Adaptive Capacity

Last week we had the stunning news that one of our faculty members, Gary Yohe, was recognized as part of the team awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its work on global warming. Gary is a senior member and coordinating lead author on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the prize with Al Gore. We are very proud of this Wesleyan economist’s scholarship, which lies at the intersection of liberal learning and public life, of public policy and quantitative analysis.

Gary has taught at Wesleyan since 1977, and is now the Woodhouse/Sysco Professor of Economics. His recent work on climate change has focused on modes of measuring relative vulnerability to global warming. He has been able to show the dramatically unequal effects of changes to climate, allowing for a more empirically based discussion of the social justice issues that we face in regard to the costs of adjusting to a warmer planet.

Gary and his colleagues have developed a concept of “adaptive capacity” as a vehicle for understanding how various species cope with changes to the environment. Some species of dragonflies now can be found more than 90 kilometers north of their traditional habitats. Birds are laying eggs earlier; hibernation schedules have found a different rhythm. Some species will adapt; the most vulnerable will disappear.

I’ve been thinking about this notion of “adaptive capacity” as I consider how we at Wesleyan can commit to having a less harmful impact on our environment. Do those with more resources, with a capacity to change, have a responsibility to protect the most vulnerable? Wouldn’t this extend beyond the environment to other issues of social justice?

How adaptive are we? At Wesleyan we cultivate the courage to change, the ability to adapt by creatively responding to our culture, our environment. And we want to cultivate a productive self-consciousness of how change affects the most vulnerable. Courage should entail responsibility.

Wesleyan has been learning from Professor Gary Yohe for decades. We are delighted that the world has recognized the importance of his teaching. Congratulations, Gary!

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3 thoughts on “Adaptive Capacity

  1. Wesleyan needs more people like Gary Yohe to come forward and assume a lead role in debating and formulating solutions to the most critical environmental / socio-economic problem facing the world today: global warming.

    I would suggest that Wesleyan seriously consider creating a formal think-tank that, on a regular basis, brings together top scientists, economists, anthropologists, sociologists and others from the humanities and business community to encourage a free exchange of ideas and facilitate approaches to dealing more effectively with the potentially catastrophic environmental problems engendered by climate change. Such an endeavor would help boost the image and prestige of the University and buttress its traditional image as an institution for social activism.

  2. Congratulations to Gary Yohe and his team. As the facilities plan for WESU goes forward, I would suggest that all RFPs for future construction promote responsible environmental public policy by soliciting green construction alternatives. Small scale application of solar and wind should be considered to meet energy demand. In addition, use of building materials that retain heat and cold would also reduce consumption.

  3. “Adaptive capacity”?–good grief. Haven’t we figured it out by now? That we haven’t is probably, in a curious sort of way, a good thing, for it means we’re still trying. Why else embrace a neat ideation such as that supplied by Professor Yohe and use it to frame a discussion of the University’s ongoing efforts to effect change of one sort or another? With regard to a host of complex, troubling, and wildly unwieldy matters, we’ve been testing our adaptive capacity since the mid-1960s, when we first started out on what has become the adventure of a lifetime (and I’m more and more convinced that the Wesleyan experience over the past half century has been far more colorful and confounding than that of most every other social institution like us). But I tremble a bit in noting that we tend to forget what we said just yesterday in our attempt to say something today.

    Just a year and a half ago (5.28.06), “The Wesleyan Connection” (our on-line newsletter) posted an article entitled “Saving Energy All Summer Long.” “Wesleyan is pulling the plug on high energy usage,” it said, going on to note our “preventive conservation measures,” especially those relating to “CoGen.” When Mr. Roth says (and I make reference here to earlier blogs) that we’ve “started to become a much greener, more sustainable campus,” I hope he’s speaking in part about this, if only to ensure some continuity of discourse. “The CoGen equipment,” the article tells us, “which was approved in May [2006], takes 18 months to install, and it will be active in January 2008.” Well, will it or won’t it? And what on earth is it? (It’s a system that uses “a single fuel source, such as natural gas, to simultaneously generate both electricity and heat” and will save us–at least by the May ’06 estimate–half a million dollars a year in energy costs.) Now, a blog isn’t a policy statement or a budget report or a report to the Trustees (neither is “The Wesleyan Connection”), but even in informal jottings I’d like to think that what we trumpeted one year echoes through the next. The “Saving Energy” article further reported that Peter Saye, associate director of utilities management in Physical Plant, estimated that “one percent of all energy consumption campus-wide is used by”–guess what?–“coffee machines.” (Read more in the archived article.)

    So what about our coffee machines?–And this is sort of what’s behind my good grief up above. Have we figured out and implemented a plan to control the pesky little things? Who knows? What I do know is that in January 2007–six months after the article about saving energy all summer long–we weren’t doing a very good job of saving energy all winter long. My wife and I, on a new year’s walk through campus, found the Chapel, Theater,the Pavilion linking them, and all of East College flooded with warmth, the thermostats evidently clocking along at a time when no one–no students, tour guoups, cleaning crews, no one–was around. (We did see one student in East College moving his stuff out–perhaps in anticipation of a semester abroad?)

    What do we learn, how do we learn it? How do we ever figure things out? These questions enrich many academic exchanges both in and out of our classrooms. But really, will “adaptive change” be anything other than a catch-phrase. It’s certainly more than that to Gary Yohe, but he has us at a disadvantage. He actually has to keep it in his vocabulary, extending its meaning every single day. I still want to know about little things like coffee machines–much, I imagine, as a scientist or economist would. I’m neither. But still–.

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