Green Democracy Roundtable Examines Climate Change Issues

The Green Democracy Roundtable, hosted by the Hamilton Environmental Action Group and the Hamilton College chapter of Democracy Matters on Jan. 31, brought together a distinguished panel of students, staff, alumni and politicians to discuss potential solutions to the problems of climate change. The event, concluding Hamilton's participation in the Focus the Nation global warming teach-in that took place at more than 1,000 schools that day, was notable for the depth of the speakers' knowledge and for their universal commitment to address climate change.

The comments of New York Assemblyman David R. Townsend at the meeting were especially notable because, as a Republican member of the New York state government, he acknowledged that he sought to make New York "the cleanest state." Townsend repeatedly focused on tax credits that he had supported or authored to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including the Climate Change Solutions Act that provided rebates to purchasers of fuel-efficient vehicles while collecting a climate emissions surcharge on inefficient ones. He frequently looked at the issue of global warming from the supply side, pointing out that electric car manufacturers have so far been unable to create a car that runs more than 40 miles after a four-hour charge, and thus supported programs that included incentives for manufacturers to produce clean vehicles. He also focused on renewable fuels, lauding tax credits for these fuels as a source of home heating and a "big help to keep the farmers in business."

Townsend also explained how citizens converting their cars to renewable fuels often find a shortage of stations at which to fill them their greener tanks; to counter this, he proposed tax credits for filling stations to convert to renewable fuels that would eventually result in renewable fuel stations in all the travel plazas on the New York State Thruway. While he argued that environmental problems such as acid rain were forced upon New York by pollution from Midwest factories, and that global warming, as a worldwide problem, may make it difficult to "protect everybody" for a reasonable price, he staked political ground on the issue by saying "We do not have our head in the sand in Albany, no more than they do in Washington."

Visiting Assistant Professor of Government Peter F. Cannavò spoke on the political issues around climate change, arguing for serious action and to watch out for "feel-good" solutions. He underscored the threat of climate change as the "greatest challenge facing humanity over the coming century," and examined the irony of current high concerns about terrorism when a terrorist group could "only dream of" the destruction caused by global warming, which will "melt glaciers," "spread disease," and create 50 million environmental refugees.

While Cannavò indicated concern about the moral issues of "distributive justice" within climate change solutions and the power of democracy to flourish under "pretty major" restrictions on consumption to prevent catastrophic global warming, he gave evidence for hope in part because of recent movements by Republicans to adopt the climate change issue traditionally pushed by the Democratic party. He pointed out that with Senator John McCain, a Republican who was "a leader in the Senate" on global warming, as a frontrunner for the Republican presidential race in 2008, Americans are likely to elect a president who will address climate change rather than performing the "foot-dragging" that he sees in the President George W. Bush and presidential contender Governor Mitt Romney's administrations. "Once [the Bush administration] gets out of the way, I think there is going to be some action on this," he predicted. While Cannavò cautioned that some proposed legislation (such as that supporting corn-based ethanol) actually worsens the problem of global warming, and the question remains whether these actions will be enough to halt the damage already done, he closed with "it's a scary time, but scary times usually bring out the best in people, don't they?"

Brian Hansen, Hamilton's Director of Environmental Protection, Safety and Sustainability, commented on the rapid rise of environmental studies programs; he was the first graduate of Clarkson University's environmental policy program, at that time housed in a log cabin, but has now seen that program today receive more focus than other disciplines at that school. He pointed out that while academic intuitions like Hamilton "got in some ways a free pass from the formative years of environmental regulations" because industrial polluters were perceived as more likely to face regulations, citations against Hamilton's peer institutions in recent years forced universities to upgrade their environmental programs. After "hard work," Hamilton was able to pass its Environmental Protection Agency inspections in May 2005 without citations or fines. He pointed out that further progress at Hamilton is in some ways constrained by a culture in which "everything is decided by a committee," but encouraged Hamilton College students that ""true power to make change lies in us all as individuals."

Two Hamilton alumni spoke passionately about their involvement in environmental work post-graduation. Alisha Fowler '06, who works in a "policy shop" of the National Wildlife Federation ("the largest member based conservation group in America"), praised the recent development of global warming into a more nonpartisan issue, in light of reports such as a recent cost comparison showing global warming would lead to a 5 percent sacrifice in GDP if left unchecked but only a 3 percent sacrifice in GDP to prevent. She also complimented the "absolutely thrilling" grassroots action at Focus the Nation, former Vice President Al Gore's environmental film An Inconvenient Truth, and recent scientific reports creating a sense that "people stand at a tipping point" in dealing with global warming. She suggested that environmentally concerned citizens should focus on electing a green president in 2008, get involved in any elected president's first term (traditionally a productive political time) to push climate change action, and ensure a new international agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol is established in coming years. She encouraged Hamilton students to "stay involved in political issues" throughout this tumultuous time.

Emily Gunther '06, who now works for Just Food, a New York City-based nonprofit, discussed how food and livestock use contributes to global warming through use of fossil fuels for transport and methane gas emissions. She cited a statistic that the livestock industry generates 18 percent of global warming pollution, a significant figure considering the little concern paid by many environmentalists to promoting vegetarian diets as a sustainable alternative. This comment led to some spirited audience questions, which weighed the value of sustainability versus Assemblyman Townsend's contention that to change diets would require "telling this whole culture they're going to have to change their way of living."

Gunther also discussed Graduates for a Greener Hamilton, a recent alumni group that has attracted significant support in petitioning President Joan Hinde Stewart for greener Hamilton programs, and encouraged students to apply for the organization's Green Initiatives Fund, which provides funding to students for "environmentally focused projects."

Chris Sullivan '09 talked about Hamilton's Community Garden, a one-acre plot of land behind Ferguson House where students have been working since the fall to prepare a garden for use by classes, individual plots for gardeners, and a large community plot that will provide food for use by Bon Appetit. Through this initiative, Sullivan hopes students will become more aware of their consumption choices (including the environmental costs of using food trucked from thousands of miles away), see the benefits of a sustainable food system, and "form a tangible connection with the land and the landscape we are part of." Unlike many of the other proposals, Sullivan's message involved concrete change conducted locally at Hamilton, and he indicated that Bon Appetit and the President's Office had both been "very supportive." Given the activism and awareness of the Hamilton community speakers at this event, such support seems in keeping with the values of this institution. 

-- by Kye Lippold '10
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