How students in one class tackled global warming

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's getting hot in here - on the planet, that is. And anyone who doesn't believe global warming is a serious problem might just as well argue that Earth ends at the horizon line.

That's the message from a group of students at Vermont's Middlebury College, who set up the first annual Flat Earth Award during their recent winter-term class on climate change and activism. Visitors to the website (www.flatearthaward.org) can vote to give the mock award to one of three nominees targeted as global-warming naysayers: radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, scientist Fred Singer, and novelist Michael Crichton. The "winner" will be announced April 18 by the Green House Network in Oregon, the nonprofit group that oversaw the student project.

In this month leading up to Earth Day on April 22, students on campuses across the country are getting in touch with their inner activist - whether it's by "ticketing" SUVs or starting a dialogue with local auto dealers about the need for fuel efficiency.

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Middlebury's class tapped into students' intensifying concerns about the environment and was one response to a paper presented last year by two environmentalists - one a pollster and the other the head of a progressive organization - raising the provocative idea that environmentalism is dead. Through hands-on projects, students were challenged to help broaden the movement by reaching out to people who might not consider themselves activists or environmentalists.

With so many young people now getting their news from Comedy Central's "Daily Show with Jon Stewart," the Middlebury students thought humor would draw an audience to a website that also aims to educate. The site summarizes decades of research about global warming and its effects, and provides related Web links.

"We kind of decided that ... global warming is an issue that spans everything," says sociology major Minna Brown, one of the creators of the Flat Earth Award.

The intensive January class included economics and history majors, along with a core group from environmental studies. The other projects: developing campaigns in Vermont and New Hampshire to promote climate-change solutions, interviewing businesses about what would prompt them to use more renewable energy, identifying ways to collaborate with other social movements, and coming up with ideas to market Ben & Jerry's Fossil Fuel ice cream.

Setting up the award was a refreshing counterpoint to her typical academic work in sociology, Ms. Brown says. "You always talk about Marx's ideas of social movements or kind of abstract ideas ... [but in this class] you actually see people getting involved and getting really excited about changing things."

The spark was Michael Crichton's latest novel, "State of Fear." Notes in its appendix suggesting that the warming of the planet is minor raised the ire of Eban Goodstein, who runs the Green House Network and is a professor at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore.

He suggested the idea of a mock award to his friend John Isham, who taught the Middlebury class. A group of students "ran with it," Mr. Goodstein says, developing the concept in just over two weeks.

Their hope is to highlight what they say is more mainstream research, taking to task the vocal minority.

While there's room for some scientific disagreement about how much and how quickly Earth will warm, the fact that it's happening and having negative effects is firmly established, Goodstein says. "If you read [Crichton's] book as a layperson you would probably question whether global warming is real.... [With] his publicity megaphone ... he can cherry-pick his own science and create the perception of a controversy where none exists."

The nontraditional format of the Middlebury class, and the chance to help host an environmentalism conference on campus this winter, really hooked the students, says Mr. Isham, an assistant professor of economics.

"Many said they felt it captured the direction that higher ed should go - not just doing service-learning projects ... but in the broadest sense identifying the greatest challenges we face and knocking down the classroom walls from the get-go to work on those problems."

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