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Sustainability Summit warily eyes climate change

By Dave Jones on May 4, 2007 in University

Focus the Nation founder Eban Goodstein addressed UC Davis students, faculty and staff last week about his effort to mobilize millions of people in the fight against global warming.

"We really have an opportunity to change the direction of the country, to get beyond fatalism and into an action mode," Goodstein, an economics professor at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., told UC Davis' fifth annual Sustainability Summit.

His audience, many of them already deeply immersed in sustainability efforts on campus, needed little convincing about enlisting in Focus the Nation. The UC Davis Chapter of the California Student Sustainability Coalition, sponsor of the April 27 summit, already has signed on as a Focus on Nation participant.

Focus on Nation is Goodstein's plan for a national teach-in on Jan. 31, 2008, with symposia and other activities at 1,000 colleges, universities and high schools — reaching 3 million students.

Individual events like this are lucky to draw a couple hundred people, Goodstein said. So how does he expect to attract 3 million? By enlisting faculty from a variety of disciplines to make brief presentations about global warming, he said.

"Each of those faculty will bring in a hundred students," he said. "That's how you get 5,000 or 6,000 or 7,000 students engaged on this day at UC Davis."

Laura Seaman and Jonathan Woolley of the campus's California Student Sustainability Coalition said planning already is under way to recruit faculty for panel discussions on Jan. 31. Woolley said Goodstein participated last week in a small workshop with several faculty members, and the coalition is organizing four larger workshops in May for key administrators, faculty, students and staff.

Seaman and Woolley said Jan. 31 will be the prime date for Focus the Nation activities at UC Davis, but organizers hope to put on events before and after, too.

Every bit of attention will help, Goodstein said. "We need to focus as a nation on the depth of the challenge we face."

The challenge, he said, is cutting or at least stabilizing carbon dioxide emissions to save the world from disaster of epic proportions: acidification of the oceans, with collapse of marine food chains; fire-driven deforestation in the Amazon; methane release from the thawing tundra; and collapse of the continental ice shelf, leading to a 35- to 40-foot rise in sea level.

"Once we cross that threshold, there's no going back," Goodstein said. "It will be impossible to reverse."

He said the carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere measured 280 parts per million in the pre-Industrial Age, and today measures 380 parts per million. "Essentially we are creating a thicker blanket, a warmer plant," he said.

Scientists pretty much agree, he said, that even with immediate action to stem carbon dioxide emissions, the atmospheric level will keep going up for a while, to 450 parts per million, with an associated rise in average temperatures of 3 or 4 degrees.

Those numbers are manageable, he said. "We will and can get through it."

But it must stop there, or the world is doomed. "All of us need to start living as if we only have nine years to stabilize carbon dioxide emissions."

Why nine years? Because, Goodstein said, one year has passed since NASA scientist James Hansen estimated 10 years until the point of no return. Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, was quoted as saying: "We don't have much time left."

Hansen's comments spurred Goodstein to action. He said Focus the Nation provides an opportunity for today's students "to set the stage for very deep cuts (in carbon dioxide emissions), if they want to make the world a safe and habitable place for their kids."

By pushing for action, by pushing political and business leaders to invest in climate control, today's college students can be "the greatest generation," Goodstein said, supplanting the troops who fought to victory in World War II.

"We are in a race against time," he said.

The Sustainability Summit, held in the AGR Room at the Buehler Alumni and Visitors Center, drew about 50 people. Other speakers included representatives of the UC Office of the President, and UC Davis' Office of Administration, Office of Resource Management and Planning, R4 Recycling and Sodexho food services.

Bob Segar, assistant vice chancellor for campus planning, outlined the forthcoming West Village neighborhood for faculty, staff and students — an environmentally friendly community meant "to perpetuate UC Davis' strong values into the future."

R4 Director Lin King told of UC Davis' success at limiting the amount of waste going to the campus's landfill: a 56 percent diversion rate last year, better than the statewide average.

"People talk about throwing things away," King said, "but there really is no 'away'." Instead, there is recycling and composting — hopefully 100 percent by the year 2020, he said.

The Tercero Dining Commons is already close to that mark, at 91 percent, through the addition of post-consumer food waste to the compost stream.

Students run a compost project of their own, appropriately called Project Compost, picking up pre-consumer waste around campus.

Director Derek Downey told how Project Compost turns Coffee House waste into compost and gives it to the Student Farm, where the compost is used in growing produce that ends up in the Coffeehouse kitchen.

A complete cycle like this "is not very common in today's world, but it should be," Downey said.

He said some 20 students are involved in Project Compost, and they are all volunteers. "It just takes a little passion to go a long way," he said.

Goodstein is looking for similar, focused passions in hundreds of thousands of students around the nation come Jan. 31.

People interested in assisting with UC Davis' Focus on the Nation, including the May planning workshops, are invited to contact Woolley, (530) 204-7619 or

Media contact(s)

Dave Jones, Dateline, 530-752-6556,