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Nelson Institute holds Earth Day conference inspiring optimism, resilience

A conference at Monona Terrace hosted by the Nelson Institute showcased climate research and opened discussions surrounding solutions with hopes of encouraging social and environmental activism. 

A conference at Monona Terrace hosted by the Nelson Institute showcased climate research and opened discussions surrounding solutions with hopes of encouraging social and environmental activism. 

Image By: Courtesy of Kai Brito

Presenting solutions to pressing climate change questions for more than 1,000 inter-generational attendees, UW-Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies hosted the 13th annual Earth Day Conference at the Monona Terrace Monday. 

Called “Imagine and Adapt: Possibilities in a Changing World,” the conference featured a diverse range of angles illuminating facets not only of the science behind climate change, but also its implications on the future of the planet. 

The morning began with speeches from Nelson Institute Dean Paul Robbins, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson and former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, who introduced the “Year of the Environment,” a celebration leading up to Earth Day’s 50th anniversary in 2020. 

Over the next 12 months, celebrations, special events and public lectures will commemorate a half-century of bipartisan support in hopes of encouraging legislation. 

Another focal point of the “Year of the Environment” urges Americans to adopt an idea driven by the Nelson Institute called the “New Environmental Citizen.” The institute hopes this is someone who recognizes the environment is not some abstraction or something remote from the city, but something that is ever-present and uniting all beings on the planet. 

The event created a platform for folks at the front lines of sustainability research to share their anecdotes, giving attendees a current picture of the effects of climate change.

Yolanda Joab-Mori, a Community Resilience Specialist, founder of Pacific Resources for Education & Learning and an Island PRIDE climate activist, connected scientific data with personal experience to teach about climate change’s direct impact inflicted on the daily lives of Pacific island residents.

To combat the disconnect between places that are seeing the more direct and drastic effects of climate change with Wisconsin, a goal of the event was to create meaningful ties between global environmental issues and one’s community. 

“We have activists here, we have scholars here, we have students here and we want them to have the energy to be able to get up tomorrow morning and go back to Milwaukee or wherever … and get back to work,” Robbins said.

Engineers and scientists at UW-Madison held a panel to discuss the imperative and current models to improve infrastructure and adapt building methods to mitigate vulnerability to the increasingly frequent natural events spawning from climate change. 

Simultaneously, presenters from UW-Madison’s art department alongside poets and writers delved into the ways art can be used to create a conversation about the impacts of climate change. 

UW-Madison graduate students were also given the opportunity to present their research. A group from the Nelson Institute’s Water Resources program discussed the negative impacts salting roads during the winter has on the surrounding watersheds. 

Driving home the gravity of our circumstances and impact on plants and other wildlife, UW Arboretum Director Karen Oberhauser spoke about the danger monarch butterflies face due to climate change. 

Showing maps highlighting the net decrease of monarch habitats, Oberhauser discussed the projected effects of climate change but admitted the challenges of doing research with such unknown circumstances. 

The phrase “unknown unknowns” was echoed throughout many of the talks, as several presenters spoke of the unprecedented change and entirely new situations that must be dealt with. 

“[Climate change] is a grand experiment, done with a test subject of one, which should never be done in science,” Oberhauser said, referring to the Earth as the first and only case study available in assessing climate change’s impacts.

Kim Stanley Robinson, a world renowned science fiction writer best known for his Mars trilogy chronicling the settlement and terraforming of Mars while earth suffers from overpopulation and ecological disasters, gave the event’s keynote speech. 

Robinson explained what his work led him to believe are the most viable options to reduce carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, like taxing carbon-producing products to reflect the impact it has on the environment. He encouraged opening one’s mind to geological engineering and broke down stigmas and misconceptions pervasive in the ongoing discussions on climate change mitigation. 

“Social justice is a geological engineering technique, it is a technology … [Technology] isn’t just the machines, it’s not just the computers out of Silicon Valley. It is every system that we use,” Robinson said.



Robinson believes we need to find double goods in our current quandary, such as looking for ways to solve a problem that in itself solves another. For example, finding a way to solve the food crisis that also eliminates net carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. 

Robinson discussed how granting women equal human rights can positively impact the climate by stabilizing populations, and went on to note how the average American uses 30 times more resources than a citizen in India. 

“Although the human population is never really the main point of our environmental problem because different humans use different amounts of energy and carbon,” Robinson said. “The fewer people there are, the less pressure on the planet, but it also depends how those people live. If you live cleanly, the numbers aren’t the problem.” 

He explained we often don’t think of human rights as part of solving the climate crisis, but the issue starts with people. If people aren’t getting the food they need, the housing, the education and the opportunities they deserve, we see the climate suffers as result. 

Robbins humbly redirected most of the credit for the event to his staff and colleagues. He explained this is one of many showcases in an effort to fulfill the institute’s role in doing disruptive public education and outreach, where UW-Madison can increase its visibility and showcase the institute’s robust work. 

“There are times where this gets extremely discouraging, it’s very easy to be glass half empty. We are cruising toward nearly catastrophic kinds of climate change. It can bring you down,” Robbins said. “What happens when you bring everyone together who cares about this … it kind of lifts you up. This is that kind of event.” 

The Nelson Institute hopes to keep the momentum from this event rolling for the next 12 months, driving the work to ensure that this is the “Year of the Environment.” 

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