Caterpillars, puppets, and decarbonization: Brandeis’ 2022-2023 Year of Climate Action is now in full swing, with several events that took place last week and many more events planned for the future.

According to the Office of Sustainability website, the Year of Climate Action is a year devoted to deepening the Brandeis community’s “understanding of climate change as a social justice issue” through a variety of curricular and co-curricular activities, as well as institutional projects designed to reduce Brandeis’ carbon footprint.

Led by current Associate Director of Sustainability Programs Mary Fischer, the President’s Task Force on Campus Sustainability first proposed the Year of Climate Action in Aug. 2020. In an address to President Ron Liebowitz and their comprehensive report “Vision 2030”, the Task Force drew the administration’s attention to climate change as the “greatest threat to public health and social justice in the history of our planet.” The initiative had its roots in part due to the COVID-19 crisis: The authors cited “the failure of our health systems, justice systems and public policies” as impetus to listen to science and to fulfill Brandeis’ “social justice mission more holistically than ever before.”

One of the initiatives proposed, among many listed on the Office of Sustainability’s website, was to “improve climate change and sustainability education,” under which the authors suggested Brandeis make the 2021-2022 academic year a “Year of Climate Change.” The name has since been changed to the Year of Climate Action. In an email interview on Sept. 15, Fischer explained that she hopes the distinction prompts students to focus on ways they can “take action and become agents of hope and change in their own lives.” 

In May 2021, President Liebowitz committed to these new sustainability directives in a campus-wide address, where he stated that in the 2021-2022 academic year Brandeis would begin planning “a yearlong, campus-wide effort to provide in-depth analysis of the issues and inequities of climate change.” The Year of Climate Action was pushed back to the 2022-2023 academic year due to complications caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and has been in planning since the summer of 2021.

The Year of Climate Action encompasses a broad swath of action that is designed to tackle climate change from all angles. Fischer described the plan as being a “three-pronged approach,” which involves “encouraging and supporting faculty to incorporate climate change topics in their existing courses; taking meaningful action as an institution; and providing more programming for students than ever before.”

The first ‘prong’ of the Year of Climate Action incorporates changes to courses or new curricular offerings that are geared towards climate education. For instance, Prof. Sally Warner’s (ENVS) “Our Local Waterways” course (ENVS 122a), offered for the first time this semester, takes students on weekly field trips to learn more about the history, environmental issues and management of waterways in eastern Massachusetts. The Environmental Studies Program also welcomed Prof. Prakash Kashwan (ENVS), who is teaching “Environmental and Climate Justice” (ENVS 111a).

Curricular changes go beyond the Environmental Studies Program. A variety of other seemingly-unrelated programs of study have also incorporated climate education learning into their curricula. For instance, a Math 10a course offered in Spring 2023 will use climate data as the basis to teach calculus principles, while several upper-level language courses like ITAL 105a and RUS 39a have incorporated more readings about the environment climate change.

The Sustainability Committee has also curated various teaching resources on its website — such as lesson plans, multimedia resources, climate data and quantification of climate solutions — designed to help professors incorporate climate education into their courses. The original task force also urged the addition of a climate literacy requirement to Brandeis’ core curriculum. This requirement will hopefully be put into place when Brandeis’s core requirements are reviewed in the 2023-2024 academic year. 

Another major aspect of the Year of Climate Action is the various co-curricular activities that are offered, several of which took place on campus this past week. 

The Caterpillar Lab, which was seen at Fellows Garden last Tuesday and Friday, featured various large and enthralling caterpillars mostly native to the Northeast. Warner and the Environmental Studies Program had a significant role in making this event possible, and they hope that it is a way for students to gain a better understanding of how caterpillars and other insects are being impacted by climate change.

Other co-curricular offerings veered away from furry insects and hands-on science: For instance, a puppet-making and clothing swap event hosted by the Department of Theater Arts took place last Tuesday through Thursday. Students gathered by Spingold Theater to search through boxes of clothing from the costume closet, cleaned out and sorted by Costume Director Brooke Stanton. Students also had the opportunity to add their personal contributions to three puppets made out of recycled materials: “Ally Luminum” represented metal; “Polly Esther” represented plastic; and “Paige Turner” represented paper. 

The Justice interviewed Stanton on Sept. 13th at Spingold Theater about the puppet-making and clothing swap event. Stanton pointed to the Bread and Puppet Theater as her inspiration: Bread and Puppet Theater is a politically inclined theater company based in Glover, Vermont, that has championed causes like the anti-war movement during the Vietnam War, women’s rights, nuclear plant shutdowns in Vermont, and much more. “I love Bread and Puppet’s idea of giant puppets drawing the eye into the conversation,” she explained. “It’s inviting in a way to people that appeals to your inner child. [The puppets] are not serious, but the topic is serious.”

The Department of Theater Arts is also participating in a devised participatory performance about climate change in collaboration with Sojourn Theater, set to take place Sept. 22-24. Stanton emphasized that theater performances like these are especially powerful because “it’s all about communication. Theater is about communicating ideas through art, and any political activity has to be about communication.”

However, while co-curricular and curricular programming is vital to increase students’ awareness of the climate crisis and to get involved in lasting and effective climate action, Warner emphasized that it should not be the extent of what Brandeis seeks to do. In an interview with the Justice on Sept. 14 over Zoom, she stated that “individual climate actions, they’re great…but the big ticket changes that we need are more on institutional levels, town-level, and larger.” 

Brandeis has acted in accord with these statements by implementing various actions that seek to lower the campus carbon footprint. The Office of Sustainability hired an external team of experts to conduct a full evaluation of Brandeis’ energy usage, which will give the administration an idea of where Brandeis can decarbonize and set the University on a path to carbon neutrality. According to Warner, this will mainly come from changing how Brandeis heats and cools its buildings. Most of the energy used comes from natural gas — according to the Vision 2030 report, this makes up 44% of Brandeis’ carbon footprint. The Department of Sustainability has put together a Decarbonization Action Plan that they hope to present to administration and various stakeholders. 

As for community reception to the Year of Climate Action, various Brandeis faculty members shared their sentiments about the importance of getting involved and taking action. 

Prof. Dan Perlman (ENVS), who teaches Brandeis’s iconic “tree class” (ENVS 2a), emphasized the direness of the climate crisis: “I guess to be blunt, if people don’t take action very soon — many people taking significant action — your generation and the ones to come after are going to pay a horrific price. And the only way to get people to take action is if they care, if they understand.” 

We have already felt the effects of climate change personally at Brandeis, with 94% of Massachusetts experiencing “severe” or “extreme” drought in August as reported by WBUR. Globally, according to the Washington Post, many places on Earth saw their warmest summers on record, and whiplash events like extended drought followed by torrential downpours were commonplace.

Warner pointed to the idea of climate justice, in alignment with Brandeis’ core value of social justice, as the main reason for the importance of getting involved: “Even if … it’s not convincing that climate change is going to impact you personally, climate justice is a really, really important part of the story.” 

Countries that have contributed the least to the climate crisis, especially those in the Global South, are those that are being affected most heavily by it and who also do not have the resources and infrastructure to respond adequately, a Yale Climate Connections article explained. The article also emphasized that the climate crisis disproportionately affects communities of color, lower-income communities, people with disabilities and other marginalized groups. 

Ultimately, those involved in bringing the Year of Climate Action to life hope that this is simply the start of something: Fischer emphasized that “the goal of the year is to focus attention so we can mobilize lasting efforts.” For students, getting involved in the Year of Climate Action is an opportunity to adequately prepare ourselves to face the world we have inherited.