A sign at a protest reads, "The climate is changing, why aren't we?"

A sign at a protest reads, “The climate is changing, why aren’t we?” on September 20, 2019.

(Photo: Markus Spiske/Unsplash)

The Climate Crisis Demands Collective and Individual Leadership and Responsibility

Not everyone can lower their carbon footprint, but every person can do one thing within a community context of support.

As temperatures continued to rise this summer, with dire predictions that the next year will be hotter than the one that preceded it, communities around the globe have added climate adaptation and building resilient infrastructure to their list of priorities. Grim statistics greet us as we read news stories, ranging from the worldwide crash of the amphibian population to the decline of pollinators, so necessary for global food production. Recently, the increased temperatures in the southern Florida Keys have caused coral reefs to bleach and struggle for survival. In many cases, these corals will die, eliminating entire ecosystems. The recent deadly wildfires in Maui and tropical storm in Mexico and Southern California remind us that the climate crisis, in addition to human decisions, continues to have dire effects.

These stark reminders reveal that we are now on the runaway climate train. Even if we stopped emitting all carbon tomorrow (impossible of course), the snowball effect will continue for decades.

Interestingly, the climate crisis may be one of the few environmental issues for which we have the technical knowledge to implement significant mitigation and minimize deleterious effects. Like the depletion of the ozone layer, solutions are possible. Over time, we have reduced and virtually eliminated ozone depleting chemicals in the atmosphere after the signing of the 1987 ozone treaty, also known as the Montreal Protocol. The annual Antarctic ozone hole has been slowly shrinking for the past two decades. We did, indeed, collectively stop a runaway train.

If we all do a little, we will benefit ourselves and our descendants. They deserve no less from us.

In this technological age, there is plenty of discourse about what could mitigate the climate crisis: cloud seeding, emissions reductions, lowering our meat intake, changing agricultural practices, the list goes on. We also need to consider what each of us can do in our personal and professional spheres to transition both human societies and the species of the Earth that depend on our good sense. The Montreal Protocol required the support of the business sector as well as government; so too will our success in addressing the climate crisis.

As President of Fielding Graduate University, I work with faculty, students, and others residing in 28 states and other countries on ecological justice and other issues. The increasing temperatures conversation is part of a broader commitment to protecting our climate through action. Universities, as well as individuals, can play four important roles.

First, distributed learning models can allow students and faculty to learn together in non-campus settings. Fielding was among the early inventors of this idea, which is so simple yet revolutionary. Rather than have people quit their jobs and move their families to earn advanced degrees, our founders envisioned that our students, with faculty, could learn in their own communities. It fits perfectly within a new economy in which we can utilize virtual solutions for advanced learning and professional achievement. Distributed learning is intrinsically more energy efficient and less carbon emitting. Many other institutions are already operating along these lines.

Second, fostering professional careers in the social sciences is crucial in addressing the climate crisis. The skills needed for large-scale change include personal resilience and adaptability, as well as the qualities of being able to hold complexity and paradox within us. More fundamentally, we will not be able to take constructive action if we are all anxious and depressed. In general, there is a growing mental health crisis in our country. Universities’ success in graduating clinicians is an important way that we can help human beings go through the expected global economic and social transformation. They are equipped with knowledge about how to cope with ecological grief and loss and can respond to change in healthy ways.

Third, universities that are focused on undergraduates and the STEM professions can build programs that specifically prepare generations of students to hone their talents to face the coming age with personal courage and significant expertise. For example, since Fielding focuses on adult learners and mid-career professionals, one contribution was the creation of a center with other university partners to specifically foster participants in STEM leadership to advance their STEM careers. Fielding’s Center for the Advancement of STEM Learning (CASL) develops leadership skills among those already tasked with leading institutions into the future. Developing mentoring, building skills, and increasing psychological strength are all important qualities for the transformation ahead.

The fourth role is about personal choices. We are all in different circumstances. Not everyone can lower their carbon footprint. Not everyone can get off the carbon train by buying an electric vehicle, becoming a vegan, declining to have children, or deciding not to fly again. However, every person can do one thing within a community context of support. Each of us must ask ourselves, what action can one take for the benefit of the whole without passing a judgment?

Scientists are now saying that “excessive heat will get more democratic” in the coming years as fragile systems fail, places that never had heatwaves will suffer, and people become more vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

It is simple, really. One, if you have leadership responsibility in your community organization, think about what can be done with your unique sphere, as my university has done. Second, be intentional about choices and support others in theirs. If we all do a little, we will benefit ourselves and our descendants. They deserve no less from us. The pressing question all of us can ask is: So, what are you going to do about it?

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