Global warming issues took over lecture halls in colleges across the country Thursday, with more than 1,500 universities participating in what was billed as the nation's largest-ever "teach-in."
Organizers said the goal of the event, dubbed "Focus the Nation," was to move past preaching to the green choir, to reach a captive audience of students in many fields who might not otherwise tune in to climate change issues.
Faculty members from a wide spectrum of disciplines — from chemistry to costume design — agreed to incorporate climate change issues into their lectures on Thursday. Community colleges and some high schools also took part.
"It's about infusing sustainability into the curriculum of higher education, so students can graduate prepared to deal with the world they have been handed," said Lindsey Clark, 23, who organized events at the University of Utah.
The day's activities were the brainchild of Eban Goodstein, an economics professor at Lewis & Clark College in Portland who authored a widely used collegiate textbook on economics and the environment. Major funding came from Nike, Clif Bar and Stonyfield Farms, among other companies and foundations.
Goodstein, who has spent years training people to speak on climate change, said he issued a call to arms to fellow professors across the country a few years ago, as his certainty grew that time was running out to address global warming.
Some participating professors said the climate change issue already had been woven into their syllabus, in areas as disparate as philosophy and urban planning.
"For my students, three years ago, it felt like I was shoving this down people's throats. Now it feels mainstream," said Jane Nichols, who teaches interior design at Western Carolina University. "Students don't want their future clients to know more than they do."
Nichols said global warming is relevant to interior design because a designer's choice of materials has environmental implications. Bamboo floors and furnishings, for example, are more environmentally sustainable than old-growth wood, she said.
Other schools held panel discussions with political luminaries, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, who participated via video satellite at the University of Nevada's campuses in Las Vegas and Reno.
A few schools took the concept beyond the classroom. At Lewis & Clark, student actors portrayed presidential candidates for a mock debate on climate change issues, with the Hillary Rodham Clinton character stressing the need for "green collar" workers and the John McCain figure echoing the candidate's calls for a cap-and-trade system to regulate carbon emissions.
Glendale Community College in Arizona and the University of Kentucky have been serving "low carbon" meals all week. Organizers at New York's Fordham University put up a mock wind farm to show people that "solutions are close at hand," said philosophy professor Jude Jones.
Western Carolina University hosted a recycled fashion show. And at the University of California at San Diego, a student dressed as a polar bear sat in a mock electric chair to illustrate how climate change could erase the species' habitat.
Goodstein said the event comes at a crossroads for those involved in the climate change movement: There's less debate over whether global warming is happening, but many people have the sense that it's too late to change course.
"If you go back to 1960, most Americans felt that segregation was wrong, but they were fatalistic about it," Goodstein said. "But now, 40 years later, Barack Obama is a serious contender for the presidency. And 40 years from now, when our young people have finished the job of rewiring the planet, they will look back and say that 2008 was the year Americans woke up."