Climate Change 101: Smith College offers concentration in a warming world

  • Olivia Cooper in the capstone class for the Smith College climate change concentration.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rosie Li in the capstone class for the Smith College climate change concentration.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Claire Seaman in the capstone class for the Smith College climate change concentration.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Camille Washington-Ottombre, a professor of environmental science and policy, co-teaching the capstone class for the Smith College climate change concentration.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Dano Weisbord, the executive director of sustainability and campus planning, in the capstone class for the Smith College climate change concentration. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Dano Weisbord, the executive director of sustainability and campus planning, in the capstone class for the Smith College climate change concentration. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Staff Writer
Published: 9/20/2019 5:08:19 PM

NORTHAMPTON — When Smith College senior Claire Seaman, a studio art major, first heard of the school’s climate change concentration, she assumed that it was intended for students in programs like environmental science or geosciences.

Seaman, who is now completing her capstone course within the concentration, sees this misconception as part of “where we’re failing in our fight to save our climate and planet,” she said. “We think it’s only for scientists — that it’s only in their hands — when, really, no issue is separate.

“People always want to put things in different categories, but this affects everything,” she continued. “It is everything.”

The climate change concentration, which Smith has offered since 2014, combines required internship experiences and interdisciplinary course offerings designed to address the climate crisis from a variety of angles, unique to each student. 

While some students, like Seaman, do not have majors typically associated with climate change, others, such as environmental science and policy major Rosie Li, use the concentration to branch out into areas that they typically wouldn’t cover in their other classes. For her climate change concentration, Li chose courses in disciplines such as anthropology, literature and history. 

“My initiative was to engage with society more,” Li said, “and to engage with communities and people, so I felt like being in the concentration gives me more power in that focus — the humanity focus, rather than the more academic and theoretical focus.”

“It matters how people experience climate change, and how they express their pressure, their stress, their anxiety — and that can be composed in an artistic way,” she added.

‘Year on Climate Change’

This academic year, the college is also expanding its efforts to shine a spotlight on climate change for all students, faculty and staff at Smith with a “Year on Climate Change” initiative — a series of programming focused on bringing the campus community together in thinking about the issue.

The “Year on Climate Change” was created at the recommendation of the college’s Study Group on Climate Change — a collaboration between students, staff, faculty and trustees formed in 2015 to determine how the college could best address the phenomenon.

Dano Weisbord, executive director of Sustainability and Campus Planning at Smith, said that the initiative’s implementation came about at an opportune time, citing examples such as the 2020 Democratic candidates holding a climate town hall and press initiatives like Covering Climate Now. 

“There’s an enormous amount of energy in the space right now,” Weisborg said, “so we feel really fortunate that we’re timed really well for this.”

Smith is not alone in acting on this energy. All of the Five Colleges and Holyoke Community College have released plans to become carbon neutral: Amherst and Smith colleges by 2030; Mount Holyoke College by 2037; the University of Massachusetts Amherst by 2050; Holyoke Community College by 2060; and Hampshire College announced plans to become “climate neutral” by 2022.

‘Eco-anxiety’

There’s progress being made, but many also feel anxiety over the consequences of climate change if left unchecked. In March, the United Nations warned that the world has “only 11 years left to prevent irreversible damage from climate change.”

Coupled with criticism over how world leaders are handling climate change, these predictions have left some young people reconsidering certain life decisions, including where they will live, whether financial investments are worthwhile and if they want children. The American Psychological Association has even adopted a term, “eco-anxiety,” to describe the stress of “watching the slow and seemingly irrevocable impacts of climate change unfold, and worrying about the future for oneself, children, and later generations.”

Through Smith’s climate change offerings, the college hopes to instill a sense of hope in students, Weisborg said.  

“Part of the thinking that went into our Year on Climate Change is that we know that this generation of students has grown up with climate change in the background,” Weisbord said, “and we want to demonstrate that there are things that we can do, and we can be hopeful about this issue.”

“It can be really hard to deal with some of the science and some of the evidence,” he added, “and we know that that leads people, students included, being sort of locked into a status of inaction. So we really are trying to embrace action and hope.”

The students who spoke with the Gazette said they feel uncertain about how humanity will deal with climate change, but they all said they’re determined to fight against it.

“The articles that are coming out are pretty scary, saying we have 10 or 12 years” to do something, said Olivia Cooper, a senior at Smith College in the climate change concentration. “That type of time scale that is well within our lifetime does make me question the future in general, including whether or not I should have kids. Is there earth that’s worth living on in the foreseeable future, in the time scale that I would be having children?”

“I think there’s a mix of optimism in that we are acting about climate change, we feel involved, which is empowering,” she added. “But learning about it, learning about how stagnant and slow the process has been, especially in the current administration, that definitely is discouraging.”

Li expressed similar concerns.

“I already thought of the possibility of me not having children,” Li said, which she related to her anxieties about the quality of life for future generations. 

“I was able to enjoy safe food and safe water,” she said. “But how can I guide them and ask them to bear a world without safe food and safe water?”

Seaman sympathized with the environmental anxieties described by some in her generation, referring to the impact of climate change on the future as “a really terrifying question.” Seaman expects that her generation and the ones that follow will be impacted by climate change and harbors worries of her own, but she tries not to dwell on the darker possibilities, she said. 

“Things aren’t looking good, so it’s very easy to get depressed and feel hopeless,” Seaman said, “and that doesn’t do any good.

“This alternate reality of the next generation living a terrible life because there’s not enough food and people are sick … I just can’t accept that as a possibility,” she continued. “I will do everything I can in my lifetime to make that not happen.”

Beyond the recycling bin

Fighting climate change goes beyond taking shorter showers, using the recycling bin at home or carpooling to work with a coworker — the average person’s carbon footprint pales in comparison to the pollution generated by large fossil fuel producers. According to a report by the Climate Accountability Institute and CDP, two-thirds of all carbon dioxide emissions dating back to the Industrial Revolution trace back to the 90 largest oil, natural gas, coal and cement producers.

To Seaman, influencing policies on a large scale stands out as essential in stopping climate change. 

“You can tell people to ride their bike instead of their car,” she said, “but unless we get to the root of the problem, unless we make policy changes … it’s not going to be making a difference.”

Cooper agreed.

“I’m always looking for ways to improve my daily habits, but I also realize that there is only so much energy I can put into that — and that any one person can put into that,” Cooper said. “What we really need to combat climate change is more systematic changes.”

“Climate change is not going to be fixed by individuals recycling,” she added. “It’s really a problem that needs to be combated from both a top-down and a bottom-up approach.”

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

 




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