Traffic stopped on Sheridan Road as a group of striking students marched through the intersection en route to the Rebecca Crown Center administrative offices. They gathered and marched as part of an international youth-led climate strike. The striking students published a list of demands, which included that Northwestern divest from fossil fuels as well as fund and increase SustainNU staff. As they marched, they chanted, “What do we want? Divestment! When do we want it? Now!”
Climate change is no longer a problem of the future, nor can it be ignored. With the IPCC reporting last fall that we have to halve our fossil fuel use within 15 years to keep warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius, climate change has become even more salient. If we don’t cut our fossil fuel use, the IPCC projects the world will reach this 1.5-degree mark by the year 2040, much sooner than previously imagined. At this point, we will see even worse wildfires, food shortages and coral reef die-offs.
This urgency is prompting action, and with the 2020 presidential election approaching, some have taken to politics to effect change. Governor Jay Inslee of Washington is running in the Democratic primary on a platform that centers climate change as the number one issue. And progressive Democrats are rallying around the Green New Deal, a concept for a package of legislation to minimize carbon output and ensure economic stability in the climate crisis. While the idea has been around for years, it's recently been championed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the youth-led Sunrise Movement.
In light of these events, NBN gathered some campus environmental leaders on Feb. 19 for a roundtable discussion on climate change and the future of our planet. The conversation that followed covered the IPCC report, apathy around climate issues, the potential (or lack thereof) for “clean coal,” the Green New Deal and where, in the midst of so much bad news, we can find hope for the future.
The roundtable included:
Shay Lebovitz, a Weinberg sophomore studying chemistry. He is the president of Real Food NU.
Patty Loew, a journalism professor and the co-director of the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research. She is a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. Her most recent book, Seventh Generation Earth Ethics, the winner of the 2014 Midwest Book Award for Culture.
Lisa Mende, a Weinberg sophomore studying environmental science. She is the vice president of the special-interest residence hall Green House.
Tess Russell, a McCormick junior studying environmental engineering. She’s been involved in the activities of Green House, where she served as Communications Chair.
Keith Woodhouse, a history professor with an appointment in the Environmental Policy and Culture Program. He researches 20th century environmental politics, most recently publishing his book The Ecocentrists: A History of Radical Environmentalism last year.
NBN: To start us off, I want to think about the year 2040, mentioned in the IPCC report. How do you think we should react to this upcoming deadline, now that we have this information?
Tess Russell: I don’t know about you guys, but I’m a little scared. I think that it’s sad that we’ve come to this point. And right now for me, seeing a lot of the politics going on and seeing that people still aren’t willing to change even though it’s our future, it’s really saddening to me.
Shay Lebovitz: I think a lot of people are under the impression that the free market in general will allow for us to transition more to green energy, but considering that the deadline is so close, there’s going to need to be more than that. Because a lot of people that are of that position maybe don’t realize the urgency of the situation.
Keith Woodhouse: We could get to 2040, and there will probably be a lot of human suffering and destruction of the nonhuman world, but then we’ll set another deadline, right? And say it’s going to get really bad by 2055 or whatnot. As important as it is to realize how rapidly things are changing and how different the world will be by 2040, I think it’s also really important to realize that it’s happening now, and a lot of people are being affected. We live in something of a little cushion in the United States, because it’s a wealthy nation. And we’re here in the Midwest – we’re not experiencing ocean rise or anything. But there are people all around the world who are already being displaced.
Patty Loew: That was where I was going to go, but I didn’t want you all to start reaching for sharp objects. I think when you live in a city or a suburb, you’re kind of insulated in some ways. The place that I spend most of my time, on my reservation, we are really seeing the effects of climate change. Our birch bark is getting thinner, and there’s not as much of it. We don’t have as many berries. The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, which is an environmental group for the 11 Ojibwe bands up through Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan that signed the cession treaties that essentially brought those states into the union, they’ve been compiling longitudinal data since 1984 when they began. We know that lake ice is forming later, it’s breaking up earlier. There are definite changes to our landscape that are creating really adverse conditions for us. Native Americans tend to be invisible, but you go to Alaska, there are entire communities that have had to leave their homelands because they are now underwater. So it’s already happening to us.
Lisa Mende: Yeah, for people who are not in these communities that are getting affected, they do feel like, “Oh it’s not happening in the U.S., and we don’t have to worry about that.” People aren’t seeing that things are happening currently, like right now that there’s being big effects from climate change. They don’t feel the need to change the market because they think it’s still in the future.
Russell: The one other thing that [Woodhouse’s] comment sort of sparked in me was saying if you put a deadline on it and say a lot of bad things are going to happen in this year, sometimes that can instill so much fear into people that they sort of say, “Oh, well that’s that. There’s nothing we can do about it.”
