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Campus to highlight climate change threat, sustainability in Earth Day events

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Flowers in the Coker Arboretum on Tuesday, April 18.

While some scientists look up to the stars to learn from satellites about the Earth’s climate, others seek answers beneath the ice, studying air trapped in ice cores. 

As Earth Day approaches this weekend, UNC experts in environmental and climate science reflect on the local and national efforts toward sustainability, and the optimism they have for future progress. 

Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Jim White, an internationally recognized climate scientist, explained the significance of celebrating Earth Day on campus.

“It has a long history,” he said. “It's kind of sad it's only one day a year we focus on the Earth — when this is our home — than 365 days thinking about how we live sustainably on the planet.” 

Around campus, a variety of Earth Day activities will be happening this week, including an Earth Day Festival on Thursday from 4 to 7 p.m.  The Gardening and Ethnobotany in Academia Project will be hosting an event on Polk Place on Friday that includes lemonade and crafts. Edible Campus will also be hosting a plant giveaway on Friday afternoon in the Pit. 

From White's own research analyzing the Earth’s climate patterns, he noted that humans should think about how to live sustainably throughout the year, as the effects of climate change can be seen every day.

“You can never look at one storm and say that's climate change,” he said. “But on the other hand, climate is changing right before our very eyes, and so pretty much everything we see out there is impacted by a changing climate.”

For Angel Hsu, assistant professor of public policy who also teaches within the Environmental, Ecology and Energy Program, Earth Day is about globally recognizing humans' ability to protect the planet. 

In Hsu’s work, analyzing data that comes from satellites, she noted that the recent explosion in data available to scientists can uniquely inform them and the rest of the public about changes to the climate. 

She said that this massive increase in data, which she refers to as the “big data revolution,” can be used to measure the efficiency of environmental policy.

Hsu contributed to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group that she said involves thousands of scientists from countries around the world. 

What surprised her the most from analyzing data for the IPCC was that many sustainable policies are no longer just a dream. 

“Actually, all of the solutions to tackle climate change are available, and they're affordable,” she said. “So things like clean energy, wind and solar power, electric vehicles and knowing that plant-based diets are lower in carbon than eating meat.” 

White also reflected on the lack of change, partly attributing it to human history, political and economic institutions. 

“For example, it took forever to get a warning on a package of cigarettes. It took forever to get the lead out of gasoline. It's taken a long time to get mercury scrubbed out of smokestacks. We knew all these things were bad a long time ago," he said.

Hsu said that some of this delay can be attributed to a disparity in who can see the effects of climate change and rebuild from disasters. 

“I think that explains a lot of the behavioral inertia that we have in developed countries and the global north because we are living very — relatively speaking compared to the global south — wealthy lifestyles,”  she said.

Away from the global stage, UNC students are also expressing a desire for progress. The Graduate and Professional Student Government hosted a Climate Action Day last Thursday. White said that in his classes, he advocates for students not to despair when they feel frustrated by the pace of change in environmental policy.

“I tell students don't get depressed about that,’” he said. “Just keep pushing.”

Along with University sponsored events, students have their own ideas about what UNC can do to spread awareness about Earth Day.

For example, junior Kanishka Shah suggested small changes the campus could make to improve Earth Day awareness. 

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“Maybe a mural, or I think if you're doing something special for Earth Day, maybe in the dining hall, they could have more special vegetarian or vegan options, as well,” she said.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly named the UNC College of Arts and Sciences. The story has been corrected, and The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error.