College and Town Unite for Climate Update

By Alessandria Schumacher

This past Wednesday, a wide variety of voices came together at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Middlebury to speak on climate change in light of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report, which will be completed by the end of this year, for an update from the global climate movement.  Bill McKibben, co-founder of, facilitated a series of short talks by Fernando Sandoval ’15, Benjamin F. Wissler Professor of Physics Richard Wolfson, Erick Diaz, Professor of Economics and Director of Environmntal Studies Jon Isham and Marjeela Basij-Rasikh ’15.  The talks were organized by students from Sunday Night Group (SNG) in advance of the People’s Climate March (PCM) on Sept. 21.

On Sept. 23, representatives from all over the world will come together in New York City for the 2014 UN Climate Summit to discuss the IPCC’s newest report and work to mitigate the effects of climate change.  Leading up to the summit, over 1,000 organizations, including, are planning for the PCM.  According to Laura Xiao ’17, about 120 people from the College will be heading to New York this weekend.

The evening began when McKibben introduced the speakers, stressing the importance of holding an event with speakers from the College in downtown Middlebury.
Sandoval  spoke first, focusing on his home country of Mexico, a country “particularly susceptible to climate change” due to its reliance on farming and its high risk for hurricanes.  If all other countries had the services and energy consumption of the United States, the world’s carbon footprint would be huge, said Sandoval.  He spoke of the challenge of raising the quality of life for Mexicans while simultaneously reducing their carbon footprint.  Some families with livestock have begun using biodigesters to create natural gas for energy, without needing to build a pipeline, said Sandoval.

McKibben introduce Wolfson, the next speaker, by detailing two recent news stories, the spike in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels recorded at the Mauna Loa Observatory and the release of the iPhone 6, the latter of which got more media attention.

“The carbon dioxide readings just go up and up and up … they’ve never gone down, they’ve never stabilized, since the 1950s,” Wolfson said.  Since levels are constantly rising, records are constantly being set.  It was the spike in carbon dioxide levels that made the news, Wolfson noted, not the record carbon dioxide level.

Wolfson began by holding up a book about four inches thick, which was one-third of the IPCC’s new report.

“The old understandings of climate change are good,” said Wolfson in reference to the previous IPCC reports.  However, the new report includes better insight into regional differences, changes in temperate climate areas and the dire need to cut carbon emissions.

“Not only do we have to cut emissions to zero … we have to go negative,” Wolfson said.

McKibben spoke of the diversity of age, race, occupation and economic class of the people concerned about climate change and involved in the People’s Climate March to introdce Erick Diaz, a farmer from the south of Mexico who is now working as a migrant farm worker in Vermont because his own farm was destroyed by the chemicals from multinational corporations that farm areas nearby.  Diaz spoke mostly on climate change and the effect that it has on people’s livelihoods.

Isham is “a leading thinker in environmental economics and divestment,” McKibben said next.  Isham spoke on the pros and cons of economic disincentives foremitting carbon.
A carbon tax “is a bad idea in the U.S. because it’s called a tax,” Isham said.  Two other alternatives are carbon caps or a cap and trade system.  Isham talked about the recent Healthy Climate and Family Security Act of 2014, which includes three parts:  a cap on overall carbon emissions, an auction system to “buy the rights to pollute” and the division of the 200 to 300 billion dollars raised in that auction among anyone in the US with a social security number.

Lastly, Isham said that he felt strongly about the importance of divesting.

“One of the reasons we divest is to try to weaken the fossil fuel industry,” said McKibben before introducing the final speaker, Basij-Rasikh.

“It’s not just an environmental issue in the traditional sense, it’s a social justice issue,” Basij-Rasikh said.  Basij-Rasikh is from Pakistan, which was devastated by massive flooding in 2010 and is experiencing other effects of climate change.  The effects of climate change are “damaging for the most vulnerable beings,” she said.

The series of talks ended by focusing on the upcoming People’s Climate March.

Bill Huntington of Middlebury was surprised by the diversity of people who spoke, ranging from professors, to students, to a migrant farm worker.  Hearing from Diaz brought up how immigration is environmental, not just political, said Huntington.