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What the Earth can teach us: Vandana Singh shares her climate studies

By Emily Rosenberg, Caroline Gordon


The Christa McAuliffe Center hosted Vandana Singh to discuss her research on the climate crisis with her presentation “The Unraveling of the World” via Zoom April 12.


Singh is a professor of physics at Framingham State University as well as a science fiction author.


She began by discussing that whether it’s forest fires, floods and droughts, or the melting ice sheets, there is no denying that the world is “in shambles.”


Singh shared a graphic which demonstrated the tally of “life under threat,” also known as the sixth mass extinction. According to the graphic, 25% of mammals and 13% of birds are threatened with extinction.


“There’s another pandemic around the corner and this time we may not be as lucky – we do not have the luxury to turn away,” she said.


Singh explained how she started her exploration in this field of study by teaching the subject in her physics classes.


Teaching climate studies in her physics course was not successful because she tried to implement the principles of climate science and encourage her students to take action. They became overwhelmed by “despair” and felt “burdened” by what she taught them.


Singh explained the importance of not “overwhelming them” with too much negative news, without contradicting the severity of the situation.


She discussed it is crucial to avoid informing students on the idea of single solutions, such as using LED light bulbs, as being the optimal way of helping the environment. However, small, individual steps are important, but working together will create change.


She explained how after traveling to Alaska and visiting communities of students and experts, she sought to answer the question, “What can we learn from what the Earth is telling us?”


While doing her research in Northern Alaska, she studied the melting of Arctic sea ice – a phonenmon that has been rapidly increasing.


Singh said she heard a story from a geophysicist at the University of Alaska about a group of scientists who set out to do research at the edge of the ice 30 years ago. Although the weather was beautiful, the native elder had a gut instinct that they needed to pack up and leave. As they were leaving, the scientists heard a “deafening crack,” indicating melting ice sheets.


This story encouraged her to find other communities most impacted by the climate change issue.


She then traveled to India, another country that is vulnerable to climate impacts due to its food and water insecurity, lack of secure infrastructure, and high poverty rates. Singh said India is a region where it is already hot and there will be deadly heat waves.


Singh spoke with people who lived in the region of Jharkhand, India, a community that already had 100 heat waves and used to be heavily forested until it saw the impacts of the climate crisis.


She said after the women started to notice rising temperatures, they went out into the forest to improve biodiversity by building dams.


“Through their nurturing of 20 years, the forest has actually regenerated,” Singh added. “Although there are no tigers ... other species have come back – the water table has risen.”


Singh noted two similarities between Alaska and India. They are both recovering from colonialism and are suffering because people were marginalized.


“This shows how we live in pyramidal power structures. There are few people at the top that build and manipulate all of society,” she said.


Singh said she learned climate breakdown is both local and global in vast, temporal scales. She explained the ways in which humans interact is informed by history and is incredibly important as it will “affect thousands of humans for thousands of years.


“Every scale of time and space matters,” she said.


“The climate crisis is an inherently transdisciplinary issue, and yet it’s still being taught as though it were purely a scientific, technological issue,” Singh added. “That’s why we often hear people talk about scientific-technological ‘solutions’ to the climate issue.”


She said the climate issue cannot be seen as just a scientific problem, nor purely a social problem, but a mixture of social, scientific, and economic concerns. In addition, climate is also a complex system.


Singh said in the center of the climate problem is the issue of justice, emphasizing how in both stories she told, the victims did not cause the problems in their communities, but were the first to suffer the consequences.


She added among the victims of climate change are the youth. “We are giving them a planet that is severely damaged, and that’s not fair.”


She explained schools are compartmentalized. Students are encouraged to think short term, and not taught to work with complex systems. In addition, societies consist of unequal power hierarchies. Singh said this works against the complex thinking needed to mend the climate issue.


Singh discussed the positive and negative aspects of sustainability goals. However, the goals are insufficient as they represent compromises.


She highlighted the relationship between sustainability and economic growth and how they are unattainable.


Singh discussed the population’s impact on the environment and how ecosystems have “carrying capacities.”


Carrying capacity is the maximum number of organisms that can live in a specific area based on the amount of resources available in that area.


“If a population exceeds the carrying capacity for the ecosystem, they are going to have trouble. Then, you are going to see the population collapse – any biologist or ecologist can tell us that,” she said.


Singh explained the U.S. is 5% of the world’s population and consumes 25% of the Earth’s resources.


She said the population is intertwined with inequity, colonialism, and imperialism, which should not be disregarded.


Singh discussed Steve Running, an ecosystem and conservation professor at the University of Montana, who thinks climate change is an emotional trauma for humans to process.


“It’s [climate change] an emotional trauma that we can’t shy or shrink away from,” Singh said.


She explained how scientists have to put their emotions aside, but teaching has made her recognize the significance of emotions.


“We have to take them [emotions] into account otherwize we paralyze ourselves from taking action,” Singh said.


Poetry and other forms of coping techniques have been implemented into Singh’s classroom to encourage group grieving.


She referred to a graph that showed CO2 levels. The amount of CO2 in the air was always constant, then the amount increased at the start of the industrial revolution, according to the graph.


Then, she described the analogy of a bathtub with a drain to explain the carbon cycle. Anything that adds CO2 to the atmosphere is represented by the water, the Earth is represented as the bathtub, and the drain represents trees and oceans.


She said natural resources that are dug up to burn for fuel, are not naturally part of the CO2 cycle, thereby destabilizing the cycle.


Additionally, humans deforest the planet and trash the oceans, resulting in the “drains” being unable to absorb CO2.


Singh noted human respiration is a natural part of the carbon cycle. When humans breathe, they release CO2 as a waste product. However, plants are able to trap the carbon through photosynthesis and without them, there would be a surplus of CO2.


She blames climate change on the wealthy as the richest 10% of the world’s population produces 50% of the individual consumption of fossil-fuel based CO2 emissions.


Singh added the poorest 50% of the world’s population produces 10% of fossil fuel emissions.


“The super rich are super responsible for this crisis,” Singh said.

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