"This is the right group to be speaking to."
Dr. James Hansen, Goddard Institute for Space Studies
The Power of Students in the Beltway!
Just back from a surprisingly heart-felt trip to Washington DC. I'd been invited to be a panelist at the Student Conservation Association's EarthVision 2008 Summit. Hundreds of high school and college-age students from around the country descended on the capitol for keynote speeches and intriguing panels on land, air, water, and climate. What a force.
The National 4H Conference Center in Chevy Chase was abuzz with SCA energy. I was honored to be part of the event, and I had no idea that it would strike me so deeply. I'd decided to meld my "commence- ment remarks" (passionate words about the wealth of green career opportunities) with an assortment of images from EcoMotion's past couple of years. (I'd recently put together that talk for the Orange County Spirituality Center.)
The images that I put together for SCA reflect my own path. I shared images and short stories from travels in Iceland, the "great commuter train bulb giveaway," solarizing our own LA home, greening Miami City Hall, and most recently installing a dual-axis tracking solar system at a highly secure airport. Far from voluntary simplicity, the SCAs could tell that EcoMotion is on a roll, doing meaningful projects and touching thousands of people eager to plug in and be integral parts of the green revolution.
Student Conservation Association
The Student Conservation Association was founded in 1957 to restore and protect America's public lands and preserve them for future generations. SCA remains committed to this goal to this day. The student conservation corps is best known for the "summer trail crews" that work in parks across the country.
"SCA's mission is to build the next generation of conservation leaders and inspire lifelong stewardship of our environment and communities by engaging young people in hands-on service to the land. "
SCA members are high school and college-age volunteers from various backgrounds. They build trails, restore habitat, guide interpretive hikes, study plants and animals, and participate in many other conservation-related projects in America's urban and rural parks and public lands.
SCA members on the Ford Mine trail SCA volunteers contribute more than 1.6 million hours each year conserving our nation's natural spaces. But they don't do it on their own. They work on behalf of, and in conjunction with, governmental agencies and nonprofit organizations that are responsible for managing and maintaining America's public lands and cultural treasures. These include the National Park Service, the Nature Conservancy, Bureau of Indian Affairs, AmeriCorps, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force Natural Resource Programs, Bureau of Land Management, and the Garden Club of America.
Jim Hansen's Courage and Perspectives
Dr. James Hansen heads up the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, a part of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. He is an adjunct professor at Columbia University, and a senior science advisor to Al Gore. He is best known for Congressional testimony in the 1980s on the findings of his team of scientists that reached a conclusion that global warming will happen sooner than previously predicted. He also predicted that it would be hard to get political support to address the issue. In 2005 and 2006, Hansen revealed that he had been censored, that NASA administrators had tried to influence his remarks about the causes of climate change. A critic of both Clinton and Bush climate change policies, he was unable to speak freely on a 60 Minutes interview without backlash. His early warnings are now reality, and he is now widely regarded as a sage and prescient soul.
Jim Hansen was soft spoken, understated, and seemed a bit disoriented as he spoke to a jammed roomful of SCAs. Everyone present knew what courage Hansen - as young NASA scientist -- had demonstrated on the risk of global warming many years before it was accepted. Scorned by many, he had stood up for what he believed in. He moved the students with his values and determination. And now he was asking for their help.
It was indeed an early morning on an overcast Saturday morning in Chevy Chase. Jim was calm, quite relaxed, clearly in good humor, and like a good research scientist, a bit pensive and somewhat aloof. His reasoned and oft-repeated message on global climate change - and the state of the planet -- was profound: "Potentially, we have a big problem," he explained: "But there are fuels available that are cost free. And if we decide to fix the problem, the alternative future is an attractive one."
So where is the gap? Hansen explained that it's between scientists and policy makers. "We've reached a point where there really is an emergency." He went on to make clear to his young and passionate audience that there is a danger of pushing our ecological systems beyond a tipping point. So far, global warming has been 1.5 degrees F in 100 years. Three-quarters of that was in the last 30 years. Sea levels have risen about an inch and three-quarters in the last century, and the rate has doubled in the last 15 - 20 years.
