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Nationwide 'teach-in' planned to address climate change

Piles of coal, battling windmills, and political leaders descend on college campuses.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 24, 2008

Recycle: Graduate students Valerie Esposito (r.) and Samir Doshi (l.) pose near the recycling station in the Davis Student Center at the University of Vermont. It is the largest LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) student center in the US.

Mary Knox Merrill - staff

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In Springfield, Mo., college students are about to see quite vividly how much energy they consume. Piles of coal will be on display in proportion to what's needed each day to power their dorms, computers, and dining halls.

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At Radford University in Virginia, students may stumble upon a mock fight between a windmill and a smokestack (costumes courtesy of the campus Green Team).

At the University of Vermont in Burlington, audience members will be encouraged to bike or walk to a one-woman show in which the fictional first lady calls for a boycott against sex until the nation starts a serious dialogue about climate change.

The creative tactics are designed to draw students into a series of events this coming week known as Focus the Nation: Global Warming Solutions for America. Organizers bill the culminating day, Jan. 31, as the largest teach-in in the nation's history, drawing parallels to the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s and '70s. More than 1,500 institutions, most of them colleges and universities, will host classes, documentaries, performances, energy-saving competitions, and discussions with political leaders.

Eban Goodstein, the man behind the mission, speaks about it urgently: "What our kids have to do is truly heroic," he says. "If they're going to stabilize the climate for their children, they have to rewire the entire planet with clean-energy technology."

Mr. Goodstein is an economics professor at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., and an author on environmental issues. The pace needs to pick up in order to hold global warming to low levels before it is too late, he says. "We owe our young people some focused discussion about the critical importance of the choices that are going to get made over the next couple years."

The impact of Focus the Nation depends on whether it preaches to the choir or fulfills its potential to reach a broader audience and inspire long-term commitment. A key question is, "Will [the students] take the message to their parents and grandparents?... Will it move from the campus teach-ins to the backyard barbecues of early summer?" says Gordon Mitchell, a communication professor at the University of Pittsburgh who has studied rhetoric and social movements. "That will in large part determine if this is a wave, versus a ripple."

The Focus the Nation website (www.focusthenation.org) has offered templates for activities, but a decentralized network of faculty, students, and other volunteers has seized the opportunity to tailor events for local audiences. Professors in fields as diverse as astronomy, economics, and classics will use class time to link their subjects to climate change.

That's what appeals to Galen Brown, the 19-year-old student coordinator for events at the University of Colorado, Boulder. "It targets everybody," he says. "One of the biggest problems with the climate campaign over the past few years has been the negativity.... I think it's best to harp on the positive – how we can stop [global warming] and how businesses can be efficient and make money while being green."

If you want to get involved

At the Focus the Nation website (www.focusthenation.org), you can:

• Click on a map of the United States to find locations of related events near you.

• Vote on priority environmental issues by clicking on the Choose Your Future link. Voting runs between Jan. 21 and Feb. 12. The resulting agenda will be delivered to members of Congress during the Presidents' Day recess.

• Find a link to a live, interactive webcast called "The 2% Solution," 8 p.m. Jan. 30, featuring actor and clean-energy advocate Edward Norton; Stanford climate scientist Stephen Schneider; green-jobs pioneer Van Jones; and sustainability expert Hunter Lovins.

• Compete for a grant of up to $10,000 for 18- to 25-year-olds for implementing a project in one of three categories:

Outdoors: Help protect outdoor spaces such as mountains, rivers, and oceans.

Arts: Use the arts to increase awareness of or change thinking about global warming solutions.

Innovators: Challenge the status quo and bring new thinking into action.

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