Southwestern University faculty collectively endorse climate legislation

Southwestern University climate change

Emily Northrop, Professor of Economics and Joshua Long, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Southwestern University. Photo by Dmitriy Borovykh

Southwestern University faculty collectively endorse climate legislation

By Emily Northrop, Ph.D.

Many individual faculty members have signed letters urging climate action, but when a faculty speaks collectively, the message is amplified. The faculty at Southwestern University, a liberal arts college in central Texas, did just that. We believe we are the only university governing body to endorse climate mitigation legislation. Our resolution was, “We urge Congress to pass measures that will acknowledge the serious threat posed by climate change and that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a clear, transparent, and effective way.”

Spearheaded by our Environmental Studies Committee, our process was simple and direct. We began with an email introducing our colleagues to this unprecedented measure. The message included a Q&A document that presented and addressed various concerns that we anticipated might arise.

We then invited faculty to open forums in which we encouraged people to air their reservations. We wanted to sharpen our own thinking and to address various legitimate questions. Among the concerns was whether passing the resolution would violate our political neutrality. We conceded that it is a political position to call for government action, but pointed out that our resolution is nonpartisan. We also emphasized that we would be standing firmly alongside scientists, including our colleagues in higher education.

Someone protested that we were being hypocritical because, as academics, we often board climate-destabilizing airplanes. We argued that this is exactly the point of implementing a government policy—we cannot rely on people, selves included, to voluntarily change our behaviors.

At the next monthly faculty meeting, on September 26, 2017, a colleague introduced the resolution from the floor. Some concerns were raised, there were collegial deliberations, and it then passed in a secret ballot by a wide margin. Congratulations all around, and even joyful tears in some quarters.

We notified the press and our members of Congress and were gratified by the responses. Our local newspaper published an account on the front page, and Senator John Cornyn and Representative John Carter sent staffers to campus to hear from a group of faculty.

In that meeting on December 5, some colleagues emphasized the human toll of climate change, describing their friends who suffered during the 2017 hurricane season. A religion professor remarked that her students often express anxiety about the trials that await them on our warming planet. A musician movingly expressed her love of the natural world and implored that our leaders act to protect it. A historian reminded us of past leaders who were on the wrong side of history and urged that the legislators avoid that infamy. More than one colleague underscored that global warming is non-partisan. As an economist, I urged a market-based solution.

We described this meeting in a letter to the editor and then related the complete story to all SU students and our staff colleagues. An account is now presented among the “News” blogs on our Environmental Studies webpage.

I suspect that SU faculty were more receptive to taking this unprecedented political stand because over the previous two years the Environmental Studies Committee had repeatedly called their attention to climate change. We had stressed that to be equipped for 21st century climate challenges, each student needs to encounter climate change multiple times and in several different classes. To help faculty expand their courses to address the topic, we made presentations on “climate essentials” and hosted lunch conversations. We also sponsored book discussions of E. O. Wilson’s “Half-Earth” and Barbara Kingsolver’s “Flight Behavior.”

Southwestern University students Rebecca Richardson and Emma Meyer

Our premier event was a daylong “Teaching Climate Change Workshop” to help with some of the special challenges presented by teaching this complex subject. Workshop participants were from the disciplines of anthropology, computer science, German, history, mathematics, political science, religion, and the hard sciences. The day together strengthened a sense of community around climate change. We now offer this workshop to faculty at other schools.

To our tremendous delight, new inclusions of climate change in economics and feminist philosophy classes inspired two SU students to join CCL’s 2017 June Lobby Day. This past fall, two students who learned about the Carbon Fee and Dividend in their political science course collected 52 letters to Congress in a one-hour campus tabling session. It has been an exciting run of climate advocacy at SU, and we are not done yet.

I recently met the new Field Director for our House member and introduced myself as wearing two hats. As SU faculty, I shared our resolution. As a CCL member, I explained the Carbon Fee and Dividend. Perhaps you, too, have more than one hat to don!

Emily Northrop, Ph.D. is Professor of Economics at Southwestern University, member of the Georgetown/Round Rock CCL chapter, and liaison for TX District 31.