During the month of Sept. 2019, a number of faculty and students at Penn came together in front of College Hall to communicate the impending urgency of climate change and its impact across disciplines. 

The College of Arts and Sciences organized a series of lectures with the goal of communicating the consequences of climate change and steps both the University and students can take to make a difference. The name of the 1.5* Minute Climate Lectures stems from a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which states that surpassing an average global temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius will have catastrophic and irreversible effects on the environment.

Each lecture has a salient common theme, generally focusing on the fact that climate change is becoming an irreversible problem that we have to fight against. However, there’s an implicit message within the series—climate change affects every aspect of society, and is a problem that can be solved through interdisciplinary strategies. This is exemplified by the areas of expertise of those who participate in the lectures, which feature speakers from careers not only in environmental studies, but also ranging from design and urban studies to Africana studies and Germanic languages. 

One of the speakers was Megan Ryerson, an Associate Professor of City and Regional Planning and Electrical Systems Engineering at Penn. She gave a lecture on the relationship between air travel and sustainability based on her expertise in transportation and environmental engineering. Ryerson says that she wanted to bring up the topic of air travel because it is a widely used service, yet not necessarily thought about in terms of reducing emissions—despite its significant impact. 

“I thought it was a real opportunity to put a fine point on a topic that I wrestle with and I think needs to be much more in the public mind,” she says. 

As part of her research, Ryerson studies the way governments deal with the balance between the problems of economic development and climate change, and how cities have action plans for sustainability yet invest in air transportation services. Even though she focuses on other research areas, such as airspace routing, she continues to emphasize the environmental impact of these projects. 

The series also gives insight into student experiences, as it included a lecture featuring Jacob Hershman (C ‘20) and Vyshnavi Kosigishroff (C ‘22). Vyshnavi mentioned that their goal for the lecture was to emphasize the way Penn students can use their resources to engage with the Philadelphia community. Even though she believes that Penn does a great job engaging with and empowering local communities, the institution’s choice to invest its endowment in fossil fuel industries also negatively impacts these same communities. 

Vyshnavi says that it’s important for people to recognize that climate change is an imminent problem. Her goal is for Penn students to internalize the issue and realize the power they have in causing change. 

“I feel like there’s so much that is being taken away from me,” she says. “Those who have power have decided to be very apathetic and not treat this crisis with the urgency it requires.”

She remembers growing up in Delaware and seeing the fumes coming from local factories.  Knowing that many local chemical companies were responsible for air pollution in her area, she decided to become involved in local environmental policy. She involves herself in the Philadelphia community as a member of the Youth Climate Lobby, and works on large–scale projects such as the Philadelphia Climate Strike as well as local goals, such as starting a plastic bag ban. On campus, she is involved with the Student Sustainability Association at Penn (SSAP) and Fossil Free Penn (FFP).

The series also presents lectures that include the personal experiences of students and staff, such as one spearheaded by Bethany Wiggin, an Associate Professor of German and the Founding Director of the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities (PPEH). 

One of PPEH’s current projects focuses on climate storytelling initiatives. The specific initiative Wiggin chose to describe in her lecture was “I’m Sensing Climate Change, What’s Your Story?” During the lecture, Wiggin and other PPEH members talked about personal experiences in which they first witnessed climate change. 

“One of the best ways, right now, to act on climate is to really start talking about it—a lot,” says Wiggin. “To just say 'this is what I’m feeling; this is what I’m seeing in my neighborhood.'”

Their goal is for people to share their stories through the creation of a public story bank. Once in the story bank, stories will be geotagged to create a visualization of environmental experiences in each specific area. The project is currently ongoing, and anyone can contribute by submission through a website, which also features podcasts and blogs on climate change initiatives. 

One of the major projects that PPEH is currently working on is a symposium on Environmental Storytelling and Virtual Reality, set to take place on the weekend of Nov. 22 at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. PPEH worked in partnership with the Office of the Vice Provost for Research and the Cinema and Media Studies Program to host this event. The symposium will capitalize on the need to educate everyone on climate change and be proactive about the issue, by increasing awareness through the use of virtual reality. 

As a precursor to the event, on the weeks leading up to the festival, there were four locations around campus where students had the opportunity to try out small–scale virtual reality experiences. Roderick Coover, a Temple University professor of film and media arts, designed the different experiences, with the help of poet Nick Montfort and composer Adam Vidiksis. The goal of this project is to give Penn students a vision of campus and the overall Philadelphia area in a future affected by climate change. 

Even though each speaker at the 1.5* Climate Lectures has a different background and different visions for the most effective ways to combat climate change, they all agree on one thing—there are many ways in which the University and its students can work to prevent this issue from getting worse. 

As Penn students, we have the opportunity to use our resources to both educate ourselves on climate change and communicate the importance of the issue. More than anything, we have a responsibility to urge our university to think about our planet’s future and become a more environmentally responsible institution—and the 1.5* Climate Lectures give us a chance to learn how to do that.