus to change that. I don’t know if you have all that information, but perhaps you can point me in the right direction.

I would love to hold a campus dialog next semester to see how we should respond to Ms. Zoellner’s inquiry.  It seems quite appropriate to discuss a challenge like this during the “Year of Sustainability”.

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