Thursday, April 02, 2009

All welcome at U of I conference, "Planet U: The Human Story of Climate Change"

All welcome at U of I conference, "Planet U: The Human Story of Climate Change"

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One of the most curious aspects of the contemporary climate change story is the disconnect between scientific understanding and public perception. More than 98 percent of climate scientists operate on the understanding that large-scale, human induced climate change is already underway, and that the diverse phenomena associated with it will intensify in the future absent significant action to curb production of greenhouse gases. Compare that to the population at large. Up to 45 percent of the public does not believe in human-induced climate change, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence.

In such a context, it is reasonable to think that the way forward lies somewhere outside the simple repetition of scientific data.

That’s the thinking that has shaped a conference regarding climate change to be held on the U of I campus next week. Hosted cooperatively by the Environmental Council, the Office of Sustainability and the Environmental Change Institute, it is titled “Planet U: The Human Story of Climate Change.”

The Planet U conference, which is free and open to members of the campus community and the general public alike, will not be without the kinds of dialogue that dominate most media coverage of climate change—scientific projections, policy debate, etc. But the goal of the conference is to situate that dialogue in a broader context, one that acknowledges the role played by climate in human life since civilization’s beginnings 10,000 years ago. In the words of conference organizers, Planet U “factors in the missing human dimension by examining the impacts of climate change on human society through time, with a view to better grasping the impacts of the current long-term warming and our means for adapting to its staggering demands.”

The conference will feature more activity than I can describe here, from a dance performance to a poster session where U of I students and researchers will present their work, but here are some highlights.

Keynote addresses will be given by Brian Fagan and Eugene Linden, both best-selling popular authors on climate change.

Panel talks by two U of I faculty members will address the ways climate has disrupted particular civilizations in the past. Professor of anthropology Lisa Lucero will talk about the lessons to be drawn from the role of climate change in the collapse of Classic Maya civilization. Professor of English Gillen Wood will discuss his current project, a historical study of the ecological and social impacts of the rapid climate change that resulted from the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history.

A lively session on climate change and the media will feature three internationally recognized journalists: Michael Hawthorne, environment reporter for the Chicago Tribune, Andrew Revkin, New York Times reporter and author of the blog Dot Earth, and Dan Vergano, science reporter for USA Today.

The ethical aspects of how people understand and respond to climate change will be the subject of a talk by Calvin DeWitt, who is both a professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin/Madison and a leader in the movement among American evangelicals to integrate faith and environmentalism.

Planet U will take place on the University of Illinois campus beginning next Wednesday, April 8th, and continuing through Friday, April 10th. There is no need to register for the conference and there are no fees to attend. Members of the public and the campus community are encouraged to come to some or all of the conference as they are able. A full schedule and further details are available at

I hope to see you there.