UM roundtable explores actions that could impact climate change

UM students Adison Thorp and Daniel Carlino listen Tuesday as climate organizer Caitlin Piserchia talks about her efforts to get the UM Foundation to divest from fossil fuel investments. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

Young adults know better than to wait for politicians to do something to slow climate change. They’re trying to take some matters into their own hands and are encouraging others to do what they can to reduce fossil fuel use.

“We need everyone to be as courageous as you can, from the position that you’re in,” said Caitlin Piserchia, climate organizer and UM graduate. “We need everyone to be strategists – figuring out what the most impactful climate action is for you.”

Piserchia was one of five University of Montana students and alumni who talked about what they’d done to help fight climate change and what steps other people could take to do their part. Their climate change roundtable was hosted Tuesday afternoon by the UM Davidson Honors College and Climate Change Studies in advance of the Global Climate Strike scheduled for Friday.

“In public school growing up, I barely heard about climate change or any solutions, and now there’s no time to waste,” said Environmental Studies undergrad Daniel Carlino. “So the students are striking because the educational system has failed us and our politicians have failed us and our governmental leaders, people who are making decisions about greenhouse gas emissions, have all failed us.”

Missoula students will join Friday’s global climate strike. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

On Friday, students worldwide will leave classes in a climate change strike, much as European students have already been doing for a year, inspired by Greta Thunberg of Sweden. Instead of going to class, the 16-year-old Thunberg protested climate change inaction every Friday outside the Swedish Parliament. As she gained recognition, she was invited to address the United Nations and Congress on why her generation is disappointed in adults.

Recently, she sailed to the U.S. on a carbon-neutral boat to lead Friday’s strike in Washington, D.C.

Strikes can be effective at bringing on change, but normally, some economic leverage is required, said UM sociology professor Daisy Rooks. That’s why most strikes are labor related, where workers can shut down production while demanding better pay or working conditions.

But more social causes, such as climate change and women’s movements, have also started using strikes. However, since they can’t impose the economic threat of lost business, such strikes need to be well-organized and show that they represent the will of a large portion of the community, Rooks said.

So local student organizers and parents have encouraged all Missoulians to leave work on Friday to participate in the strike. The more people who take to the streets, the more dramatic the effect will be on political and business leaders who haven’t taken climate change very seriously up to now.

The youth know they’re going up against a lot of power and money from the fossil-fuel industry and people unwilling to forgo business as usual. 

Piserchia recalled how, as a student, she and others had tried to get the UM Foundation to divest from fossil-fuel investments. They’d done their homework to come up with a 40-page climate-friendly portfolio and received a positive response during the first meeting with the Foundation CEO.

By the next meeting, all that had changed. 

“We found out, after digging deeper, how deep the ties between fossil-fuel interests and members of the board of trustees for the Foundation went,” Piserchia said. “There were a number of oil and gas executives who were at the decision making table and obviously had a strong self-interest in not doing that. But it was still empowering to push through the fear of trying to make that case.”

UM Climate Response Club leaders Riana Woolworth and Adison Thorp said they had a little easier time bringing their suggestions to UM President Seth Bodnar after discovering that the university was not going to reach its goal of being carbon-neutral by 2020.

After working with about 70 students and staff on ideas for reducing the university’s carbon footprint, they presented Bodnar with a list of priorities in August. 

Woolworth said Bodnar was supportive of combining heat and power production but didn’t back a zero-net-growth policy requiring the university to use the buildings it already has instead of continuing to expand.

Coming off that small victory, the UM Climate Response Club continues to educate people about climate change, because that leads to action, Woolworth said.

“When people hear about climate change for the first time, they feel overwhelmed or they feel like it’s too big for them to have an impact,” Woolworth said. “But, as they learn more about the science or what people are doing to help, they feel empowered to take action themselves.”

Climate Change Studies program director Steve Schwartz said that’s the reason he organized the roundtable: to stimulate conversation on how everyone might take action on climate change beyond participating in the climate strike.

“One of my goals is to elevate the quality of public discourse with respect to climate change,” Schwartz said. “One of the ways we can do this is moving past some of the false debates of whether climate change exists, and instead start talking seriously about the pros and cons of different strategies and approaches for confronting climate change with citizen action.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com