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By Misa Saros, A2C2 IGERT Program Coordinator, University of Maine
(This article appears in the December, 2012 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer)

ACUPCC ImplementerThe University of Maine has launched a new National Science Foundation sponsored Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) – the first of its kind to focus explicitly on adaptation to abrupt climate change (A2C2).  The A2C2 IGERT is a partnership between the Climate Change Institute (CCI) and the School of Policy and International Affairs (SPIA) and is focused on the need to adapt environmental policies and management strategies to meet the social and ecological challenges caused by abrupt climate change events.  The program is funded by a five-year, $3 million award from the National Science Foundation, and will support the research of 24 Ph.D. students in Earth sciences, ecology, economics, anthropology and archaeology. Their research will focus on the effects of abrupt climate change on global security, ecosystem sustainability, and the integrity of economic, social, political and ideological systems.

Abrupt climate change (ACC) refers to the surprisingly rapid and dramatic shifts in regional and global climate that have occurred numerous times during Earth’s history, but which have only been well documented and appreciated by the scientific community over the past several decades.  Although the phenomenon of ACC is well established scientifically, is not widely understood by policy makers, planners, or the general public.  The A2C2 IGERT therefore features a novel training program that emphasizes equal participation by the natural and social sciences and fosters enhanced understanding of the dynamics of coupled natural and human systems in response to ACC.

The primary goal of the A2C2 IGERT is to train a new generation of scientists who possess the skills and attitudes needed to meaningfully address the environmental and social challenges of ACC.  In addition to conducting collaborative interdisciplinary research, A2C2 students will participate in policy and management internships with international groupsJoint-2-309x400, federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, and private corporations.  In so doing, they will become experts and leaders in their fields, understanding the dynamic relationship between the environment and the security of humans in response to ACC, says Dr. Jasmine Saros, associate director of UMaine’s Climate Change Institute and the principal investigator on the project. The program is also designed to train leaders and experts who will make significant professional contributions in facilitating a paradigm shift in the way that policy makers and managers conceptualize climate change, so that the threats and opportunities associated with rapid shifts in regional and global climate are explicitly acknowledged in societal planning.  In other words, we hope our students will ultimately persuade planners and managers to rethink their assumptions about how Earth’s climate has functioned in the past, and to reexamine their ideas about how this surprisingly temperamental system might respond to current and future levels of human influence and disruption.

The A2C2 IGERT also hopes to challenge the commonly held view that the past 11,000 years –during which human civilization arose – has been a period of remarkable climate stability.  In light of the best and most contemporary scientific evidence that we possess, this notion of global climate stability during the rise of civilization appears to be deeply flawed, since we now know that numerous ACC events occurred during this time.  Although these events were certainly milder than those that occurred in the more distant past, they were nonetheless quite dramatic by modern standards and were more than adequate to severely disrupt a variety of civilizations and ecosystems by way of extreme and prolonged drought, dramatic sea ice expansion, increased storminess, and increased frequency and magnitude of freezes. We also know that numerous societies failed catastrophically during these events.  We believe that the lessons learned from investigations into these events are of clear value to contemporary societies, since rising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases will likely create the persistent, looming threat of abrupt and highly disruptive climate shifts in our future.

The good news, of course, is that although many societies collapsed during periods of abrupt climate change, many others found ways to flourish.  We should therefore resist the temptation to view ACC events in an apocalyptic light; although they present significant challenges to societal well-being, they also present a wide variety of opportunities for societies that can find ways to reduce vulnerability and increase resilience.

UMaine is very excited to have received this IGERT award, the third in our university’s history. The IGERT program is now the National Science Foundation’s flagship interdisciplinary graduate training program, and is well aligned with the ACUPCC’s goal of curricular transformation.  IGERT strives to catalyze a cultural change in graduate education by establishing innovative new models that transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries, by facilitating greater diversity in student participation and preparation, and by contributing to the development of a globally-engaged science and engineering workforce. Since its inception in 1998, the IGERT program has made 215 awards to over 100 leading universities in 41 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. IGERT has provided funding for nearly 5,000 graduate students.

