Wednesday, March 30, the College of William and Mary hosted a climate teach-in in the Integrated Science Center. The event was organized by professor of economics and public policy Sarah Stafford, Madeline Bertagnolli ’22 and Maddie Saul, a graduate assistant for the Office of Sustainability. The event was part of the Worldwide Teach-In on Climate and Justice, which focused on facilitating dialogue about climate change in over 1,000 schools, universities and organizations.
Each hour featured a panel discussion with professionals from various disciplines, including geology, economics, sociology and English. The third hour culminated in a large group discussion titled “Wellness and Activism,” featuring student speakers, faculty members and Virginia Senator Montgomery “Monty” Mason.
“If this is an issue that you feel strongly about, you need to work on it,” Stafford said. “Change won’t be immediate, but it will come slowly, and the more people work on the issue, the stronger our voices will be. Believe it or not, I’ve seen a lot of positive change in the last 20 years, but unfortunately it hasn’t been enough, so we need to keep working and recruiting more people to the cause.”
Stafford hosted a panel in the first hour titled “Sea Level Rise and Social Vulnerability,” alongside Dr. Molly Mitchell, a research assistant professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and Dr. Lenneal Henderson, adjunct professor of government and assistant dean for civic engagement and international affairs at the College. The panel focused on the urgent nature of sea level rise globally, as well as the direct impacts to the state of Virginia, particularly in the city of Norfolk.
“We have learned that when we look at the long-term record, sea level rise is accelerating,” Mitchell said. “It’s coming up faster than it was 50 years ago or 100 years ago.”
All three speakers emphasized the risk factors associated across various income levels, asserting that low-income communities suffer from the risks of climate change and sea level rise at a greater rate, though most Americans are generally ill-prepared for climate-related disasters.
“The lower your income, the less prepared you are, which makes so much sense because being prepared requires you to do things like stockpile water, stockpile food, have batteries around,” Stafford said. “And if you’re worried about putting food on the table, you don’t have extra money to stockpile extra food.”
Stafford emphasized that focus should be shifting outreach to more vulnerable populations in order to ensure planning is inclusive. Henderson mentioned that during his time on the board of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, as well as originally being born in New Orleans, Louisiana, he has witnessed and researched the impacts of sea level rise on socially vulnerable populations in rural and urban communities.
“Last week two tornadoes touched down in the New Orleans areas,” Henderson said. “So, that city is a very good example of, in the extreme, what can happen in the broader context of weather-related emergency disasters.”
Stafford concluded the panel by discussing concrete action that can be taken, including the Biden administration’s Justice40 Initiative which requires 40% of federal spending to go to disadvantaged communities.
Other panels in the first hour included “Climate Science: What You Need to Know” and “Climate and Justice.”
During the “Climate and Justice” panel, professor Sasikumar Balasundaram, adjunct lecturer of Asian and Middle Eastern studies at the College, spoke about the increase in refugees due to climate-related disasters. He emphasized that more than 1 billion people could be displaced due to climate emergencies by 2050.
“It’s not going to be one nation’s problem, it’s going to be a global problem because people are going to be crossing the borders,” Balasundaram said. “There is going to be a lot of political instability because of the climate crisis.”
Professor Fernando Galeana Rodriguez, assistant professor of sociology and integrative conservation at the College, spoke about Indigenous peoples and climate change policy, emphasizing the importance of Indigenous representation and inclusivity in public policy.
The second hour featured panels titled “Global Climate Solutions,” “Climate Solutions for Energy,” “Food Systems and Climate Solutions” and “How to Teach about Climate.”
During the “Global Climate Solutions” panel, professor Jim Kaste of the College’s geology department spoke about the impact of climate change on the intensity of storms, as well as concerns over current stormwater management systems. Dr. Robert Hicks, professor of economics, spoke about carbon reduction and pollution permits, and Dr. Dan Maliniak, assistant professor of government, emphasized the importance of local action to address climate-related issues.
“If you want a global solution, you will get the least done; the deeper solution that has real change has usually fewer people, fewer countries involved. And so we have to decide when we do these things, how to move forward, which is to say that all politics is local,” Maliniak said.
The last hour featured a single group discussion highlighting Dr. Kelly Crace, associate vice president for health and wellness and the director of the Center for Mindfulness and Authentic Excellence; Virginia Senator Monty Mason; and three student speakers representing two climate-focused student organizations.
“‘I do this hard work every day because this intentionality is a part of me staying in this world.’ They find meaning in the work itself, and they focus less on this minuscule impact they may be having, or feeling that you have no impact,” Crace said as he discussed the psychological motivations and coping mechanisms of activists and advocates. “But that’s what sustained them, is them getting back to the truth of ‘me being in this world matters, and me being in this world engaged in what matters to me matters.”’
Mason spoke about the process of passing climate policy and emphasized the importance of young people advocating for their beliefs and speaking to policymakers.
“You get this feeling of self-worth by rolling the rock uphill because that’s what we’re doing. Government is designed to be rolling the rock uphill,” Mason said. “It’s not supposed to be fast. It’s not supposed to be easy. It’s not supposed to be quick. It’s supposed to take time to develop. What I want to express to you is the passion, the focus, the commitment, the care around what you do is super important. And starting at your age and doing it the rest of your life and gathering people along the way on particular elements of interest to you are super important as well.”
The last three speakers included Anna Lowe ’24, representing the Williamsburg Sunrise Movement, and Corina Chang ’25 and Philip Ignatoff ’23, representing the Citizens’ Climate Lobby at the College. Lowe shared stories from Sunrise members across the nation related to why they do climate work.
“There are problems, and these problems are going to worsen if we don’t do anything about it,” Lowe said. “But at the same time, every person in that movement has to have at least some teeny tiny sliver of hope. I just really want to tell you all that it really does pay off to get involved in climate activism. That doesn’t have to be joining the Sunrise Movement, that can look like so many other different things. But it does feel good if you do it in a healthy way; it does make a difference if all of us are doing it.”
Chang and Ignatoff emphasized the importance of increasing conversations about climate change with family, friends and strangers.
“We really feel that without people talking about climate change in their everyday lives, we can’t make change,” Chang said. “So we need to be talking about it more, and that’s something we encourage in our club, and it’s why we table every week at Sadler to try to talk to people we don’t know about climate change. We’re also looking forward to drafting and submitting op-eds and letters to local newspapers, and of course participating in lobby week with the local Hampton Roads chapter.”
The panel concluded with a brief discussion session between audience members and panelists mediated by Calandra Waters Lake, the director of sustainability at the College.
“Climate change can be kind of big and overwhelming sometimes, and it can be a little hard to decide what kind of action we want to take or where we want to start,” Waters Lake said. “A lot of change is going to have to happen at a high level, at a policy level, at the operational level, but those things can be influenced in our lives with our daily actions.”
“I know the issue can seem overwhelming, but working to do something about it can be really empowering — you aren’t just passive and letting things happen to you, you are taking control and working for change,” Stafford said. “There will always be periods of disappointment and despair, but give yourself space to step back until you are stronger, and then keep working!”