With fires ravaging the American West and Amazon rainforest and a suite of named storms looming in the Atlantic Ocean, many people are focused on climate change.
Meanwhile other events of the past several months, namely a renewed attention on racism and social injustice as well as the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic, have also received considerable attention.
How these issues intersect and influence each another provides the theme for the inaugural Climate Week at Penn, to be held Sept. 21-25. With support from Provost Wendell Pritchett’s office and participation from many areas of the University, the week’s events supply touchpoints for students, staff, faculty, and other community members to engage.
“What we’re aiming for is to involve as many people as possible in conversation about and action on the climate emergency,” says Simon Richter of the School of Arts & Sciences, one of the lead organizers.
Climate Week was originally scheduled for April to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, but was postponed due to the pandemic. The new timing coincides with the largest climate summit of the year, the United Nations-supported New York City Climate Week.
Instead of having a handful of in-person cornerstone events to anchor Penn’s offering, as was planned for the spring, Richter and his co-organizers have embraced a decentralized approach to the new digital format. “We decided everybody on the committee would try to organize events and inspire others to organize events as well,” he says.
The result is a five-day lineup of some 40 events encompassing topics from international politics to local activism, from white nationalism to agriculture, and from poetry to chemical engineering.
In a welcoming video, Pritchett invites everyone at Penn to consider how their expertise, scholarship, and strengths might address this environmental and social emergency.
“Just as there’s no single solution to global warming, no academic discipline holds the key to solving this crisis,” he says. “It will take each of us, and all of us, collectively, coming together to tackle a complex global challenge.”
Despite the online format, a number of the events are structured to be interactive, with opportunities for discussion, breakout groups, and workshopping of ideas.
“To me it’s extra special that, during COVID, with so many people being physically dispersed all over the world, that we’re still able to have this week of events to bring everyone together,” says Marina Dauer, a junior from Dallas majoring in political science and environmental science.
Part of the Climate Week organizing committee, Dauer and other students helped in the overall planning process and specifically in organizing a panel on climate justice, involving student affinity groups including the LatinX Coalition, Black Students League, Penn African Students Association, Asian Pacific Students Coalition, Penn Association for Gender Equity, and others “to show in as many ways as possible the impacts of climate injustice and how climate has disproportionate effects on certain communities,” Dauer says.
Another student-led effort, supported by Penn’s Sustainability Office, is a series of four evening “Activist Hours.” Attendees will learn about Philadelphia-area activist groups working on water, voting, climate, food and agriculture, energy, and identifying ways to get involved themselves.
Penn Sustainability itself is also hosting two events. One is a panel on access to nature featuring Kiasha Huling of University City Green, Jerome Shabazz of the Overbrook Environmental Education Center, and Penn Medicine’s Eugenia South. “When you think about environmental justice, you often hear a lot about air pollution or water pollution,” says Sustainability manager Natalie Walker, “but access to nature is something that’s not covered as much, and it’s really important from a racial justice perspective.”
The other Sustainability-hosted event will highlight the Green Labs initiative, with members showing how they had made their laboratory operations less wasteful.
Alongside their events, Penn Sustainability will be holding its annual Rethink Your Footprint campaign, aimed at helping individuals reduce the energy they consume and the waste they generate.
“Some people’s footprints are changing—some for the better, since air travel and long-distance travel is declining—but other aspects of our footprints might be increasing, with single-use plastics from dining out,” says Sustainability Coordinator Elizabeth Main. “Normally we would have in-person collection events for items that aren’t easily recyclable, but instead we’re shifting our focus to an interactive social media campaign and highlighting a new partnership with the city where residents can get their textiles and e-waste picked up for free.”
Richter is gratified by the cross-campus collaboration and leadership from a host of groups, some of which are using the opportunity of Climate Week to engage formally on the issue of climate change for the first time.
Jen Lessick, a second-year student in the Master of Environmental Studies program is a board member of Climate Leaders @ Penn, a graduate student organization launched last year. She says that the group already has widespread involvement with students from multiple schools holding positions on the board. They’ll be hosting a meet-and-greet for students to get to know the research and funding opportunities based in centers around the University, as well as a happy hour to network and foster community around climate issues.
“We want all graduate students, from all different backgrounds and disciplines to feel like there is a climate conversation happening on campus and opportunities to get involved,” Lessick says.
Members of the Penn community and the public will find many other events throughout the week, which will include:
- On Monday, Sept. 21, a discussion of the most ambitious global climate accord in history, “The Paris Agreement: Five Years Later,” organized by Perry World House;
- On Tuesday, Sept. 22, a workshop presented by Counseling and Psychological Services around the mental health impacts of today’s interrelated crises, “C3: Climate, COVID, and Community;”
- On Wednesday, Sept. 23, a panel on linking Penn’s carbon offsets for air travel to community building, organized by the School of Engineering and Applied Science and moderated by Richter, “Carbon Offsets Should Make a Difference;” and a “Keynote Conversation with Patricia Espinosa,” the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change;
- On Thursday, Sept. 24, presented by the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, a look at disparities in the rollout of “green” energy sources, “Towards Clean Energy Equity: Overcoming Racial Disparities;”
- On Friday, Sept. 25, a moderated discussion from School of Veterinary Medicine researchers on how to reduce the environmental impact of our diets, “Reducing the Carbon Footprint in Animal Agriculture.”
The School of Arts & Sciences will also reprise its successful 1.5 Minute Climate Lectures series, initiated last fall, on Sept. 23, with five faculty speakers. A student version will feature 15 speakers at the event’s close, on Sept. 25.
Richter and the rest of the organizing committee are hopeful that the accessibility of the digital format will give some wins for climate engagement on campus. “Although we wish we could be together in person, being online may give us an even bigger impact,” he says. “Our goal is to have every member of the Penn community tune in.”
Marina Dauer is a junior majoring in political science and environmental studies in the School of Arts & Sciences and an executive board member of the Student Sustainability Association at Penn.
Jen Lessick is a second-year student in the Master of Environmental Studies program and a board member of Climate Leaders at Penn.
Elizabeth Main is sustainability coordinator in the Sustainability Office in Penn’s Facilities and Real Estate Services.
Simon Richter is the Class of 1942 Endowed Term Professor of German and interim department chair of the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.
Natalie Walker is sustainability manager in the Sustainability Office in Penn’s Facilities and Real Estate Services