University urges action in first Climate Change Symposium

    Colorado State University professor Michele Betsill speaks on climate change. Photo by Kevin Short.

    A sense of urgency about the hazards of climate change echoed through the McCormick Tribune Center today, as people gathered to discuss global warming at Northwestern’s first Climate Change Symposium. With just about a month left before the global climate conference Copenhagen, Denmark, a host of speakers from various universities gathered in Evanston to discuss how factors like the carbon cycle, the fossil record, renewable energy and public policy affect the Earth’s climate.

    Sponsored by the Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN), the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, the Program in Environmental Policy Culture and One Book One Northwestern, the event signals a movement within the university to bring sustainability issues to campus and to communicate the best science and policy to the community.

    “We only have three options: prevention, adaptation, or suffering,” keynote speaker Dr. Lonnie Thompson told the audience.

    In a speech that set the tone of the event, Thompson, a distinguished professor and research scientist at Ohio State University, addressed global warming from a paleoclimatic perspective — that is, by looking at the Earth’s climate in past centuries and millennia.

    Thompson ended his lecture with a quote from the eighteen century born German scientist Alexander Van Humboldt: “There are three stages of scientific discovery: first people deny it is true; then they deny it is important; finally they credit the wrong person.”

    “I don’t think human behavior has changed that much since then,” Thompson added.

    While the symposium coincides with growing worldwide interest in the climate change meeting in December, it is rather a part of a long-term initiative at Northwestern to introduce sustainability issues on campus.

    As part of this project, ISEN was established in October 2008 under President Henry Bienen to add interdisciplinary curricula, fund research and host events related to sustainability and energy issues. Moreover, deans from Weinberg and McCormick have appointed a committee to look at the issue of bringing a more coherent experience in environmental studies at Northwestern.

    “[Climate change] is in the news…How could Northwestern not be talking about this,” said Bridget E. Calendo, director of operations and outreach for ISEN.

    Meanwhile, the symposium also offered perspectives on the upcoming climate change meeting in Denmark in December, when delegates from 192 countries will gather at the 2009 United Nations Climate Conference in Copenhagen (also referred to as COP15) to address climate change policies beyond 2012. The year marks the expiration of the carbon trade emission targets set by the Kyoto Protocol.

    Climate is expected to become a hot-button issue at the negotiating table in Copenhagen, as the world’s developed and developing economies will seek to reconcile a series of policy decisions aimed at reducing carbon emissions.

    Some speakers at the Northwestern symposium remained skeptical about the outcomes of the COP15 talks.

    According to Brad Sageman, the department chair of the Earth and Planetary Sciences at Northwestern, the COP15 “reflects the commitment of the European nations.” But the Obama administration has recently been criticized for not taking a firm stand on climate change.

    “If the United States doesn’t become a leader in these issues, when are China and India going to follow suit?” Sageman said.

    Kevin Short contributed reporting for this article.


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