If we don't cap the carbon dioxide problem, he warned, polar caps will completely melt, causing sea levels to rise by 8 feet. This would spell disaster for countries like Bangladesh, and places like Florida and Manhattan, and would cause profound climate changes worldwide. He explained different types of climate change actions: Irreversible actions include melting ice sheets and species extinction.
Currently, the Earth's atmosphere is made up of about 385 parts per million (ppm) carbon dioxide. Scientists believe that the Earth may be able to tolerate 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide, and that even 425 ppm is technically "feasible," but at a cost. If we get back to 325 - 355 ppm, he suggested that we may be able to restore the planetary climate balance If we get to 300 - 325 ppm, reversible climatological changes like sea ice will come back.
Jim explained that one of the toughest aspects of climate change is that it's really hard for the public to understand, and to believe and internalize. On a typical day we experience 20 degree fluctuations in temperature; seasonal variations are that much greater. So the measurements of atmospheric scientists are out of the realm of thinking for most of us. The ocean acidification that is killing the corral reefs is figuratively and literally unfathomable. Worse yet, he believes, is that humans believe it is their God given right to burn all the fossil fuels. "We'd better not do it."
We've burned about half the oil, peak oil has just occurred, he continued. We've burned a smaller fraction of the coal, and he believes that "that is the issue." Unlike the situation with oil and gas owned largely by the Russians and Saudis who he insisted will sell it, we are fortunate in that we can control the coal. He urged 1) a moratorium on new coal plants, 2) phase out of existing coal plants, and 3) carbon capture. "The critical thing about coal is that it needs to be phased out quickly." Again, the master of understatements: "It's really pretty dirty stuff."
"The real world is giving us answers faster than models," he explained. For years, he and others were pointing to atmospheric models that were signaling a problem. Now "positive feedback loops" - like open Artic seas absorbing sunlight and thus warming temperatures further - are stark and readily apparent. And yes, there are negative feedback loops related to climate, like increased carbon dioxide causing plants to grow faster, thus sequestering that much more CO2. Unfortunately, their effects are dwarfed.
"I can't emphasize enough now much the future depends on young people understanding these issues. Otherwise, business as usual will continue," he implored. "There's a basic conflict between fossil fuel special interests and you," he explained to the students. And the fossil fuel interests contribute to both political parties. "Instead of burning the balance of fossil fuels, why not change now and avoid all the problems? "There is a tremendous generational inequity," Jim explained. "Young people - like you - have to object. I'll try to help."
The audience was deeply appreciative of his remarks, and his decades of conscientious action. For many of the students, meeting and having a word with Dr. Hansen - a true patriot and dedicated voice of scientific reason -- was a profound benefit of being there.
So just how might you get involved? First off, register on line. It costs $25 and takes a bit of time. You'll have to fill in background information, your resume, etc. The process is designed to link the prospective SCA with his or her interest, be it serving on a team (conservation corps) doing trail restoration, or wildlife management, invasive species control, or sustainable community training. Internships range from 3 - 12 months. Generally, SCA's commit to the entire period, though some locations are more flexible and allow for early/late arrivals or departures.
As for finances, SCA is a good deal: Internships are funded in different ways depending on the site, but cost the students nothing. They may be funded by government, corporations, the national park, individual donors, or SCA itself. (Donors' gifts are generally matched.) The organization pays travel and housing costs, and in some cases it pays for food. Some students get college credit for their works. Another incentive is a 'subsistence living allowance' that is paid weekly; the amount varies depending on the length and type of program. And when an intern completes the internship, an AmeriCorps Scholarship is awarded that ranges from $1,000 - $4,725.
A link on the website that allows you to narrow down your site search. "Search for Internship" link allows you to choose whether you are looking for a specific discipline or a site in a specific state. Check it out.
National Train Day - May 10