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Speeches & Media

A Planet in Crisis Demands Our Best

From hundreds of new courses to new academic centers, Smith is galvanizing its resources to prepare a generation of leaders in the fight against climate change.

Kathleen McCartney, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Spring 2020

Our planet—our home—is in crisis. In the first half of 2019 alone, there were 10 climate-related weather events in the United States that each resulted in more than $1 billion in damage, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information. A recent report by Oxfam noted that more than 20 million people around the world are displaced annually by extreme natural disasters, including floods, fires, drought and storms. As I wrote this in early January, wildfires were still burning out of control across Australia.

The call to take action to reduce the effects of the climate crisis is urgent and cannot be ignored. At the 2019 U.N. Climate Action Summit in New York, governments, policymakers, scientists and activists were urged to scale up climate action and forge new pathways to save the Earth. Colleges like Smith can be critical partners in this effort by supporting faculty- and student-driven research and educating leaders to be responsible stewards of our planet’s resources.

Increasingly, Smith students are engaging with climate change thanks to faculty members who are eager to incorporate climate-related issues into their classrooms.

During our 2019–20 Year on Climate Change, faculty members are offering more than 100 courses that relate to climate issues—many in disciplines you might not imagine. Introduction to Data Science, for example, is using climate data from Smith’s MacLeish Field Station. The Bible and the American Public Square is devoting a number of its class meetings to exploring the Bible and environmental/ecological concerns. A course in Spanish language and literature is studying climate-change narratives from Spanish-speaking regions of the world. And science and engineering faculty are offering a range of courses addressing ecohydrology, greenhouse gases, food production and land use.

Sustainability initiatives in today’s Smith curriculum build on efforts begun more than a half century ago. As early as 1962, Professor John Burk taught a course titled Human Conservation. In 1985, the college created a minor in marine science. And in 2010, we established the Center for the Environment, Ecological Design and Sustainability, known colloquially as CEEDS. Our interdisciplinary minor in environmental science and policy was codified as a major in 2011; the following year, we dedicated the Bechtel Environmental Classroom, a 2,300-square-foot learning center at our MacLeish Field Station, an award-winning facility with the distinction of being only the fifth building in the world to meet the Living Building Challenge—the highest standard for green building. MacLeish is now home to courses in disciplines ranging from art history to astronomy and theater.

Recognizing the potential of experiential learning, our faculty is committed to using the campus and its operations as a climate change laboratory. Students and faculty work together to develop solutions for the sustainability challenges we face as a residential campus and in our local community. Lily Li ’19 designed a zero-carbon energy system for our field house. Alexandra Golikov ’19 conducted an analysis of the financial impact to the college of state legislation taxing carbon emissions. Mia Fuentes Deonate ’21 is researching the indigenous cultures that were present in the Northampton area for millennia, and how we might consider traditional ecological knowledge in our landscape master plan.

Students in our engineering program developed stormwater runoff solutions for the Northampton Department of Public Works and improvements to a nearby fish ladder for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Students in environmental science and policy worked with our regional planning commission to develop climate resiliency plans for four communities in the hilltowns of western Massachusetts.

“Our faculty is committed to using the campus as a climate change laboratory.”

Our students have been recognized as national winners or finalists in undergraduate research by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education for each of the last three years. And the solutions they developed are changing how we do business at Smith. For example, in her senior year, Breanna Parker ’18 helped create a carbon pricing tool for Smith that is now distributed to colleges and universities nationwide; it is used in measuring the environmental costs of specific products and technologies. Alexandra Davis ’18, who studied renewable energy technology and climate resilience in Denmark during her junior year, conducted research to calculate the carbon contained in construction materials; she now works for a firm that is advising the college on using greener materials in the redesign of Neilson Library.

Faculty across the curriculum see great value in using the campus as a classroom. “Getting our own house in order is a way to graduate leaders who can get the world in order,” explains Assistant Professor of Environmental Science and Policy Alex Barron. The unprecedented level and rate of climate change calls for a radically different vision of the future. We cannot run our campuses, communities or economies in the ways we have done in the past. The sustainable future we seek requires climate leaders informed by intellect, experience and empathy, educated to frame a challenge and galvanize solutions. Smithies are preparing to lead on that path.