Opinion: Taking a stand for science
Nov. 3, 2011
If university leaders don't, who will?
By Stephen Mulkey
for the Daily Climate
UNITY, Maine – It may be unusual for a college president to step into a political event such as the Tar Sands Action. Some of my colleagues at other institutions will no doubt think me quite mad to join the group that will circle the White House on Sunday.
Not only is it appropriate for me to make my voice heard as president of Unity College, it is necessary for all of us in higher education to speak out.
Let me be clear, because the science is solid on this point: 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.
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.
There can be little doubt that the 21st century is destined to be the century of the environment. Climate change is an enormous problem, but other pressing trends imperil our planet: Earlier this week the 7 billionth baby was born. Energy and food demands are outstripping supply. Biodiversity is plummeting. Fresh water is growing scarce. Ocean fisheries are in collapse.
The best science has validated these trends as global change unfolds with increasing speed, threatening to compound them all. 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 given 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. More than 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.
University leaders can and should do much more.
We need vocal and public leadership on the science of climate change in this time of dire need. Educators 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. But we cannot sit idly by as research and science are discarded or ignored.
Failure of courage
The science with respect to the mining and extraction of oil from tar sands makes the product 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.
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 10 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. The world needs 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. We have the opportunity here to act with courage and integrity to preserve our world for future generations.
Who will act with me?
Stephen Mulkey is president of Unity College, in Unity, Maine.
Images courtesy of Unity College.
DailyClimate.org is a nonprofit news site covering climate change. Views expressed are those of the author and not of DailyClimate.org
Find more Daily Climate stories in the
This work by is licensed under a .
Based on a work at