To learn more about the A2C2 IGERT at UMaine, please visit our program website or contact Misa Saros, A2C2 IGERT Program Coordinator, at misa.saros@umit.maine.edu.  General inquiries can also be sent to a2c2igert@umit.maine.edu.

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This piece by Unity College President Stephen Mulkey originally appeared on Climate Access and is reposted with permission from that site.

Crisis and opportunity in the Environmental Century: Inspiring a generation to greatness
By: Unity College President, Stephen Mulkey

As an ecologist, I know that we have precious little time to prepare a generation to respond to the ecological crisis of our planet in peril. As the president of Unity College, I am alarmed by how little progress has been made in focusing higher learning on what is undoubtedly the most important challenge facing humankind. Given the overwhelming scientific evidence of imminent climate disruption, failure to make climate literacy a requisite part of any undergraduate curriculum is inexcusable.

Recent papers in the journal Nature show that we have transgressed the boundaries of a safe operating space for humanity with respect to several key environmental factors. Chief among these is climate change, which amplifies the effects of all other critical factors such as freshwater depletion, nitrogen pollution, biodiversity loss, ozone depletion, and changes in land use. There is now mounting evidence that sometime during this century we will reach a state shift in the planet’s ability to support us (doi:10.1038/nature11018). Climate change will affect every facet of the academy and change the practice of essentially all fields of study.

Unity College aspires to be America’s Environmental College and thus climate change must be a centerpiece of our programming. It is nothing short of mission critical that we get this right. At my request the faculty and Board of Trustees have adopted Sustainability Science (sensu U.S. National Academy of Science) as our overarching framework for all academic programming, and especially for upper division courses. Although this approach addresses all aspects of global environmental change, because of its innovative delivery, it is especially suited to the urgency of climate change. As a four-year liberal arts academy, a focus this specific has sweeping implications for our programming, but it does not obviate the need for critical skills such as oral and written literacy. Thus I am quick to point out that the humanities are foundational to implementation of Sustainability Science as pedagogy.

As multiple components of our life support deteriorate, I think it likely that this century is destined to be the Century of the Environment. There can be little doubt that a child born today faces the prospect of living in a vastly diminished world unless we are able to make significant adjustments in our use of natural resources and bring new sources of energy rapidly online. Development of a sustainable relationship with our natural resources is an imperative for our survival as we face the ultimate test of our adaptability as a species. Owing to the lead-time required to address climate change, it is likely that we have little more than a decade to vigorously transition towards sustainability. Because our curriculum is science-based, we do not shy away from acknowledging that the consequences of failing to respond will be catastrophic and irrevocable over a millennial time scale. Such a broad frame for the work of Unity College gives profound meaning to everything we do.

Interdisciplinary programming in higher education is accepted as necessary for effective instructional delivery of complex environmental problems. Unfortunately this approach has largely failed because of the impediments to sharing resources among disciplinary silos at universities. Moreover, the need for students to sequentially access information from different disciplines makes integration of knowledge unwieldy and slow. In contrast, Sustainability Science employs transdisciplinary programming, which requires that the perspectives of various disciplines be simultaneously integrated in problem-focused pedagogy. This is a promising alternative framework that focuses on the dynamics of coupled human-natural systems and is defined by the problems that it addresses rather than by the disciplines it employs. Students are empowered to become knowledge brokers, while faculty act as curators of knowledge to provide students with networked resources that are generally external to the classroom.

Although an exciting innovation in delivery, Sustainability Science will not be useful if we cannot quickly produce effective practitioners. We are simply out of time to address many aspects of climate change. Accordingly, it is the streamlining of knowledge management that we think is one of the most significant advantages of Sustainability Science as a paradigm. The entering class this fall will be the first to matriculate under this new framework, and we are eager to demonstrate that our graduates can bring the right stuff to the green economy.

