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College focuses on local climate action

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BEN WESSEL, A Middlebury College freshman, is helping organize three days of events at the college for Focus the Nation, which is orchestrating a nationwide teach-in about climate change for high schools, colleges and other organizations.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell


January 14, 2008

By MEGAN JAMES

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College next week will host three days of events focused on seeking solutions to the problem of climate change as part of a nationwide teach-in. “Focus the Nation,” which was developed at the college by two professors in their classes, has scheduled discussions at some 1,300 colleges, high schools and businesses. 

“In 10 years we either will have succeeded (in the fight against climate change) or we will have failed,” said Middlebury College economics professor Jon Isham, who developed Focus the Nation and sits on its board. “If we have failed it won’t matter, and if we’ve succeeded, we’ll be on our way. So you have 10 years and you can’t give up.”

It was this realization that led Isham’s friend and professor at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., Eban Goodstein, to hatch the idea two years ago for Focus the Nation.

“At this moment in time, we owe our young people at least a day of focused discussion about global warming solutions for America,” the organization’s Web site declares.

Goodstein came to Middlebury College last year to further develop the concept in a January term class he taught with Isham, in which students began to get the word out about Focus the Nation.

The initiative took off. By last week, more than 1,300 institutions around the country, including 24 in Vermont, had signed up to participate. On Jan. 31, each of those schools and businesses will hold climate change teach-ins for their students, employees and community members. People interested in hosting their own teach-ins can learn more about the organization and register their events on the Focus the Nation Web site at www.focusthenation.org.

At Middlebury College, students are organizing more than just a day devoted to the topic. Since the college is out of session for February break on the 31st, freshman Ben Wessel is coordinating Focus the Nation events with the Sunday Night Group’s annual Get Outside Week, an outdoor celebration of winter “while it lasts.”

On Monday, Jan. 21, the college will host local legislators and climate activists, including Rep. Steve Maier, Addison County Relocalization Network representative Ron Slabaugh and Middlebury Area Global Warming Action Coalition member Laura Asermily in a discussion about global warming policy at the local level.

Focus the Nation encourages institutions to invite their local legislators so they can get an idea of what their constituents are talking about. This is particularly important to Wessel, who grew up in Washington, D.C.

“I’ve never had a local government, so I’m kind of reveling in that new found institution,” he said. “A lot of people look at policy being passed at the national level … but if you start small, it just grows bigger and bigger, and that’s a great tactic for change.”

On Tuesday, Jan 22, Wessel hopes to host another panel, featuring college faculty members in a discussion about adaptability and preparedness in the face of climate change, though the details are not yet confirmed.

At the end of next week, the closing event will focus on Middlebury College students and the national youth climate movement. Leading this event, Wessel hopes, will be the nearly 100 students who traveled to Washington, D.C., last November for PowerShift 2007, the nation’s first climate change youth summit, which drew about 6,000 young activists from around the country.

The students will talk about what they learned at the D.C. summit.

“We’re trying to get big and get excited,” Wessel said. “There’s so much energy here and we’ve got the momentum on our side.”

The fight against climate change is already shaping the world he and his peers will enter after graduation, providing a new kind of job market and new challenges, he said.

“We want people to know that this is the defining issue of our time.”

This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to the college community, which has been on the forefront of the fight against global warming ever since the inception a few years ago of the Sunday Night Group (SNG), the student-run environmental powerhouse that spawned Step It Up, two separate national days of demonstrations urging action on climate change.

 For Wessel, SNG was one of the factors that helped him decide to enroll at Middlebury College.

“I’d read Bill McKibben’s books, heard of Jon Isham,” he said. When it came to applying for schools, those names were a big draw, he said. “There were so many people up at that little school doing what I wanted to do.”

In fact, for a little place like Middlebury, the contributions it has made to the national climate change movement have been astounding, Isham said.

“I think people may well look back at this climate movement and say the first mobilization was McKibben’s walk,” Isham said, referring to the September 2006 five-day walk from Ripton to Burlington by 1,000 people to demonstrate against inaction on climate change by U.S. politicians. “Then you had Step It Up, then PowerShift and that whole amazing week in D.C., and another Step It Up and then you had Focus the Nation. And that’s just a year and a half.”

The momentum has taken everyone by surprise.

“I had a talk a little more than a year ago with the head of a major (environmental non-governmental organization) and she was basically poo-pooing the whole grassroots thing,” Isham said. “It was right after Bill’s walk, when 80 percent by 2050 (a goal to reduce the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions) was just starting to get out there. She said, ‘80 percent by 2050, that’s ridiculous.’ Now it’s like the currency.”

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