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INTERview: Samir Doshi and Valerie Esposito

Doctoral students help 'focus the nation' and the university on the rising costs of rising global temperatures.

By Joshua Brown Article published January 30, 2008

Focus the Nation
Can we face up to global warming? For graduate students Samir Doshi and Valerie Esposito the answer depends on focusing the nation, now. (Photo: Joshua Brown)

This could be the tipping point. If some climate scientists are right, in the next 10 years we will either start to decrease world-wide carbon emissions or global warming will go over an ecological cliff where changes to the planet—rising seas, mass extinctions, agricultural failures and extreme weather—begin to spiral wildly.

So what’s a graduate student to do?

For Valerie Esposito and Samir Doshi part of the answer is Focus the Nation. These two doctoral candidates in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources have been the lead organizers at UVM for Focus the Nation, a national “teach-in” on global warming solutions that will be held Thursday, January 31 at more than 1700 universities and other places.

Esposito and Doshi, with support from many other students, faculty and staff, have developed one of the country’s most ambitious agendas for the event. They’ve expanded UVM’s program beyond the one-day national teach-in to include dozens of events over six days — drawing praise from the national organization and attention from the Christian Science Monitor and other media.

Events began Jan. 27 with “Climate Change 101,” a primer on climate science and have continued with panels and classes through the week. The national program begins on Jan. 30 at 8 p.m. with a webcast of “2% Solution,” a live discussion about how to cut two percent of carbon emissions a year for the next forty years. The main teach-ins will involve thousands of students and citizens in lectures and discussions nationwide all day tomorrow, Jan. 31.

At UVM, many events are planned, including a keynote lecture on coal mining, a performance of The Boycott, a play about a sex strike called by the First Lady in response to climate change, and a town hall meeting. A culminating speak-out will be held at the Davis Center at 3:30 p.m. on Friday, Fe. 1.

Samir Doshi and Valerie Esposito sat down with the view to talk about their work on Focus the Nation and about another tipping point: the kind sociologists observe where the behavior of a whole group suddenly changes. Their hope is that Focus the Nation will be part of a tipping point where the personal and political behavior of many people at UVM and beyond dramatically changes to focus on climate change.

THE VIEW: At the most basic level, what do you hope students will learn from this week of activities?

ESPOSITO: In our country, there has been a political climate trying to inject a lot of uncertainty about climate change. In a lot of other places in the world there is much more acceptance of the science and less debate on if global warming is actually happening. We hope that people will see from this week of events that the science is solid. It’s just the political climate that’s questionable.

But don’t most people already have a pretty good sense of the threat of climate change?

DOSHI: Not really. There’s a lot to be taught about climate change. A lot of scientists are saying climate change isn’t a threat to the earth. The earth has survived even as 99% of all species have gone extinct. This is a threat to our survival; it’s increasing our odds of extinction. That’s the deep think behind this event, and that’s how we can reach out to folks: “OK, you like running an SUV and living in a city?” You won’t be able to do that unless we deal with climate change.

We’re trying to reach out to everyone across the campus to say: we can solve this problem. Focus the Nation is mainly focusing on solutions.

What are some of the solutions that you hope people will learn about?

DOSHI: We’re trying to focus on what people can do personally and as a community, a university and city. But also globally, to get a sense of carbon markets and ecological economics.

ESPOSITO: There’s a lot of talk about how individual behavior doesn’t matter. But it does. Too often I hear, “It’s all political. It doesn’t matter what I do.” It has to be both.

When someone goes to the transportation panel this week they may realize that getting in their car and driving up the hill is contributing to global warming. They might think, “Hmm, I’ll take the bus; I’ll get that bike out.” And these kinds of choices are not just personal, they are political in a way. They can model behavior to others.

DOSHI: About 70 percent of most car trips are made within 2 miles of home—those numbers matter and can be changed.

ESPOSITO: We’re fortunate enough to live in a city where all your basic needs can be met within walking distance.

DOSHI: Pedestrians find it quicker and easier to get access to good local foods downtown without getting into the car to drive out the big grocery stores outside of town. You’re getting better food, you’re reducing your climate impact, supporting your local economy. We can have one solution — like walking — that helps address climate change and a lot of connected issues at the same time.

That’s one strong logical position on climate change: it’s about lifestyle choices. You hear other people, like Steven Pinker in The New York Times, saying that our response to climate change has become a “moralistic revival meeting,” and that most of the changes we need will come not from preaching self-denial but from technological innovation.

ESPOSITO: Economists have been touting technological saviors since economics was started and we haven’t seen that salvation yet! I don’t think we should put all our eggs in any basket and certainly not the technology basket.

DOSHI: There is no silver bullet on how to address this issue. We need technological advancements. A lot of the infrastructure we’re working on is old technology. Coal and oil — the whole electrical grid — is technology from the 1950s. That needs to be improved. China and India are throwing up a new coal fired power plant every five days, and that has to stop.

But at the same time, let’s say we have a green jobs revolution and put a lot of new clean technology into place — what’s the acceptability of that? Where do we come out on environmental justice and social justice issues? Are people in poor communities going to be able to build LEED certified buildings? These issues all connect.

How does Focus the Nation fit into other climate change efforts happening on campus?

ESPOSITO: We’re excited that President Fogel has signed the Presidents Climate Commitment. We hope this week of activities will help support and expedite the process of deciding what options we’re going to follow at UVM to meet this commitment.

DOSHI: Powershift is another connection. About 45 undergrads, with $1,500 from the provost, went down to Washington D.C. for the Powershift Rally in November calling for action on climate change. They came back to UVM so enthused and energized! Fortunately we got hold of them — like Julia Meurice ’10 and others — and got them to work on our initiative, keeping their momentum going.

ESPOSITO: There are dozens of other connections and dozens of organizations involved. Check out the website.

How do you balance this kind of activism with the research work of a graduate student?

DOSHI: It’s difficult. But the scholarship and the activism are both working toward the same goals. As scientists, we make observations, we do research on those observations and ideas, and we test those ideas to see how well they hold. But that’s not enough. We have to educate. We have to convey the results of those observations and discoveries. A large part of being a scientist is being a teacher, otherwise why do the research?

Public attention to climate change has shot up in the last year: Al Gore, polar bears, melting ice caps. But social psychologists also strongly question people’s long-term capacity to change habitual behaviors. How do you see Focus the Nation having a long-term effect?

DOSHI: We are definitely a reactive culture and we react to the environment around us. Our environment is increasingly unstable. If you have no winter, how are you going to ski, even if you’ve been doing that your whole life?

ESPOSITO: Like you say, interest in climate change has skyrocketed. That has never happened before. So if you have a study from last year or two years ago you might think something like Focus the Nation isn’t going to matter. But that was last year — and now it is happening. It’s a reaction to what is going on in the world; it breaks the predictability of what is going to happen to people’s behavior.

DOSHI: It’s been a struggle. You can say two graduate students can’t get results. But what happens next year when the president and deans and departments get behind more efforts to respond to climate change?

ESPOSITO: Hopefully, people will see the potential when one voice joins several thousand all together. We don’t want people to think: “Well, that was a cool thing that happened,” but to see: change really can happen.