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CNY College Educators: Climate Crisis Has Slipped from Agenda, Has Parallels with COVID Crisis

Central New York’s attention has understandably been on the COVID pandemic and racial justice.  But three area educators wanted to focus on another looming crisis – climate change.  

The climate crisis and its impacts have not gone away while the pandemic, the economy,  social justice and police reform have gripped out community.  As part of a virtual presentation, LeMoyne College Environmental Sciences professor Hilary McManus shared reminders of the ongoing impacts.  She says the last six years have been the hottest on record … and that’s upsetting the earth’s hydrological systems.

“We’re experiencing these one-time precipitating events, such as rain bombs or even snow bombs where all at once a whole bunch of rain or snow is dropped. … But then you can think of the same effect on land.  That warmer air is pulling moisture even more quickly from soil. And this is causing longer and deeper droughts.”

Those droughts in turn, make it hard to grow food, dry up drinking water, and can make people move to populated areas which can exacerbate other tensions – such as poverty. 

Hamilton College Professor of Government Peter Cannavo calls bot the impacts and the responsibility to mitigate or adapt to climate change unjust.

“The cruel irony of this is that those who have contributed the least to the problem, the world’s poor, are most vulnerable and those most responsible and benefitted most from fossil fuel (burning) and deforestation, predominantly the white and privileged inhabitants of developed nations, are least vulnerable to climate change, and most able to adapt.”

Flooding of islands in the Pacific, as well as areas such as Alaska, Southern Florida and elsewhere are already suffering damage and displacement from sea-level rise.

For example, he adds, in Miami where sea level rise is already making some property uninhabitable, the wealthy are buying up property on higher ground.  Cannavo says richer nations need to act, which might then show poorer countries sustainable ways to develop. 

Political Science Professor Sarah Pralle in Syracuse University’s Environmental Policy Center finds Congress painfully slow to act, with veto points and filibusters in the way of progress.  But on the plus side, we know what needs to be done.

“Unlike some problems like terrorism or chronic poverty or addiction, things like that, that are very difficult to figure out, the causal chains are hard, but (with climate crisis), we know what we need to do, which is stop emitting carbon emissions.  So, we need to stop burning fossil fuels and we know when we need to do it.”

Credit ourworldindata .org
Developed countries contribute the most to carbon emissions that drive warming (darker red = higher emissions per-capita). Speakers say wealthier nations need to take the lead on mitigation and adaptation efforts.

She notes the issue has become more politically polarizing. And makes comparisons to the COVID crisis on political responses to it.

“Another thing we’re learning is that national leadership is critical and a state-by-state approach is not going to solve the problem; I think we’re learning that with COVID.  It’s terrible to watch this … lack of national leadership and it’s leading to a lot of needless suffering.  And I think the same thing is going to happen with climate change.  Some states are going to step up but it’s not going to be enough, and we need a broader approach.”

But on a hopeful note, Pralle says the coronavirus has shown us: if people agree on the threat, they’ll change behavior, and approve trillions of dollars to combat it.  Hamilton College’s Peter Cannavo also sees ways the response to climate change has similar echoes.

“… a sort of perennial optimism that technology will solve all our problems, distrust of government, fear of acknowledging climae change because of the political implications, and then the whole promotion of denial regarding the science.  And we’re seeing that same phenomenon play out with COVID.”

And Le Moyne’s Hilary McManus says there’s even a scientific link between climate change and how humans began contracting COVID from what was confined to wildlife.

“We continue developing these natural areas, fragmenting them, destroying natural habitat.  What happens is this drives wildlife in close proximity and in direct contact with humans.  What also happens is we’re losing species which are hosts to these pathogens.  So, these pathogens, like viruses, are looking for new hosts.” 

Mcmanus, Cannavo and Pralle suggest people find personal actions to combat climate change, talk with friends and family about their concerns, and vote for leaders that will pass binding policy to ensure change that won’t blow with the political winds. 

Chris Bolt, Ed.D. has proudly been covering the Central New York community and mentoring students for more than 30 years. His career in public media started as a student volunteer, then as a reporter/producer. He has been the news director for WAER since 1995. Dedicated to keeping local news coverage alive, Chris also has a passion for education, having trained, mentored and provided a platform for growth to more than a thousand students. Career highlights include having work appear on NPR, CBS, ABC and other news networks, winning numerous local and state journalism awards.