Lawrence University President Mark Burstein, speaking Thursday at the Matriculation Convocation to launch the school’s 2019-20 academic year, encouraged members of the Lawrence community to provide constructive leadership on the growing global climate crisis, and to bridge political differences along the way.
Burstein called the climate crisis “the central challenge facing society today,” and said it is the university’s responsibility to teach climate science to its students, to raise awareness of the issues and challenges and to converse respectfully with people who dismiss the science.
“It is crucial that we engage with those who dismiss the findings of 97% of climate scientists who now confirm that a climate crisis has begun, and that human activity is a root cause,” Burstein said as he addressed faculty, students and staff in Memorial Chapel on the fourth day of the fall term. “We need to continue to broaden the learning opportunities we offer and to avoid partisan framing of the climate crisis if we aim to reach all of our students, faculty, and staff. Thanks to the interdisciplinary nature of the Environmental Studies program, we offer a wide array of learning opportunities for students to consider how human activity impacts the natural world.”
The convocation, the first of three to be held during the academic year, included the traditional march of faculty, adorned in their academic dress, and music from students of the entering class. But it was Burstein’s call for climate crisis leadership that took center stage.
He encouraged those in attendance to draw on their own experiences with nature, to consider deeply how human activity is affecting resources we interact with close to home and on our travels.
“Experiences can sensitize us to the deep and far-reaching effect that the climate crisis will have,” Burstein said. “My year as a farmer during a break between high school and college changed my views and established conservation as central to my personal values. Living directly in the cycle of a dairy farm significantly influenced the way I thought about the natural world.
“I’m sure you have your own connections to nature. Could we find ways to encourage all of us to explore the rich natural resources of northeastern Wisconsin and Door County? Could this be a way to reach students who might otherwise avoid enrolling in an Environmental Studies course or joining an environmental organization? Are there ways we can more closely tie the prodigious natural world that surrounds us into our curriculum?”
Burstein highlighted the fires that are threatening the Amazon, the extreme conditions affecting areas from Alaska and the Arctic to the Canary Islands and California, and the increasingly extreme weather patterns being experienced here in the Midwest.
He noted statistics from the World Bank that show an average of 24 million people per year since 2008 being displaced by weather events, and projections that those numbers will rise dramatically.
Lawrence has initiatives in place and established programs available to teach about environmental issues, be it from economic, policy, cultural, biological, chemical, or geoscience perspectives. Impressive gains in recent years have been guided by faculty members such as Jeff Clark, Marcia Bjornerud, and David Gerard, and sustainability coordinator Kelsey McCormick. But, Burstein said, there’s more work to be done all across campus to better inform and engage on the challenges we face now and those we’ll be handing off to future generations.
He pointed to the polarizing effect politics is having on the climate crisis debate, and implored those in the Lawrence community to stay attentive no matter how frustrating it might get.
“Even those who agree that a climate crisis is real approach the issue now with an incapacitating fatigue,” Burstein said.
“No amount of improved communication seems to weaken the feeling that this crisis is inevitable, that nothing we do can change the course of this unfolding natural disaster,” he added. “This attitude prevents important interventions.”
Protecting the environment and prepping the Earth for future generations hasn’t always been embedded in a political chasm. When the leaders of 12 national environmental organizations were asked to rank the “greenest” U.S. presidents, they chose Teddy Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama, in that order, Burstein said.
“Two Republicans and two Democrats,” he said. “Conservation was central to Teddy Roosevelt’s vision for America’s future. He preserved land and natural beauty at the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and hundreds of other locations across the country. Richard Nixon founded the Environmental Protection Agency, banned DDT, and created the regulatory infrastructure that continues to this day. But this public consensus is disappearing.”
It’s time to reclaim the conversation, Burstein said, challenging college campuses to lead the way, to infuse climate science across the curriculum and to foster intelligent and productive conversation, all the while prepping tomorrow’s leaders to be environmentally astute and informed no matter their political affiliations.
“For us, now, to engage our entire community, we must provide a learning environment in which we can all participate without criticism or rejection,” Burstein said.
“I hope you will commit yourselves, with me, to making sure that this generation of Lawrentians will graduate with the knowledge, the tools, and the energy to provide leadership on the most important challenge that faces all of us in this century.”