Jacques Cousteau is credited with saying, “For most of history, man has had to fight nature to survive; in this century he is beginning to realize that, in order to survive, he must protect it.”
Cousteau did not get to experience the 21st century — he died in 1997 — but I think he would revel in knowing how true that same sentiment is in the new millennium. Thankfully, people are beginning to acquaint themselves with the alarming consequences we face in the coming decades due to climate change.
From melting land-ice in Greenland and Antarctica causing massive rises in sea level, to more frequent and more pronounced droughts causing massive crop failure and famine, we are on the precipice of massive ecological collapse.
In the recent droughts and wildfires in the Western United States and Australia, we have seen just a small sample of the world-changing fallout of climate change. In the coming decades, weather events like these will be paired with hurricanes the likes of which we have never seen, fueled by warming ocean currents and the extinction of many species of life on this planet.
But there is a bright side. Climate change has been thrust into the political mainstream in recent electoral cycles. We have come a long way from Comedy Central’s “South Park” satirization of former Vice President Al Gore’s focus on climate change as the mythical “manbearpig.”
In the past two decades, we have seen senators and representatives bring meaningful legislation to the floors of their respective chambers.
Just yesterday, U.S. Representatives Cori Bush and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced a groundbreaking bill that would funnel trillions of dollars over the next few decades to fund municipal, local, state and tribal projects that invest in green infrastructure and ecological resilience.
There’s work being done here at home, too. Over the last few months, I have had the honor of serving on Shippensburg University’s Campus Climate Action Plan Committee.
The committee oversees the university’s Presidential Climate Commitment, an agreement signed by President Laurie Carter during 2020’s StewardSHIP week. The primary goal of the Action Planning team is to formulate the plan to transform Shippensburg into a carbon-neutral or carbon-negative campus in the coming years.
Through working with advisory panels composed of students, faculty, staff and administration, and partnering with outside organizations like the South Mountain Partnership, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and Michaux State Forest, the Climate Commitment’s aim is to create a comprehensive plan that addresses the ecological and social needs of our community.
In preparation for this piece, I interviewed Russ Hedberg, SU geography and earth science professor. Hedberg is also the co-chair of the Action Plan team. One of the issues I asked him about was the fact that many of the proposed solutions to these issues have boiled down to individual action — recycling, composting, eating less red meat, et cetera.
“I don’t like the idea of putting responsibility on individuals,” Hedberg responded. “Individual action is great. I don’t think individual responsibility is a good approach to dealing with social problems, societal problems.”
I also spoke with Claire Jantz, Center for Land Use and Sustainability director and SU geography and earth science professor. We spoke about the relatively new sustainability major and its success.
“The sustainability major has grown pretty quickly, faster than we expected over the last few years,” Jantz said.
We also discussed roadblocks. She emphasized the challenge of moving toward public transit — a much more sustainable alternative to the method most commuters use, driving alone — in such a rural and decentralized area. The I-81 corridor through the Cumberland Valley has the potential to be a massive hub for expansion, and that growth could and should bring investments in infrastructure like light rail and bus service.
Over the next 10, 20, 50, 100 years and beyond, we are going to see the effects of climate change. If we want to leave a habitable home for our children and for posterity, we need decisive action, from top to bottom. We are all in this together.
“As a community, we need the leadership of our elected officials and our government to marshal the resolve of corporations and of our communities — of us — to make this happen,” Hedberg stressed. “It’s our job — as individuals — to embrace our roles as part of that broader community.”