A time for courage and action

Stephen Mulkey

From Stephen Mulkey, PhD, president, Unity College

It seems to be unusual for a college president to step into what appears to be a political event such as the Tar Sands Action that will take place on 6 November.   Indeed, some of my colleagues at other institutions think that I must be quite mad to join the group that will circle the White House.  As president of Unity College, a liberal arts institution with an environmental mission and a history of activism, it is not only appropriate, but also quite necessary for me to make my voice heard.

As a new college president I ask myself daily how my personal mission is connected with the larger mission of Unity College, and to the broader issues that are so profoundly affecting the students who are in college today.   Since assuming my position in July, I have been vocal and public about the scientific reality of climate change.  Indeed, I take pains to make it clear that my position is based on the science (I have spent my career as an ecologist) and not on any partisan perspective.  The science alone shows that climate change is the single, gravest environmental challenge ever faced by modern humanity, having the potential to profoundly alter much of our planet over the next century and beyond.  In this sense, my personal political perspective is immaterial to my choice to take action.  Simply put, I believe it is my ethical obligation to act in every acceptable way possible to provide a viable future for the students in college today.

Human-caused climate change is now widely regarded as settled science: the climate is warming, and humans have been the major cause of the warming observed since the mid-twentieth century.  There is broad consensus among scientific organizations and academies across the globe.  The list of endorsing scientific organizations is very long, and there are few credible recognized scientific authorities that dispute this reality.   A recent survey published in the Proceedings of the National Academy showed that more than 97 percent of practicing climate scientists agree about the fundamentals of this issue.

There can be little doubt that the 21st century is destined to be the century of the environment.  Besides climate change, other critical trends include the increasing human consumption of primary production, maximized and declining capacity to produce food and fiber, precipitous loss of biodiversity, widespread degradation of ecosystem services, increasing shortages of usable fresh water, and depletion of ocean fisheries. The best science has validated these trends, as global change unfolds with increasing speed.  A child born today faces the prospect of living in a vastly diminished world unless we make major adjustments in our use of natural resources, and bring new sources of energy rapidly on line.  We face the ultimate test of our adaptability as a species, and it is likely that we have little more than a decade to vigorously engage in the transition towards sustainability to prevent profound and irrevocable consequences over a millennial time scale.  These are alarming words, but based on my understanding of the science, I do not consider myself alarmist.

Many college and university presidents have supported climate change research and education on their campuses, while often not drawing great public attention to these efforts.  While providing a politically safe environment for these mission-critical activities is crucial, I believe that we must do much more.  Over 600 colleges and universities have signed with the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment.  Although this commitment is producing measurable results, this is often a quiet commitment, rather than something that is prominently displayed at the institution’s public venues.

We need vocal and public leadership on the science of climate change at this time of dire need.   Education leaders need not align themselves with the political aspects of climate change, and I recommend that we be fastidious in defining this as a scientific issue of immense significance for the wellbeing of current and future generations.   The science with respect to the mining and extraction of oil from tar sands makes it arguably the dirtiest oil on the planet in terms of lifecycle carbon emissions.  I have carefully read and evaluated the State Department’s impact assessment, and I categorically reject their assertion that the lifecycle carbon emissions impact will be minimal.  With due consideration of the assumptions of the study, this is scientific nonsense and it is ethically indefensible.

Given the gravity of our situation, I believe that any reticence by me on climate change would be a failure of courage and leadership.  If the consensus of 32 national academies does not provide sufficient support for my stand, what will?   I have recently challenged our faculty and colleagues with the “mirror test.”  In ten years, will you be able to look in the mirror and say with honesty that you did all that you could as a teacher and leader to bring about the change needed to salvage our children’s future?  I challenge other college and university presidents to step to the podium and speak with strength and courage.   These are strong words, carefully chosen.

The history of our relationship to our environment is, in many ways, a tragic story of our failure to act in time.  Now, again, we have the opportunity to act with courage and integrity to preserve our world for future generations.  Now, we must act in time.