Teach-in to ‘Focus the Nation’ on global warming

Finding solutions to climate change goal of nationwide event

By Chris Weis

UK will join more than 1,000 other colleges and universities tomorrow in what organizers call the largest teach-in in U.S. history.

Focus the Nation, an education initiative that focuses on global warming, asked students from campuses nationwide to plan their own versions of the event with the aim of finding new climate change solutions.

Sponsored by UK Greenthumb and Residence Life Recycling, UK’s Focus the Nation event is an opportunity “to create dialogue between local leaders and students about climate change,” said Robin Michler, who coordinated the event along with Greenthumb Co-coordinator Brittany Zwicker.

“The overall goal of (Focus the Nation) is to come up with some consensus voice from this age demographic,” said Shane Tedder, sustainability coordinator for the UK Office of Residence Life.

“Focus the Nation is a vehicle to deliver that voice from college students to our nation’s political leaders about what they want to see done,” he said.

Tedder said program founder Eban Goodstein saw 2008, the start of a new political cycle, as a year to engage students in the decision-making process on what he felt was “the most daunting challenge (this) generation will face.”

UK’s event will consist of a teach-in throughout the day with discussions led by community activists, UK staff and professors from various departments.

“(Global warming) is not just an environmental issue,” Tedder said. “The challenges global warming present are political, economic, social and environmental.”

The diversity in discussion topics represents how global warming affects different aspects of our lives, Tedder said. He will speak about how everyday consumer choices can have a positive effect on environment, economy, and culture in a talk titled “Doing It Daily.”

“(The event) seems to be taking a holistic view of the issue, where it’s not merely a matter of understanding the scientific or natural processes, or it’s not merely a discussion about impact or policies,” said Alice Turkington, a physical geography professor at UK. “It’s a broad-ranging investigation.”

Turkington will bring a scientific perspective to her lecture, which will explore the greenhouse effect’s impact on Earth’s climate. Her lecture begins the teach-in at 9:30 a.m. in room 206 of the Student Center.

The roundtable discussion at 6 p.m. will be composed of state Sen. Ernesto Scorsone, D-Lexington; Bob Wiseman, UK vice president for facilities management; Cheryl Taylor, Lexington’s environmental quality commissioner; and community activist Jim Embry.

Michler, a German and geography senior, said he hopes Focus the Nation will encourage President Lee Todd to sign the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment and push UK to “become a leader in pledging to reduce carbon emissions.”

The Presidents Climate Commitment, Tedder said, asks universities to develop a plan to make their campuses climate neutral and prepare their students “to take on the challenges global warming is going to present.”

Transylvania University, Berea College, Centre College and Northern Kentucky University have signed the climate commitment among other colleges across the nation.

Higher education can be a leader in sustainability, Wiseman said

UK’s current sustainability efforts include a control room that monitors and shuts down heating and cooling systems during off-cycles, a campus recycling program that recycles about one-third of UK’s waste, and a “green-cleaning” pilot program intended to reduce the amount of chemicals and materials used to clean campus buildings, Wiseman said. Other efforts can be found on UK’s Sustainability Task Force Web site (www.uky.edu/sustainability).

However, some environmental aspects of the UK campus will “be very tough … to change,” Wiseman said.

“We’re well within the top 10 of energy-using customers in the state,” he said. “Single-car commutes are dominant on this campus. We burn coal to produce our electricity, and we burn coal to do our heating. All of those combine for a very heavy carbon footprint.”

Wiseman said he hopes UK’s Sustainability Task Force can offset these problems with greater emphasis on other initiatives.

For Tedder, the question is feasibility.

“Can (UK) conceive of becoming climate neutral in the next few decades given the fossil fuel emissions coming from current coal-to-energy processes?” he said.

Kentucky’s emphasis on coal is troubling for Scorsone. The state senator said he is glad to be a part of an event that “sheds more light” on global warming, an issue he thought was neglected during a 2007 special session of the General Assembly dealing primarily with providing tax incentives to attract a coal-to-liquid fuel plant to Kentucky.

“We’ve done very little when it comes to renewable energy,” Scorsone said. “We need to be ahead of the curve.”

Turkington said she thinks students “lead the charge” at UK against global warming.

Students today are naturally engaged in sustainability issues, Wiseman said.

“When you’re talking about the basic changes in the environment of the world,” Wiseman said, “there aren’t many things students should think are more important.”