Feeling Small?

From Minnesota Alumni Magazine Summer 2014

By Cynthia Scott, photo by Kurt Moses / Un Petit Monde


I was pouring coffee into a foam cup when I first heard of what was then called “the greenhouse gas effect.” It was in the early 1980s and a colleague was explaining how emissions from vehicles, factories, and other sources were trapping heat and warming the earth. Looking at my cup, she chastised me for making a choice that contributed to the problem. I felt defensive and embarrassed, decided she was out in left field, and poured another cup of coffee.

Greenhouse gas effect, indeed.

Live and learn. During production of this issue of the magazine, the federal government released the Third National Climate Assessment, which confirmed what numerous other reports have documented: climate change—the greenhouse gas effect—is having an impact on economies, public health, agriculture, and in numerous other arenas now.

My former colleague, it turns out, was not out in left field— she was ahead of her time. It’s an enormous problem we have on our hands. I sometimes wonder if part of the reason climate change has become so freighted politically and emotionally is that we feel so small in the face of it. It’s much easier to argue than to face directly the vast scope of the problem.

This issue of the magazine is an invitation to face climate change together. The invitation comes from a source familiar to alumni: University educators and researchers who fearlessly and relentlessly learn, teach, and strive to make a positive impact in the world. Beginning on page 18, seven U researchers who are recognized leaders in their fields offer their action agendas for responding to climate change. Their essays are likely to do what good classroom teachers always do: clarify, startle, provoke, perhaps offend, stimulate, and, I hope, inspire. Alongside their essays we also profile three alumni whose careers in public health, biosystems engineering, and forest ecology have taken them to the front lines of communities’ struggles to adapt. They too have a great deal to teach us.

This issue is not an exhaustive treatment of the problem of climate change. But we take seriously the words of President Eric Kaler (Ph.D. ’82) in his 2014 State of the University address, when he listed climate change as one of the world’s most serious and intractable problems on which the University must provide leadership. Few institutions, he said, have the historic mission or are allowed the intellectual freedom and curiosity to attack such problems from every angle. That’s a bold and refreshing vision. It might help us keep from feeling so small as we take up this challenge together.

Cynthia Scott (M.A. ’89) is the editor of Minnesota. She can be reached at scott325@umn.edu.


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