The sort of interdisciplinary approach to climate change that brought together Shaw’s Environmental Studies class and Wild’s Mechanical Engineering students is also one of the guiding principles behind “Common Energy,” a broad-based group that sprang-up on campus a year ago.
“There are tons of people out there who are interested (in addressing the climate change issue) and have expertise and knowledge and resources that they could contribute,” says Common Energy organizer Jamie Biggar. “Those people are mainly stuck asking themselves ‘How many more light bulbs can I change?’ and ‘Should I buy a Prius?’ and that sort of question, all of which is actually kind of de-motivating, because personal actions seem completely out of whack with the scale of the challenge.
“The theory we’re working with,” explains Biggar, “is that if you get those individuals together in networks organized around common goals—and those common goals involve very large, powerful institutions like universities—then you can >> shift them from this kind of despair around the light bulb question to a much more optimistic and motivating strategy of working with other people that care to make a difference.”
Common Energy’s objective is to move the university “beyond climate neutral. That means both reducing our contributions to the problem and increasing our contributions to the solution,” says Biggar, a master’s student in Environmental Studies.
Common Energy’s main focus has been organizing a series of events that Biggar describes as a large collaborative planning process. Last January more than 1,000 people attended a trio of question-framing lectures presented by faculty members Andrew Weaver of Earth and Ocean Sciences, IESVic’s Ned Djilali and Shaw. Although founded by students, Common Energy is open to the entire university community, including former students. “Alumni have such an incredible wealth of experience and insight to bring,” says Biggar. “It would be great to connect with more of them to work on this.”
Common Energy is an example of Shaw’s contention that the standard notion of the state as the locus of political power doesn’t match the reality of how society is rising to the climate change challenge. Action is coming both from above the state level, in the form of international agreements like the Kyoto Protocol, and from below. Instead of waiting for national governments to take the lead, grassroots activists, the private sector and municipalities are “trying to solve problems on the ground, with the hope of bringing state support along at some point in time.”
Shaw points to the US Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement as an illustration of how climate change is reconfiguring political space. Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels launched the agreement on February 16, 2005, the day the Kyoto Protocol became law for the 141 countries that had ratified it to date. His objective was to champion the protocol’s goals through leadership and action by at least 141 American cities. Two and half years later, more than 600 cities have signed on.
“Leadership can come from anywhere,” says Shaw, “particularly when you’re facing federal governments that are paralyzed or actively opposed.” For her, as a political scientist, that’s a good thing. “The more the people lead this, the better it will be. We’re not in a situation where there’s only one path forward, but our options are constrained. The more the population begins to understand those options and weighs in on them, the better the choices will be because people will be committed to them.”
As one of the experts who appears in the DiCaprio documentary says, “Not only is it the 11th hour, it’s 11:59.” But rather than giving up hope, people like Shaw, Wild and Biggar are working to reset the clock.
Common Energy: commonenergy.org
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