Every Day is Earth Day at the COE

July 20, 2016

Wesleyan University has been actively promoting sustainability since the 1980s. Wesleyan’s new Sustainability Action Plan, released just this month, builds a framework toward a sustainable future by guiding Wesleyan’s actions over the next five years.

Founded in 2009 through the support of the THIS IS WHY campaign, the College of the Environment (COE) seeks to develop informed citizens who can discuss environmental issues from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, understand their connections to social or political issues, and derive well-formulated independent conclusions.

The college is headed by founding Director Barry Chernoff, the Robert Schumann Professor of Environmental Studies, who joined the Wesleyan faculty in 2003 and whose research centers on the freshwater fishes of the Amazon.

The COE’s interdisciplinary program includes an annual think tank that gathers Wesleyan faculty, prominent scholars and undergraduate students to consider a critical environmental issue. In addition, the COE offers linked majors and certificates to students in all disciplines, supports teaching and scholarship in a variety of environmental studies, and engages students and the greater Middletown community in education and discussion about environmental issues through public events.

The COE, which was Chernoff’s vision, has benefitted in many ways from the THIS IS WHY campaign, including from the generosity of Essel ’66 and Menakka Bailey who have supported both COE internships and an endowed visiting professor position.

“What’s very appealing is the idea of knowledge-based policy on the environment, particularly as developed in an undergraduate situation” says Essel Bailey, a lawyer and executive in Ann Arbor, Mich., whose work with The Nature Conservancy and other groups helped spur his interest in the COE. “That’s what the COE can do by providing a scientific rather than emotional basis for solutions to environmental issues; people are part of nature after all, and that is what needs to be in the balance.”

The Huffington Foundation and the Huffington Dittman family, who have supported multiple endowed scholarships during the This Is Why campaign, have also funded an endowed chair in the COE. The Huffington Foundation Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies is held by Gary Yohe, who is renowned for his work on global climate issues. He is a senior member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that was awarded a share of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize and was vice chair of the 2014 U.S. National Climate Assessment for the White House.

Yohe’s students benefit from his knowledge of international negotiations on climate change. His environmental class last fall negotiated as representatives of a diverse set of countries. The result turned out to be remarkably similar to the Paris Accord, and students came to understand the difficulties of global negotiations based on consensus, particularly the challenges posed by precise wording in each line of an accord.

Yohe points out that “global climate change, and its accelerating pace, are among the most pressing matters of our time—and our children’s time, and their children’s time. The science supporting this conclusion is unequivocal. So, too, are insights drawn increasingly from multidisciplinary approaches to answering the ‘So what can we do?’ question.”

Yohe says, “The steps taken in the Paris Agreement represent an enormous, but not a complete, step forward—a modest move toward answering that question. More than 130 nations will follow the lead of a joint United States/China agreement from last month and sign the Paris Accord at the United Nations on Earth Day; more than 60 heads of state will attend the ceremony. This is a very big deal.”

Under Barry Chernoff’s leadership, the College of the Environment has helped students become better stewards of our fragile planet. “The COE’s innovative combination of advanced research and undergraduate learning promises to be a model for how liberal arts education can make meaningful contributions to the pressing environmental challenges facing this country and the world,” says Chernoff.