Though a melting ice shelf can shed a titanic iceberg overnight, the human response to signs of climate change sometimes seems to be moving at a glacial pace. But colleges across the country are taking action now.
Featuring 35 pioneers from university energy and sustainability institutions, last Friday and Saturday marked the first-ever Workshop of U.S. Academic Energy, Sustainability and Environment Centers.
"The fact is that the ice shelves are really disappearing, that climate change really is real, it is anthropogenic and it's going to be bad. It's already bad and it's going to be worse. And what are we going to do about this?" said Mark Ratner, co-director of the Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN).
Leading academics gathered for two days at Northwestern University's Evanston campus to share ideas about the unique role academic institutions can play in involving communities and solving the planet's daunting climate change and energy use problems.
"It really marks a milestone," said Lewis Gilbert, managing director of the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment. "I've been doing this for 20 years, and in the early days we could say that we were one of a handful of institutes in the world doing university-wide interdisciplinary research on the environment. We no longer can say that."
Co-hosted by ISEN and Cornell University's David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, the event represented an important shift in the way academic institutions tackle issues and outreach involving energy use and climate change.
"Each university feels that its interior network is already well-connected, but we are still isolated between universities, kind of like islands," said David Dunand, ISEN co-director with Ratner. "This is such a huge, global problem that it's only going to be solved by teaming up at a national level, and I think that this is a good nucleus for that."
Conference attendees spent Friday's session sharing particulars about their university's approach to involve entire university communities and surrounding towns in sustainability initiatives.
Saturday's presentations focused on specifics for building research partnerships, securing funding and engaging the community.
"We've got people from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign - they know everything. And from Berkeley - they do everything. And then we have some really small places that just have little, tiny, targeted programs - Wake Forest [in Winston-Salem, N.C.] - that are going to change things. So I was impressed," Ratner said.
Though the tactics to address these global issues vary greatly from institution to institution the role of universities in the big picture was clear to Gilbert.
"We train tomorrow's leaders and citizens," Gilbert said. "The people who graduate from our institutions, a few of them will go on to lead very powerful corporations, very large, powerful, sovereign states. But most of them will vote. So preparing voters to deal with complex problems like the environment is the primary institutional role."