Because of the opportunities inherent in our long ecological crisis I see many reasons for hope. This crisis, made hugely immediate by climate change, represents an opportunity rarely witnessed in the history of our species. During this century the current generation of students will be forced to the limits of their ingenuity, cooperation, and innovation. I am struck that the results of such efforts will be immensely rewarding.Those who are prepared and can lead will have unprecedented opportunities for service through the creation of a new global economy based on sustainable practice. They will be remembered long after their time for laying the cornerstones of a stable human ecology.

I believe that we have a covenant of duty to not merely prepare, but also inspire this generation to rise to greatness. Indeed, this is the Great Work of their generation (cf., Thomas Berry). As a scientist, I know that climate change will be the defining environmental issue of this century, but as an educator I know that an even more pressing challenge is one of motivation and inspiration. History shows us that our species will not rise to meet great challenges unless there is a force that speaks to our hearts. Inspiration and affective power must be embedded in this endeavor if it is to succeed.

Historically, the arts and humanities have been the key to such willingness, and I see these fields as utterly indispensable to Sustainability Science. Our vision of a sustainable future must inspire, rather than burden, and thus it should be partnered with fine art, great literature, and powerful music. It must lead, rather than support the status quo. It must build, rather than merely struggle to maintain. It must counter fear with a luminous path forward. It must provide brilliant, pragmatic hope when the future seems devoid of options. Through the ineffable power of art and literature we can experience the grandeur of the quest for sustainability. By infusing sustainability education with such primal affective substance we can reclaim the identity that connects all of us as obligate social primates to each other and to the Earth.

It is my fervent hope that we will soon arrive at a cultural tipping point when higher education will embrace the imperative of this mission. David Orr has noted that “all education is environmental education,” and I take this to be literally true if we are to have any hope of supporting a civilization of over nine billion humans by mid century. Placed in the context of our own survival, there can be no more important mission for higher education. Yet, like awareness of the inevitability of our own death, awareness of impending ecological collapse is overwhelming, and thus unthinkable. We push it from our minds, especially if the evidence is not in our faces. So, for now we continue with business as usual in higher education, acquiescing to the perennial demand to educate students for jobs. The great irony is that within the next few decades these jobs will certainly not exist if we do not address the environmental imperative that we so assiduously avoid.

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Unity College is a signatory of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. Read the public reports including greenhouse gas inventories, Climate Action Plan, and Progress Reports by Unity College at rs.acupcc.org.

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By Mark S. McCaffrey, Associate Scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado Boulder
(This article appears in the May, 2011 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer)

The ACUPCC

If tested on their knowledge about the basics of climate, energy or the relationship between them, most Americans would score a D or an F according to two recent national studies[1]. The reasons for this lack of literacy are numerous and complex. Both climate and energy tend to fall through disciplinary gaps in traditional elementary and secondary science education, with climate occasionally tagged at the end of a unit on weather and energy being taught, if at all, in physics, or indirectly in other disciplines.

Climate and energy are multifaceted topics, with the science involved often being non-intuitive and difficult to master. Both topics tend to be blurred by misconceptions, misrepresentations and/or misinformation. And both can become lightening rods for ideological, political and even generational passions. Both are issues that are creating a perfect storm of confusion that, to mix metaphors, leads to a climate of inertia, in part because as a society we have yet to really have an adult conversation about either.

Modified from the Marian Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Sciences’ “Global Warming: Facts & Our Future” 2004

Modified from the Marian Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Sciences’ “Global Warming: Facts & Our Future” 2004

The societal consequences of this illiteracy on current and future generations are enormous. Whether minimizing the impact of human activities on the Earth’s climate system through curtailment of the release of heat trapping gases, preparing for changes in climate and the environment that are well underway, or taking meaningful steps to transform our individual and collective lives to be more energy conservative and efficient, we currently lack the wherewithal and critical mass to be able to make truly informed choices for this generation and those to follow.

To reach the “tipping point” of climate and energy literacy that will address the current climate confusion, Higher Education must play an integral role in transforming society. As ACUPCC Program Director Toni Nelson has said, “If you can graduate climate-literate graduates in every area — people who are going to become leaders in business, government, non-profit organizations and legal system, etc. — if you can get a shift happening in their education and climate-literacy, then you shift the whole culture around climate.”

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