For 45 years, Will Steger has explored the polar regions of the globe, leading historic expeditions across the Arctic and Antarctic ice shelves. Now, due to climate change, those ice shelves no longer exist.
“I want to show you this afternoon my eyewitness account, what I’ve observed in especially the last 10 to 15 years,” Steger said, addressing an audience of about 40 at Swift Lecture Hall on Tuesday. Steger spoke at the University as part of the Longest Summer Tour, a 10-day series of forums traveling through the upper Midwest to encourage youth awareness and activism on the topic of climate change.
The eastern part of Antarctica, which contains 70 percent of the Earth’s fresh water, remains largely unchanged except on the fringes, Steger said.
What alarms Steger is the condition of western Antarctica, where global warming has created lakes on top of the ice shelves. The standing water seeps through the ice, changing its basic structure.
Steger showed pictures of a west Antarctic ice shelf that disintegrated over the course of four weeks.
“What’s happening now is that these huge glaciers are now surging into the ocean very quickly,” Steger said. “This is the beginning of the sea level rise we’re starting to see.”
Steger also highlighted thawing permafrost as a major problem that could destabilize infrastructure in Russia or Alaska and release catastrophic amounts of toxic methane gas into the atmosphere.
“If we keep going down this path, 100 years from now we’ll lose all but 10 percent of the permafrost,” Steger said.
After Steger finished speaking, Project Manager for Sustainability Eric Heineman presented him with a contribution to the Will Steger Foundation on behalf of the campus’s green RSOs. Heineman said after the event that the amount of the donation had yet to be determined, but would fall between $100–500.
Illinois Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn also headlined the event, relating several anecdotes about sustainability efforts made by local schools and businesses. He particularly encouraged the University to follow Shedd Aquarium’s example in using a soy-based paint to coat its building roofs, resulting in increased insulation and reduced energy use.
The three other speakers who engaged the audience included Steve Wiesenthal, associate vice president for facilities services and university architect. Along with Steger, fourth-year Sustainability Council co-chair Zoé VanGelder and Macalester College senior Timothy DenHerder-Thomas served on a panel to answer questions from the audience to wrap up the event.
Though Steger and Quinn served as the Longest Summer’s big-name draws, DenHerder-Thomas took a commanding role in the forum, as if to answer Steger’s call for a galvanized youth response to climate change. Winner of a 2008 Brower Youth Award for environmental leadership, DenHerder-Thomas addressed the crowd for nearly as long as Steger did.
He emphasized that climate change had progressed to a state in which activism, not just awareness, was the necessary response.
“We need to be thinking not ‘how do I do my part?’” he said. “I think that’s how we’ve often thought about sustainable climate change solutions. We need to think, ‘how can I serve as a model and an inspiration? How can I be a catalyst?’”
The tour stopped at the University a month after it received a C+ grade on its sustainability efforts from the Sustainable Endowment Institute in Massachusetts. Wiesenthal and VanGelder both acknowledged the need for greater consideration of the environment in future endeavors, particularly in light of the University’s capital expansion of over 2.5 million square feet planned for the next 10 years.
“It’s frustrating to be at this University sometimes because we definitely think about things and critically analyze before we make a decision,” VanGelder said. “So we have sort of fallen behind the green bandwagon that a lot of institutions of our size and caliber have already progressed on. But it’s also energizing and inspiring because you all […] really have the opportunity to shape the direction in which we’re going.”
A handful of audience members asked questions. Many wondered how to combat climate change in the face of entrenched, unsympathetic political and economic conditions.
“How can we fight Big Oil with a government that panders to corporate bodies?” one audience member asked.
“Organize,” DenHerder-Thomas said simply, before answering the question in full.
The event was attended by a peaceful audience; those who posed questions for the panel were all sympathetic to the speakers’ cause.
“We were hoping for a bigger turnout, but we knew it was going to be hard because it’s the middle of the day,” DenHerder-Thomas said after the event. “I would have liked to hear more from the audience, because I’m not sure how people left feeling.”
Steger, however, felt that the calmness of the crowd was a positive sign.
“I think it’s ironic that it’s all coming to a head so quickly, and I think that’s good,” Steger said to the crowd. “Two years ago, I couldn’t give a lecture like this without getting some hecklers in the audience. Things have really changed.”