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As the Big Red goes green, climate conference builds bridges across campus

Buildings consume more than 40 percent of the world's energy and account for half the world's greenhouse gas emissions.

With that data in mind, a lot of energy could be conserved right now, without waiting for new technologies, said Sidney Leibovich, a Cornell professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and one of seven panelists from diverse departments presenting at a Cornell mini-conference on climate change, May 6.

The Cornell University Climate Change Conference in Kennedy Hall was designed to build bridges across disciplines and departments, so faculty and staff could learn what others are doing and collaborate. Such efforts may eventually raise Cornell's profile as a climate change leader with policy-makers, the public and potential funding agencies.

"Cornell has enormous capacity to respond to the challenges and opportunities associated with climate change, but unfortunately we often operate within our disciplines, our silos. The issues are extraordinarily complex, and we need a much more integrated, holistic approach," said Michael Hoffmann, associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who organized the event with Frank DiSalvo, director of the Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future (CCSF), and Leibovich, who is also CCSF's associate director for energy programs. "Today's meeting was a great first step toward strengthening collaborations."

Panel discussions addressed such issues as assessments of climate change, adaptation, mitigation, communication and policy.

For example, Antonio Bento, professor of applied economics and management, discussed climate mitigation strategies. Taxing carbon emissions and auctioning carbon permits to carbon emitters can generate revenue, he said, that can be recycled in the system to combat climate change. Studies show such strategies can be effective in lowering carbon emissions, he added.

Discussing strategic communication, Katherine McComas, associate professor of communication, asked "how do we engage members of the public in efforts to solve global climate change and promote a more sustainable society?" Her Planning Communication Campaigns course (Comm. 376) used social science research and a survey of Cornell undergraduates to create an advertising campaign to engage Cornellians. Knowing that an individual's engagement is partly dependent on his or her impression of how others perceive an issue, they created green bracelets and T-shirts for students that read "The new red are green" to create impressions that engaging in climate change is the norm.

Cornell assistant professor of history Aaron Sachs addressed historical perspectives and cultural implications. People's perceptions shifted with the rise of modernity, industrialization and consumption, leading many to believe in a "widespread decrease in personal agency" and feel disconnected from nature, Sachs said. To address climate change, he noted, people need to shift their attitudes and believe that an individual's small actions can make a difference.

Other panelists included earth and atmospheric scientist Art DeGaetano, horticulture professor David Wolfe and Sean Sweeney, director of the Global Labor Institute at the ILR School in New York City.

Following the presentations, the panelists and more than 100 attendees met in break-out sessions with facilitators to brainstorm about how to keep momentum building to position Cornell as the go-to place for climate-change and sustainability research, education and outreach.

Ideas ranged from a new Web site for climate change that would contain information on the dozens of faculty members working on the issue to a sustainability-related course for all incoming freshmen. Luncheon meetings and smaller workshops planned by CCSF were also highlighted as ways to increase cross-disciplinary connections and collaborations. 

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