Climate, Energy & Ethics Roundtable

On the Economic & Political Dynamics, Solidarity & Science of the Climate Crisis
Date: November 11, 2010 @ 11:00 am
Location: First Floor Lounge, Falvey Memorial Library

climate-roundtable-400x618At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, we held the first of our series of Climate Talks, to explore with more depth and more detail some of the intricacies of the climate crisis, including social, philosophical and political, dynamics, and the way we frame our perception of global-scale phenomena. It was a construtive conversation, from four points of view, each of which was able to benefit from a kinship of interest, so that whether we were discussion environmental justice, political solidarity, economics and collaborative politics or Villanova’s ongoing commitment to reducing its carbon footprint, there were ways to deepen and broaden our understanding of each facet of the problem from each of the different perspectives.

The hour and the day were chosen in part for their historic resonance, in part for their ease of transmission, and of course the echo of past war efforts, the foundation for our honoring of veterans every 11th of November, reminds us of the noble quality of basic generosity, the uncommon generosity of spirit and of mind required to put one’s life at stake for the safety and liberty of others. That spirit can, if we embrace what’s best in it, remind us of the basic ethical urge, to offer to those around us the treatment we hope they will offer to us. Global climate destabilization requires this kind of ethical awareness, of the responsibility we might each show to our fellow human beings, at home and across the world.

The first presenter was Chaone Mallory, a professor in Villanova’s Philosophy Department. Dr. Mallory covered issues of climate change and environmental justice, as relating to marginalized communities and the problematic biases of expertise. She spoke of the need for access to and respect for information emerging from alternative viewpoints, local cultures, the interaction of traditional cultures with the environment and its key systemic signals, and the negative impact an excessively techno-centric view can have on climate policy.

Specifically, Dr. Mallory suggested the need to ask ourselves what kinds of non-conventional frameworks can we use to deal more effectively with the specifics of the climate crisis. There may be tools for cooperation, and for envirnomental awareness and sustainability, that are available to us through traditional cultures, but which we cannot see or conceive of through the conventional policy-making or commercial approach.

A basic epistemological question arises: whose knowledge is it? If a given culture already knows of the curative properties of a given plant, should scientists and biotech firms that “discover” such properties be obliged to recognize that pre-existing knowledge? How do we trace the process of discovery? What kind of data are we using, and what kind are we excluding? Have we taken sufficient input from “alternative ways of knowing” so that we can judge fairly that our knowledge is sound?

To some extent, we must recognize that local cultures, however remote or “primitive”, might in many ways be the true “experts” regarding the real on-the-ground, day-to-day impact of climate destabilization on their environment.

Sally Scholz, another professor from Villanova’s Philosophy Department, followed, with an exploration of the topic of political solidarity, the subject of her most recent book. Dr. Scholz explained that climate destabilization is perhaps the first truly global problem, which would be best solved by all people everywhere finding common interest and coming together to do their part.

She spoke of a “new recognition of global interconnectedness” and of the “importance of incorporating viewpoints from others” whose experience, origin or perceived interest might be different from our own. She spoke of the power of solidarity as an organizing principle as being a counterweight to self-interest: “the weight of the world is on our shoulders, but it’s a good weight.” Our “shared humanness” means expanded responsibility, but also an expanded pool of resources from which to draw our best response to a mounting global crisis.

Dr. Scholz’ book, Political Solidarity, explores the philosophical underpinnings and socio-political outriggings of solidarity as a driver for human achievement and the cultivation of social justice and democratic structures. Her work is crucial to understanding how and why people work together, even when self-interest seems to incentivize separation.

The third speaker was Joseph Robertson, a visiting instructor with the Department of Romance Languages and Literature, and director of the independent publisher Casavaria and the innovation project The Hot Spring Network. He started his talk by discussing the nature of the climate problem, a pervasive destabilization of global climate patterns on which human civilization as we know it has always depended.

