The following blog was created by members of the Fall 2015 course, “COP21 and Climate Politics.” The goal of this class, and in turn the blog, is to spread awareness about COP21, the upcoming international climate negotiations that will be taking place in Paris early December, to Amherst and the surrounding community. With this special topics course, we hope that by raising awareness about COP21, we will inspire students to not only consider the issues of climate change at hand, but also affect change on an individual level. We hope you enjoy our blog!
October 6, 2015
Over the past week, we interviewed a handful of Amherst students about their awareness of climate change and COP21. Resulting from these conversations, we have concluded that most Amherst students know a good deal about climate change but not about COP21. Many of the results were a mix of optimism and pessimism from these students. We wanted to share some of these conversations in an effort to spark dialogue:
In interviewing students about climate change and COP21, I chose five friends I knew had varying degrees of knowledge on the subject. They could all tell me what climate change was – no surprise there. One of them, a geology major, took particular relish in distinguishing between climate change in its specific sense as anthropogenic or human-induced warming and its broader sense as a dynamic process over Earth history. As I expected, all but one of my friends hadn’t heard of COP21; one even jokingly guessed it had something to do with 21 Jump Street. Things got interesting when I asked my friends’ opinion on what Amherst students should do about climate change. Two said flat-out that there’s little to nothing we can do to bring about real progress, while the remaining three said students should raise awareness of the issue. Two of these three – the ones I consider most knowledgeable about climate change – noted that many students go on to pursue business careers after Amherst without realizing that the companies recruiting them are often directly responsible for the problems they stand against, such as environmental degradation and economic inequality. When I asked what the U.S. should do to address climate change, I got a variety of responses ranging from cutting coal and switching to nuclear energy, removing politicians who deny climate change from office, and making legally binding commitments to reduce CO2 emissions. Despite the lack of awareness about COP21 and occasional pessimism about their personal roles in addressing climate change, overall I was impressed by how knowledgeable my friends were on the issue.
During the course of my interviews for COP21 and Climate Politics, I received a remarkably wide range of responses. Climate change is a very salient and volatile issue in our time, and the extent to which people of different backgrounds engage and conceptualize this issue is, in itself, a topic of much debate. Despite the fact that many of the answers I received were fairly off-based in terms of what climate change is and how it actually affects us, I found it much more worrisome that a vast majority of the responses were littered with uncertainty and insecurity as a result. Unfortunately, it seems to me that the degree of intensity and polarization this global discourse has brought upon us has actually acted to deter many people from fully voicing their opinions and critically engaging with the information at hand. Much like the current political climate, the global climate crisis has forced many demographics to claim apathy when, in reality, the answer to this complex issue likely lies within the crowds of voices too intimidated to simply step forward and say, ‘Hey everybody, I have an idea’.
I went into this project knowing that the Amherst students I would interview have thought-provoking ideas and opinions on climate change, because climate change is such a big topic in this day and age. Some students definitely seemed more informed than others, but the call for more political response was abundant. My favorite interview happened to be the last one I conducted. After generally explaining what climate change is, the interviewee gave a really personal view on how climate change matters to him. He explained that we are not coexisting with our planet, and we are seeing the early consequences (some more so than others), so it is our job to be more responsible to the planet we all live on. As for what we can do as Amherst students, the interviewee brought up awareness as the biggest issue, which came up often in my conversations. Of these interviews, no one knew what COP21 was, so I believe awareness is a really important idea. When we moved on to the successful outcomes of COP21, he brought up were stricter limits on corporations and incentives for those who act environmentally minded, which also sums up the ideas in my other interviews. Overall, it was great to see how the students of Amherst view climate change, and I am excited to report that students here are open to learning more.
It would be nearly impossible to be ignorant of climate change on a campus like Amherst College. With two of the previous three incoming first-year classes required to read books dealing with climate change and the growing popularity of the Environmental Studies major, it is clear that awareness of the issue is on the rise. When I sat down to engage in conversations about climate change, the students universally agreed that it was a problem that needed to be addressed for the sake of our planet and future generations. One student noted that a big concern for him when thinking about environmental problems was that he didn’t want his “future children to live in a world that’s dying.” Despite a general awareness of climate change as a challenge, many of the people I talked to suggested that environmental education would be one of the most significant things we could do to combat climate change. Amherst College has the opportunity to shape the education of some of the individuals who will later holds positions of power in society and could directly influence a national response to climate change. Beyond the boundaries of Amherst, my interviewees agreed, environmental education and awareness must become a larger part of our national discourse. This education should begin in our elementary schools so that even young children can develop an environmental consciousness that transcends into action. It is not enough to just know that climate change is a threat, a more comprehensive and interactive knowledge of the issue is necessary to create significant and societal change.
Whenever I’m in need for information about something Amherst related, I always search for answers from the same friend. I remember the moment when I was first struck by his knowledge of the inner working of campus and the minutia behind utilizing Amherst’s many resources; I wanted to form a new club as a first semester freshman, but didn't know how. My friend, let’s call him Mr. Information, connected me with a multitude of individuals that worked in the residential life department whom he knew personally, nudging me closer to my goal which I had previously assumed impossible.
Mr. Information is a political science major, so he has always valued being knowledgeable about the facts that affect humanity (or as he puts it, the bodies being governed). When I asked him what climate change was, his response was pretty well informed. “Climate change,” he said, “is a deviance from the projected pattern in earth’s temperature. It effects the globe so it effects me”. He believes that we, as Amherst students, need to be conscious of our carbon footprint; however, he interestingly did not venture into any further measures he would like us to take after we are simply “conscious” of the impacts we are making.
This type of answer was very common among many of the students that I interviewed, and likely not comes not from a lack of desire to take action but rather an inability to conceptualize physical changes that would be able to chip the iceberg that is the issue of climate change. This type of paralyzation towards attempted solutions is common throughout the environmental movement because it’s effects are projected to be so universally catastrophic.
When I asked Mr. Information if he knew about COP 21, it was the first time that I was finally in a position to give him information rather than the other way around. When asked about what he thought our nation should do about climate change, he responded “Abide by international standards and law ‘sort of things’”. To me, this demonstrated that, although he did not know what type of law “sort of things” might lead towards a more sustainable future, he has faith in the law’s ability to address these issues and wants our government to be part of exploring a solution through legal tools. Because of this, I think that if individuals knew more about COP 21, they may feel less intimidated about our globes approach to addressing climate change. This would hopefully releasing them, at least to some extent, from the afore-mentioned paralyzation caused by lack of hope. After I discussed COP 21 with Mr. Information, he seemed to feel more optimistic in his role as a student to effect policy change on our campus and in our nation as a whole.
Hopefully now, if someone asks him about COP 21, my friend can continue to live up to his role as Mr. Information.