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Film, panel ponder the human consequences of climate change: 100 million refugees

Climate change is a not a problem of the future, but of today, having spawned national security, social and political challenges, said director Michael Nash after the screening of his documentary "Climate Refugees" Oct. 14. The film asked viewers to imagine 100 million refugees and entire countries underwater -- changes that will create massive social upheaval.

"Climate change is on a collision course with civilization as we know it," predicted U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass) in the documentary.

The event in the Willard Straight Theatre concluded with a panel discussion with Nash; Sean Sweeney, director of Cornell's Global Labor Institute, ILR School; and Charles Greene, professor of earth and atmospheric sciences, who studies climate variability and change. Hosted by student sustainability groups, the event was part of the environmental advocacy group 350.org's Day of Action.

How can an individual make a difference by composting or buying fluorescent lights, a member of the audience asked the panel, when corporations dominate politics? Everyone has a responsibility to be politically active and to consider carefully where to focus this activism, responded Sweeney.

Greene added that individuals must go beyond personal environmental consciousness: "I have a Prius, I try to do the right thing, but each of us doing the right thing, small things, is not enough. We need to be doing things at the level of countries. It is not a government that belongs to corporations, it's your government. But right now that's the way it's operating."

However, the corporate world is not entirely to blame. The film emphasized the problems caused by excessive consumption, an opinion supported by the panel.

"All of these energy companies are actually in a real bind right now trying to figure out how to meet the interests of their shareholders while also protecting the company's future in the long term," said Greene. Society struggles with the same conflict, unwilling to make the large investment to transition the economy to alternative energy.

The issue is fiercely partisan, with animosity like that between the Yankees and the Red Sox, said Nash. For this reason, the director chose to focus the film on the human consequences of climate change instead of its causes.

"If there is an intersection where an accident takes place, as humanitarians we take care of those people and then figure out who caused the accident," said Nash. His goal in making the film, he said, was to overcome partisan politics and enable the U.S. government to respond to the environmental crisis. To this end, he removed an interview with Al Gore in fear of alienating the right wing from his message.

Howie Hawkins, a New York state Green Party gubernatorial candidate, concluded the event with a call for a moral commitment to addressing climate change on the same scale seen during World War II.

"I feel a real sense of urgency," he said. "I was angry as a young man ... and I'm even angrier now."

Before the screening, the student-run organic farm Dilmun Hill offered tours and hosted a potluck dinner to discuss sustainability issues. The 350.org Day Of Action at Cornell concluded Oct. 15 with a workshop "The True Cost of Coal" in the Plant Science Auditorium that focused on coal power, climate change and sustainability using giant murals from the nonprofit, the Beehive Design Collective, which map out the big picture of the fuel that feeds the American Dream. It was sponsored by Cornell's CUSLAR (Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations) and Society for Natural Resources Conservation.

Erica Rhodin '12 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.

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John Carberry