He spoke of his work with Citizens Climate Lobby, a national non-profit, non-partisan organization, working to build the political will for responsible emissions reduction legislation. The group organizes citizen volunteers to form groups and to contact members of Congress and the media, to spread the word on the latest information, the best practices, and to coordinate language and negotiations in the legislative process.

Robertson’s report Building a Green Economy focuses on the question of whether it is possible to effect a comprehensive transition to clean, renewable fuels, “at wartime speed”, as suggested by the Earth Policy Institute’s founder and president Lester Brown. He laid out a series of case studies, economic analyses and technological breakthroughs, which suggest that ambitious goal can and should be met, with informed and decisive federal policies and a combination of public and private investment.

John Olson, of Villanova’s Biology Department and the President’s Environmental Sustainability Committee (PESC) wrapped up the first of the Climate Talks events. He spoke about Villanova’s commitment to action that will make the university more environmentally sustainable and, eventually, “carbon-neutral”.

Dr. Olson explained that Villanova has quickly moved to the national forefront in terms of environmentally responsible universities, winning an overall B+ rating on its Green Report Card for 2010, just 3 years after Father Donohue, the university’s president, signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. Villanova’s B+ rating actually obscures its A rated work in several key areas (administrative, investment and food and recycling), because so many old buildings need to be brought in line with the latest environmental and efficiency standards and its transportation system is still reliant on fossil fuels.

Olson explained tangible actions the university is taking to reduce its carbon footprint and move toward a renewables-based sustainable energy paradigm, and spoke of the committee and subcommittee structures that are allowing students, faculty and staff to participate in and help to implement the incremental solutions required to move the President’s Climate Commitment forward.

Scheduled for roughly 90 minutes, the roundtable, along with subsequent question and answer period, ran the full two hours available. The questions were informed and probing, and stimulated some debate and dialogue between the panelists. One question was about the position of the Catholic Church on climate policy.

Dr. Sally Scholz fielded the question and spoke of Pope John Paul II’s interest in solidarity as a political and social-justice principle and an ethical basis for a coordinated climate crisis response. There was also discussion of the American Council of Catholic Bishops and its work on Catholic Social Teaching, economic justice and environmental rights.

In July 2009, Pope Benedict’s Third Encyclical (Caritas in Veritate) addressed the ethical obligation of world leaders to work together to confront the mounting crisis of pervasive climate destabilization. Specifically, he wrote that “the protection of the environment, of resources and of the climate obliges all international leaders to act jointly and to show a readiness to work in good faith, respecting the law and promoting solidarity with the weakest regions of the planet.”

Another question touched on the elephant in the room in many institutional initiatives to address energy and emissions: why should it take four decades to achieve carbon neutrality? Dr. Olson explained that Villanova’s sustainability team did and still does hope to achieve that goal sooner, but that a financial viability study found 2050 to be a reasonable time-frame, given currently available technologies and cost parameters.

Joseph Robertson pointed out that we too often see these targets as the whole story, the best-case scenario, the only target on the minds of those at work on achieving it. He suggested that whether targets are governmental, UN-related or institutional and voluntary, these targets should be considered the reasonable minimum in future performance, and that with policy shifts and technological advances, it is reasonable to assume Villanova could actually achieve climate-impact neutrality years or even decades in advance of the 2050 target date.

Other questions dealt with the need for a permanent full-time Sustainability Coordinator, whose job would be to oversee, to accelerate and to raise the visiblity of sustainability programs and policies on campus, and of how to allow for more student involvement in the administrative decision-making process about what measures need to be funded, promoted and propagated, as a way of moving Villanova to climate-impact neutrality.

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The next Climate Talks event will be held at Villanova University, on Thursday, January 27, 2011, and will include panelists from across campus and from off-campus as well. We invite students, faculty, staff and members of the Villanova community more broadly, to contribute their ideas, questions or information, via email.

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Please explore below some key links relating to the speakers and their work, and to Villanova’s nationally recognized sustainability efforts:

Villanova Climate & Sustainability Efforts:

Chaone Mallory

John Olson

Joseph Robertson

Sally Scholz

The event is co-sponsored by:

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