Will post-secondary students have the skills to address present, future problems in a changing climate?

Staff ~ The Sackville Tribune Post
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Trevor Donald


The recent strike at Mount Allison University aimed to address key issues such as faculty workload, salaries, pensions and benefits. Faculty also called on the administration to provide greater support to the university's core mission. Students were absent and largely uninformed about the negotiation process. How it can be expected for students who spend just four years at university and use the small amount of time they have here to fully ground themselves in their education to take part in the process that will potentially direct the mission of their university. It’s important to keep in mind though that the eighteen-year-olds who do choose to come to Mount Allison are free to make choices that are understandably pragmatic when tuition is rising and jobs are hard to come by. Will their values and the concerns of a more unstable and uncertain future be addressed by the university administration and faculty?

It still remains unclear what is the core mission of our post-secondary institutions today in terms of sustainability. Prior to the labour disruption, Stephen Mulkey, president of Unity College in Maine, came to Sackville and presented his lecture “Crisis and Opportunity in the Environment Century: a Manifesto for Higher Education”. Mulkey is an example of a university president who is showing leadership on climate change.

Mulkey spoke of his work as president of Unity College, becoming the first college in the country to divest from fossil fuels, as well as recently integrating climate change education across the entire curriculum. Unity's students study the complexity of interactions among the economy, society, and nature, a framework for the future known as "sustainability science."

Mulkey understands that education can serve two functions. It can be used as an instrument that is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity. Or, it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which students will go on to deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.

Mulkey stressed the importance of being solutions-focused with students. He personally accompanies them in busloads to D.C., where they express their environmental views while protesting around the White House. He encouraged everyone in the auditorium to do the same- to put aside our genteel tendencies and get out on the streets with students.

Mulkey reminded us that the concentrations of carbon dioxide are now higher than they have been in the past four million years, and the rate of carbon dioxide increase is faster than at any time in the past 65 million years. The Gulf of Maine is now experiencing 150-year record high ocean temperatures. The pace of ecological change is accelerating, Mulkey noted, and communities, ecosystems, and biomes will fundamentally change with many species going extinct.

When asked how he faces criticism for his actions, Mulkey replied, “To date, 32 national science academies have endorsed the fundamental reality of human-caused climate change. Numerous professional organizations have also made clear statements to support the mainstream science. Ninety-seven per cent of all climate scientists agree. NSF, NASA, NOAA, USDA, the NPS, and the CDC have active research programs predicated on the reality of human-caused climate change. It’s tough to criticize my actions when I have all these groups and science on my side.

"The clarity of the climate change threat could not be greater. It is most sobering to realize that our present emissions trajectory will result in a global average warming of over 5 degrees C by 2100. Such a planet will not sustain civilization in any recognizable form.

"The excess CO2 that is pumped into the air today will affect our planet for thousands of years into the future. I am not an alarmist, but I am alarmed. You should be too."

Towards the end of his lecture, Mulkey stressed that it is an ethical obligation to implement sustainable practices and prepare our students with a solutions-based approach.

He asked us all, "Will you be able to look in the mirror and say, 'I did the best I could'?”

The talk was part of a campaign led by Mount Allison students and supported by Prof. Brad Walters called Protest to Divest: Severing MTA’s Ties to the Tar Sands. The Centre for International Studies (CIS) partnered with the group to put on the lecture and though President Robert Campbell was unable to attend the presentation he hosted the reception afterwards

Almost 10,000 people signed a recent petition aimed ultimately at pressuring universities to consider ethical guidelines for the investments in their endowment funds. The petition is targeted at Maclean’s magazine and asks the publication to include an ‘ethical investment ranking’ category in their annual university rankings.

Organizations: Unity College, Mount Allison University, NASA NOAA USDA CDC Centre for International Studies

Geographic location: Maine, Sackville

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