A President's Reflections
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Our Single Most Important Fight

Posted on December 4, 2018

I’m back from my travels in New Zealand and Australia and while it was amazing and often gorgeous (and we saw lots of great wildlife), I was disheartened by the constant drumbeat of “But climate change is….” Then fill in the blank. Shrinking habitats and declining numbers of species, bleached coral reefs, forests dying off, oceans filled with plastic. New Zealand and Australia – lands of knee buckling beauty — are reeling from the effects of climate change. As are we in New Hampshire and in the United States.

Consider the grim and daily reminders that our weather is now more extreme, more frequently so, and wreaking havoc, whether epic forest fires, so-called 100-year hurricanes month after month, historic droughts, or hot weather where it should be cold and cold weather where it should be hot. We’ve had urgent reports from the UN and from the U.S. federal government (the aggregate work of 13 federal agencies) in the last three weeks and in today’s Boston Globe we have: Famed British naturalist Sir David Attenborough echoed his warnings, telling the gathering that the ‘‘collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon’’ if no urgent action is taken against global warming.

This is not one of those “bad things will happen someday if we don’t do something” situations. Bad things are here, and catastrophic events are around the corner and time is running out. Sound hysterical? It’s not. We are nearing a point when large parts of the planet will not be inhabitable by humans, when food production will be greatly hampered, when major cities run out of water (Cape Town, South Africa is perilously close), and the intricate and complex systems that sustain life break down. Think massive population movements, wars over water and food, and a breakdown of commerce and daily life. It’s apocalyptic and the danger is that it is so unthinkable that most us will not think of it and act upon it, thus making it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This is not idle speculation and fear mongering. The science is conclusive: 97% of climate scientists agree that climate change is real, is severe, and is caused by or contributed to by humans. On that last point, it matters little what degree is caused by the human species. Our tools and strategies for responding to the crisis are human ones: a radical shift from coal, Sputnik-era like investments in green technologies, a fundamental shift in values around consumption and consumerism, a nutritional shift to much more of a plant-based diet, and emphatic conservation efforts that allow parts of the planet to heal and regenerate. Another 2 to 3 degree increase in the climate is a disaster – not just for nature (much of humanity cares little for it in the end, I fear), but for our own species.

When I say this to people they sometimes scoff and say “So what’s the big deal? It’s 84 degrees on a nice summer day in NH rather than 82 degrees?” It doesn’t work that way. Want a better analogy? Our bodies in some ways mirror the complexity of our environment. Our normal temperature is 98.6. Think about how you feel when your temperature is 101.6 degrees. You feel like a wreck and your systems start responding and you are incapacitated. Prolonged high fevers actually start to do long lasting damage, especially if that body is already frail or ill. You would not adapt to your next 20, 30, or 40 years with a fever – you’d eventually collapse. That’s the state of the planet.

If the U.S. were under a threat remotely like this one in more conventional terms, say a war or a terrorist attack like 9/11, we’d mobilize the whole country. We’d see the threat as existential and we’d direct our research, our industry, our human power, and our policies to defeating that which wants to destroy us. It’s what we did in WWII and it’s what we did post 9/11. It’s not a situation for half-measures. It’s not an it’s-someone-else’s-problem situation. It’s a time for courageous and clear political leadership, the united voice of all people, and genuine sacrifice.

If you have kids or grandkids and you’re not worried sick, you’re not paying attention. Anyone who tells you climate change is not for real is living in the dark.

With all of this worrisome news around us, it is important to remember that there are things we can do, right now, TODAY, to minimize the impacts. There are three things all of us can do immediately.

Reconsider our personal choices.

Electricity and transportation are our largest carbon emitters and America remains the world’s greatest polluter on a per capita basis. As individuals we can make choices in our own lives and realize that there is an environmental impact associated with the cars we choose to drive, the diets we maintain, the consumer choices we make, the amount of waste and recycling and composting we produce, and more. Here are some quick and easy ways to reduce our carbon emission and make better choices for the good:

This can get very preachy very fast and I for sure need to be more thoughtful in my own choices — at best, I’ve been “conservation light.” The real point here is that we all play a role in every day decisions. We have to change our ways – that’s clear – and its starts with values. My own have to be recalibrated to more fully reflect my complicity in the damage we are doing to our world (the great gift of a Catholic upbringing is you have a healthy sense of complicity and guilt — I mean that in a genuinely positive way). But even the Pope has joined the conversation on Climate Change.

Use your power, voice, and influence to affect change.

If you are a small business owner, you are making environmentally impactful decisions every day. If you are an employee in a business, you observe behaviors and operations that either help or hurt the cause.

As the head of a pretty large organization, I need to think harder about SNHU and its policies and practices. I am committing today to hiring a senior university officer to lead our sustainability efforts. This role will:

  • Help us think about curriculum (our next generation might be the thing that saves us, if we can buy them enough time – let’s educate them and give them tools to craft the solutions), our suppliers, our building projects, and more.
  • Convene a University Task Force to help me think through what we can do as an organization to both model our values and contribute to the larger effort. I welcome every SNHU employee and student who wants to be part of the effort.

We already have faculty, students, and staff doing great work in this area (and soon presenting on that work). This new role will help support and build off those efforts, with a top-to-bottom rethinking of our organizational practices. There will be myriad small things, like making sure we no longer have any plastic water bottles at my meetings, to big, strategic efforts such as our energy sourcing and building practices.

Vote for leaders who believe climate change is real. ­ 

I have so much less faith in our political leaders these days, especially our current administration, which denies climate science (any science, for that matter), employs shills of the coal and oil industries, and walks away from global climate accords. But politicians decide our government policies in the end, so A) harangue them on the challenge of the environment, B) be clear that you will only support those who are clear on the danger of global climate change, and C) vote.

When we were in New Zealand two weeks ago, we visited a penguin preserve on the South Island. The staff was dedicated, we had an information session, we were carefully guided to well disguised blinds, and we whispered to not disturb the one yellow-eyed penguin that had been seen earlier that day in the area. One farming family had dedicated their seaside farm land as a preserve along a coast that once had thousands of penguins coming ashore every day. We didn’t see the penguin that day, having to content ourselves with the three ill penguins being nursed in the clinic (one was found severely underweight – yes, because climate change is depleting their food source). It was utterly depressing and seems emblematic of the larger issue.

Days later, while in Tasmania, I had dinner with an amazing scientist who is doing research on the impact of plastic on our oceans and sea life (yep – its grim). Jennifer is in a new film I want to bring to campus: https://bluethefilm.org/ (you can watch the trailer here). She described to me a eucalyptus grove that had thinned out and at some point, the remaining, healthy trees just died off. Because, as we know from the remarkable Secret Life of Trees, trees are social organisms and need each other to survive. We need each other to survive.

I wrote a note last night to a young couple who had just shared the news that they will be having a baby — joyous news. The question I have for myself, for them, for all of us, is what kind of world are we making for that child? Frankly, I’m old enough not to worry too much about myself. But that’s never the point, is it? I have Native American friends who have taught me about seventh-generation thinking, the responsibility we have not to the immediate, even to our children and grandchildren, but to the seventh generation after us.

Time is running out is not the same as “it’s too late” and we do have the answers. This is not a mystery. This is a human created problem and there are human driven solutions. Jimmy Carter was once ridiculed for putting solar panels on the White House roof in the seventies, but if we had started the work then we might be in a much better place as a planet. So, we need to start the work now and join the millions of people who are already trying hard to be part of the solution. I’m an optimistic person – often accused of being hopelessly optimistic – but I know together we can make a difference.

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