Russell: Yeah, so you want to also be careful with instilling too much fear. Although, definitely climate change is something that you’ve got to get people to do something about, and sometimes fear works, but you also have to be careful and don’t let people lose hope.
Loew: That’s a good point. I mean, I’ve seen periods in my life where the whole world is just kind of holding onto the ledge. The Cuban Missile Crisis – we thought we were all going to be nuked. So we have to be optimistic, otherwise we’re not gonna be able to move forward.
I had a question. My sense, especially in the last week, is that some people in very highly placed positions confuse weather with climate change. And I’m not sure how to address that.
Woodhouse: Yeah, I think that’s one of the many ways in which the time scales are very hard for us to grasp. We’re really used to measuring things by our human time scales, like what’s a warm winter or a cold summer, rather than looking at sort of longer term trends and things that are more subtle. I think the longitudinal studies that you mentioned and the relative ice cover is something that most people don’t pay attention to, certainly not in Chicago. I mean, I live pretty near the lake and I don’t see it very often. I’m not really conscious of how much the lake is frozen over, so these are all these –
Woodhouse: Yes, very subtle indicators. Some people are noticing and some people are not, but for many, it’s just only the most obvious things. Short of polar ice descending on the entire hemisphere, it’s just never going to be enough to qualify as evidence.
Lebovitz: I think that there definitely is a problem with people not understanding what climate change actually is, but I think there’s a bigger population that fully understands what’s happening, but simply doesn't care and would prefer putting American innovation and economy over that. They just don’t seem to be able to grasp the urgency of this. And then the common thing to say to those people is, “What about your kids?” And then they’re like, I don’t know what they say –
Loew: “They’ll figure it out.”
Lebovitz: Yeah, “They’ll figure it out. Things are always changing, you know, we’ve just got to deal with this change.” So I think that a big percentage of the people that are against maybe doing the Paris summit are probably under that mentality that maybe they understand, but they just don’t care.
NBN: How do you think you could change that mentality?
Russell: That’s the million-dollar question.
Woodhouse: I think this is something that anybody who’s concerned about climate change really wrestles with. And you know one answer – and I’m not completely comfortable with this answer, although I’m mostly comfortable with this answer – is fear. That’s actually a powerful emotion and one that the people, Shay, that you’re talking about, maybe don’t feel enough fear for themselves or for their children, or other people they don’t know. We need to have hope, obviously, and we need to believe that we can address the problem and make a better world. But I think one of the things that’s always motivated every sort of social and political movement that’s ever been successful is a potent mix of hope, fear, anger, frustration, all of those things are bound together. That’s what sparks political action.
Loew: One of the things that I think is really important – and I know we don’t have this problem here in Medill – but I think creating good journalists. I think one of the problems is that I see a lot of so-called reporters setting up false equivalencies. The reporter, in some crazy effort to be fair and unbiased, or really wants to be biased in the case of certain networks, goes out and finds that one lone voice out there in the wilderness who is saying, “No, there is no climate change, it’s just God giving us a hug,” or – no, I totally stole that from Tina Fey playing Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live. But you will always find some person who is going to have that contrary view, even if there’s no credible science behind it. And if your average viewer at home sees two people presented as credible sources on both sides of the issue, that’s a problem.
Mende: Education is one of the big things. Like now, in my high school, computer science is required. Why not an environmental science class?
Lebovitz: I think a lot of people feel very discouraged about the whole thing and think the effort is just not worth it. But it doesn’t give them an excuse to just disregard it.
Woodhouse: Yeah, I think a lot of theorists who write about climate change talk about that feeling of disempowerment. Climate change is one of the biggest problems that we face today, and yet it seems like none of us as individuals can really do anything about it. Right? I mean, whatever little acts you take are, in the end, just tiny drops in the bucket. I think especially for young people, who think this is our generation’s big challenge and yet there’s no sort of obvious avenue for doing anything about it. Especially when the powers that be and the institutions that hold the greatest influence seem really unwieldy, if not outright reluctant, and refuse to do anything.
Loew: I think the narrative needs to change. I would really like to see us frame climate change as something that’s happening right now, and bring it home. We need to be talking about climate change in very real, backyard terms.
Lebovitz: Just coming from California, experiencing the drought, it was a huge deal. I think most Californians were cognizant of that.
Loew: And did they tie it to climate change, or was it just a bad year?
Lebovitz: Well, it was like five bad years in a row, and that’s what really did it. I think that was when people were really like, “Wow this is affecting us now.” And you know, we had to cut back water and all this stuff.
Loew: I just came back from taking a grad class to Hopi and Navajo lands, and they’re in their twelfth year of a drought, and next year Phoenix is going to start rationing water. That’ll help people get real in a hurry. And people are using that phrase, climate change. I wish we didn’t have to experience natural disasters to get to that point, but that may be what it takes – and framing it not just as an isolated natural disaster, but helping people understand that it’s all connected, may be more important.
