Changing the Climate on Campus

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Michael Kappeler / AP

In the 1960s and early '70s, civil rights and the Vietnam War were the defining issues on college campuses. In the 1980s, it was apartheid. Today, that issue is climate change — or at least it will be, if Eban Goodstein has anything to do about it. An economics professor at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., Goodstein became convinced of the threat from climate change in the early 1990s. He started writing and speaking about it and eventually created the Green House Network in 1999 to train other global warming advocates — doing Al Gore's work before Gore was. But a couple of years ago, Goodstein came to realize that his response wasn't meeting the sheer scale of the climate change risk. "Americans don't really understand," he says. "They think global warming is scary, but they don't realize how short a window of time we have." The message needed to get bigger — and so Focus the Nation was born.

Half educational initiative, half political engagement, Focus the Nation is a countrywide effort to put climate change front and center on American campuses — and enlist students as foot soldiers in political battles over global warming. The movement has grown massively since Goodstein launched it with his wife Chungin Chung; branches have sprung up on campuses around the country and prominent greens, like the sustainability guru Hunter Lovins and retired Sen. Gary Hart, are on its board. That rise culminated in a national teach-in event on Jan. 31, when teachers and students at over 1,500 campuses gathered to discuss global warming — and find a solution. It was less a protest that a nationwide seminar — albeit one that included the occasional colorful stunt, like the student from University of California, San Diego, who dressed as a polar bear and sat in a mock electric chair, to illustrate how global warming could speed extinction. The message was clear: Global warming is not a problem for tomorrow, but today, and students need to take the lead. "We owe our young people a choice, because this will affect the rest of their lives," says Goodstein. "If we get this wrong it's irreversible in ways humans have never had to deal with."

Goodstein spent most of the teach-in at New York's Fordham University, where students and faculty had organized a daylong series of lectures on the environment, ranging from the restoration of the polluted Bronx River to the ins and outs of international climate treaties. At Fordham, I met one of Goodstein's foot soldiers, 19-year-old sophomore Thomas Zellers, who helped organize the Focus the Nation teach-in. Attendance at the teach-in there was a bit light, and Zellers noted that drafting college students into a political movement on global warming — or almost any issue — can be an uphill battle. "Still, I think this is inspiring people," he says. "Everyone has a stake in this. Above all else I think this will be the defining issue for us."

It has to be. As Goodstein points out, it is the young generation of students who will have to live with the consequences of global warming. One of the challenges to dealing with climate change is that the threat is truly long-term. The science says it will worsen over time, and that we need to act now to prevent serious damage tomorrow, but it's difficult to keep that in mind when the country is faced with other, seemingly more pressing priorities. Climate change can always be passed off to the next year, the next generation. But not any longer. James Hansen, one of the world's most respected climate scientists, believes that we have just a decade — when today's college students will be reaching their 30s — to stem the growth in carbon emissions, or the world will be changed irrevocably. Youth have a right to speak out, using organizations like Focus the Nation, and they must do so. "Young people have the moral authority," says Goodstein. "This is not about us, my generation — this is about their future." And that future is now.