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Creighton welcomes international delegation for conversation on climate

Visitors from seven countries, part of a State Department International Visitor Leadership Program, stopped at Creighton University June 20 to talk about issues connected to climate change.Perhaps the most important change in climate change could be a cultural and political one.

That was the message from a delegation of international visitors engaged in environmental advocacy who stopped by Creighton University Monday, June 20, to hear about the University’s sustainability efforts and to offer advice on how best to create an atmosphere where students, staff and faculty are involved in adapting to and pushing back against ecological catastrophe.

The visitors — representing seven nations: Pakistan, Ecuador, China, Netherlands, Botswana, Tunisia and Vatican City — are part of the International Visitor Leadership Program IVLP sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, observing American efforts at climate change adaptation and renewable energy. Having toured public and secular institutions connected to various sustainability efforts at sites around the country, the group also wanted to visit a faith-based university to learn about how a multifarious approach to the issue can also include spirituality.

“It was inspiring,” said Mary Ann Vinton, Ph.D., associate professor of biology and director of the Environmental Science Program, who was one of 20 Creighton faculty, staff and students who met and shared with the international delegation. “For this delegation to come to a Catholic university and to ask how we are doing things and then to also give us a different perspective on how they’re tackling these problems in their countries was invaluable. They talked about interdisciplinary approaches and, at Creighton, that rings true to me. We have to train our students to be system-based thinkers and those systems include the natural and the social. There must be the cultural and the political, alongside the scientific. We need that combined approach to create the culture that will act.”

The Vatican representative, Tebaldo Vinciguerra, director of ecological and development issues in the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, helped compose an early draft of Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, and said one of the greatest thrusts of the document was creating a culture that not only recognized the problem of climate change, but felt the urgency to act.

To develop that culture, Vinciguerra said, the central question everyone on the planet needs to be actively asking and answering is: “Why should I care?”

So far in the visitors’ U.S. observations, and in the minds and experiences of many around the table from Creighton, precious few efforts are being made at adapting to climate change — including in the realm of a cultural shift.

“It was a really positive, great discussion,” said Richard Miller, Ph.D., associate professor of theology. “But we have to move to change the political system. In the U.S., we think very little about adaptation. If we look at developing countries, they’re so vulnerable. And not in 50 years, but they’re vulnerable right now so adaptation is an immediate concern for them.”

But, Miller added: “While adaptation is important because there is a certain amount of climate change that is happening and more is baked into the system, focusing on adaptation can also create a sense of false security and deceive us into thinking that climate change is something we can control and manage. Yet without unprecedented reductions in greenhouse gas emissions we will likely destabilize the climate system with cascading negative effects that will play out over thousands to millions of years. These negative effects will likely destabilize our international political order, leaving future generations, including our children and grandchildren with escalating international chaos and endless conflict. It would be a world of countless Syrian-type conflicts. This tension must be recognized in any conversation regarding adaptation. It is a very uncomfortable truth, but it was important that it was out in the open in our discussion. It’s clear from this meeting that there are many people of goodwill working tirelessly to avoid the climate catastrophe, we just need more of them to change the current political and economic system.”

Toward that end, Miller has earned a Creighton Global Initiative grant to help fund campus talks he plans on calling the Planetary Emergency Lecture Series, delving into the science, the economics, the politics, and the social and cultural elements of climate change.

Miller, along with Creighton sustainability coordinator Mary Duda and Jay Leighter, Ph.D., an associate professor of communication studies and director of Sustainability Studies, were part of a rapidly assembled group helping to bring the delegation to Creighton just days before its arrival. The delegation was visiting Lincoln — following stops in California, Nevada and Washington, D.C. — when the visitors decided they’d like to take a brief interlude to look at a religious institutions’ sustainability and adaptability efforts.

What they found at Creighton was an array of interconnected efforts in the humanities, the sciences, medicine and social justice and peace, all of which proved heartening for the visitors, many of whom work in government posts assigned to climate issues.

“We’ve had a lot of discussion around Laudato Si’ on this campus,” Leighter said. “To have the additional insight of people from around the world and from someone who had a hand in drafting the encyclical was very useful in furthering our conversations. That’s insight that we will take forward and that our students can also use.”

Indeed, several Creighton students were part of the conversation. Maria Mathey and Ellen Townley are both juniors studying biology. The vision shared by the delegation, both said, could help further shape and mold Creighton initiatives and curriculum.

“It was a good look at the world for us and for them,” Mathey said. “Their perspectives were great to hear and a reminder on what more we can be doing.”

To share a conversation with one of the authors of the encyclical, Townley said, provided her with a new outlook on reading the Pope’s design for care for our common home.

“If you look at Laudato Si’ as part of a greater vision than climate change, you realize it is about global cultural change,” she said. “For me, being able to be a part of this reassured me we have partners in this. There are people working around the world and we need to be engaging with them.”

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