NBN: In the presidential election, a lot of the Democratic candidates have been talking about a Green New Deal. What would you like to see from this, and do you think there is hope in it?
Russell: I really think it needs to get more on people’s radar. These reports keep coming out and it keeps scaring people. Voting is so key, and I remember the past couple elections when I’ve been looking up candidates, their environmental platforms are often nonexistent or hard to find. So I think we totally need to change that culture. I think candidates should have very clear and very pro-green agendas for helping the environment, and I think the Green New Deal could help move us toward all of that and more of that.
Lebovitz: I think that the biggest thing we can do is just invest more in science, because we’re going to need some scientific solution, whether it’s carbon filtration, or something along those lines. That’s what we really need in the end.
Mende: Back from when we were talking about markets and things, there should be some sort of carbon tax or some sort of way to monitor carbon usage instead of like now there’s really nothing. Because we do still have coal power plants, and “clean coal,” which –
Loew: Is an oxymoron.
Mende: Yes, it is, and it’s way too expensive. My dad is an electrician and his electrical union, some off-branch of it was working on a clean coal power plant in Illinois a few years ago. And it was like a billion dollars to make one section of the clean coal plant, which is crazy. It’s not cheaper, I feel like, to keep using coal than it is to switch to renewable energy. And with that, I think there has to be some sort of plan to help families of the current coal miners. It’s not just the big evil coal mining owner, there’s a bunch of people who rely on that for their lives. There will be jobs in clean energy, but we need to teach people how to do them so they’re not just left behind.
Loew: I think that’s so important, Lisa. You can’t just say no, you’ve got to show them something that’s better.
Woodhouse: I think that’s one of the exciting things about the Green New Deal. It’s not only an attempt to retool our economy away from fossil fuels, but it includes a lot of economic programs – guaranteed wages and job training and expanded social benefits – that a lot of critics have looked at and said, “Well, these are not really quote-unquote green programs, they’re just sort of a grab bag of vaguely socialist policies.” And I think the answer is exactly your point – that if you transition from a fossil fuel economy to a renewable economy, there’s going to be a lot of people who get caught in that transition and lose their jobs as industries retool. So all of those various economic programs are designed to create a safety net for those people, right? And to make sure that people like coal miners are not simply left out in the cold when the coal industry inevitably ends. So I think that all of those economic programs and benefits are part and parcel, because economic justice and climate change have to be applied together.
NBN: We started out today talking about fear. I want to flip that now, and ask what gives you hope when you’re looking into the future?
Russell: A lot of the time what makes the news are the naysayers, are the people that you just shake your head at, but there’s a lot of good stuff out there. And studying environmental engineering, I’m learning a lot about it in my classes, more than I’ve ever known before, and so to be part of that movement really excites me. I know that people see the problem, and I know there’s work being done to get us to the other side.
Lebovitz: I’m mostly hopeful in the science aspect, because there are solutions being thought of and tested as we speak, and I think that’s really going to make a big difference in facing climate change.
Mende: Other than just new technology, the fact that a lot of younger people are actually caring about this. Hopefully soon there will be more young people getting into positions of power so we actually can do things, because climate change is, I think, unfortunately a very polarized topic for no reason that I can see that makes logical sense.
People, I don't think, realize how political it needs to be. How they can’t just be like, “Well, I have my reusable coffee mug, so I’m good on the environment today.” There needs to be more political change, so hopefully more younger people will be getting into that instead of 60-, 70-year-old people who have been in it for a very long time.
Loew: And messed it up.
Woodhouse: I think that what gives me hope is what I see as a slowly growing wave of activism around climate change, and the most exciting so far I think has been the Dakota Access [Pipeline]. That was, I think, a really crucial moment in which people really banded together, led by Native peoples, and had direct-action confrontation with what they considered to be a real threat, this pipeline carrying crude tar sands oil. I think that hopefully this global problem will really breed the most local forms of activism, where people are organizing and getting together to fight climate change in order to protect the lands that are most familiar to them, the lands that they know. And are meeting people and connecting with people through that and are just engaging in that old-fashioned sort of organizing and activism that creates a sense of community.
Loew: I’ve lived through desegregation, which was really polarizing. I’ve lived through violence on boat landings over treaty rights, and I saw these polarized groups emerging. And yet, on environmental issues, I see them coming together, which is really a strange case of political bedfellows. You have the Cowboy and Indian alliance over DAPL: You know, here are the ranchers and the Native people [who] have fought for generations, and yet they’re riding together because they had this mutual concern over this unneeded pipeline. All of a sudden, these strange coalitions of people that have really had nothing but animosity forever, they’re meeting together to strategize about who they’re going to elect that might vote their way on the county board, or what ordinance they might draft together. People are seeing clean air, clean water, as something that they can create a certain solidarity around. That to me gives me hope.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.