Universities have a great ability to be institutional leaders of change. This is a belief that many people hold, and it was one that Dr. Eri Saikawa, an assistant professor at Emory University, addressed during her lecture, “What Does Climate Change Mean to Us and What Can We Do About It?”
Humans are so influential in Earth’s processes, and we affect the hydrosphere, geosphere, biosphere, atmosphere, and many other parts of Earth. We are so influential that we even have our own epoch named after us—“the Anthropocene”.
Charles David Keeling’s research at Mauna Loa Observatory in the 1950s was the first really critical evidence that humans are altering carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. His research demonstrates that though carbon dioxide concentrations fluctuate from season to season due to plant respiration, they have been increasing overall. Additionally, the concentrations have been doing so at a rate that we would expect from the amount of fossil fuels that humans burn each year, suggesting that humans are partially responsible for climate change.
During the lecture, Dr. Saikawa commented on the strong effects of climate change. For instance, the sea level is rising at a rate of roughly 3.41 mm per year due to expansion of water as it warms and the melting of glaciers into water, according to NASA Goddard Space Center. Additionally, from 2004 to 2013, there was an estimated $78 billion dollar economic loss due to heat waves and droughts, and climate change can impact the frequency and intensity of these occurrences. Extreme weather events will also cause high fatalities, especially in developing countries.
While the lecture focused primarily on this science behind climate change and these effects, Dr. Saikawa also mentioned that she is proud of Emory’s commitment to explore solar and geothermal energy more in the future. This was a thought that especially caught my attention and made me consider the role of myself and my peers in fighting climate change.
For me, it is clear that students, who will ultimately grow up to be the next generation of climate leaders, have distinct responsibilities in combating climate change.
Based on per capita emissions, the United States is one of the leading nations contributing to climate change, and as such, U.S. institutions, such as Emory have a clear role to play. Emory tooks its first step towards fulfilling this role when it sent its first group of delegates, made up of nine students and two faculty members, to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris December of 2015. Since then, Emory has sent a group to Marrakech, Morocco for the COP22 negotiations, and it is preparing to send a group to Bonn, Germany this November for the COP23 negotiations.
Emory already has a Climate Action Plan, which it address in its Sustainability Vision and Strategic Plan for 2015-2025. In the plan, Emory states its goals to update Emory’s 2011 Climate Action Plan based on new scientific information regarding climate change. These updates include Emory’s goals to offset emissions from Emory-purchased air travel by investing in sustainability revolving funds for carbon-reduction programs, and to continue investing in sustainable businesses that do not produce fossil fuels. Emory also hopes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020, 36% by 2036, and 50% by 2050.
This year at the conference, Emory, along with Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB), Mediators Beyond Borders International (MBBI), and University of Colorado at Boulder (CU-Boulder), will host a side event to outline the roles that universities play in mitigating climate change. During the event, Dr. Saikawa and her counterparts will address how Emory can partner with the city of Atlanta to reduce emissions both at the local level and at the university level. This will be the first year that Emory will be part of such an event at the COP negotiations.
Dr. Saikawa said that she is curious to see the role that the United States will play at COP23 after President Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement earlier this year. She is also excited to see the role that Emory will play as delegates who can observe the negotiations.
In the future, Dr. Saikawa hopes to have several Emory alumni included as part of Emory’s delegation to the COP negotiations so that they too can observe the discussions and bring this information back to their respective communities.
As Dr. Saikawa said, “Every single step does count towards reducing emissions.”