Turning Up the Heat

A professor-turned-activist works to stop global warming.

A professor-turned-activist works to stop global warming.

When Eban Goodstein, professor of economics, celebrated Father’s Day a couple of years back with his then–15-year-old daughter, Emma, they chose to visit one of his favorite places–Mount St. Helens. On their journey to the volcano’s crater, they hiked through meadows of vivid wildflowers and fields of pristine snow. As they stood at the summit, gazing in wonder at the majestic snowcapped peaks all around–Hood, Rainier, Adams, Jefferson–Goodstein couldn’t help but feel a pang as he contemplated what might happen to that spectacular vista in the not-so-distant future.

“I know that for my grandchildren,” he says, “much of the summer snowpack, and the water in the streams, and the flowers in the meadows–a lot of this will be gone.” 

As temperatures inch inexorably higher, scientists predict, the snowpack melt in the Cascade Mountains will accelerate over the next century, causing widespread summer drought in the Northwest. The region could suffer severe water shortages for drinking and farming. With temperatures continuing their steep climb, the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets could collapse in 200 to 1,000 years, raising sea levels by as much as 40 feet. There goes Oregon’s beautifully rugged coastline. And Portland, for that matter; in the worst-case scenario, floodwaters are projected to rise deep into the city’s downtown. The Northwest so many of us cherish won’t be recognizable.

“The actions humans take over the next decade will determine our future,” says Goodstein, who has taught economics at Lewis & Clark for a decade.

Making a global change for the better “isn’t impossible,” he says, “but it needs to start–yesterday.”

Goodstein describes himself as “an economist, a very rational, cost-benefit kind of guy,” but don’t confuse his professorial equanimity with a lack of passion. As an educator, the 46-year-old has devoted his career to teaching his students and the general public about the dangers of global warming and to rallying support for “green” policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and averting an environmental catastrophe.

He is not just an academic but a committed activist–a nationally recognized expert on global warming’s economic impact, and a voice of reason in the raging public policy debate in the Northwest.

Now Goodstein is launching his most ambitious effort yet–Focus the Nation (see related article), a campaign to mount a nationwide global warming symposium at more than a thousand colleges and schools on January 31, 2008. He is spending the 2006-07 school year on sabbatical, crisscrossing the country to rally support for Focus the Nation and deal with the multitude of details involved in planning the event.

Bob Doppelt ’73, director of the University of Oregon’s Climate Leadership Initiative, says that because Goodstein thinks broadly and makes the case for environmental action in a compelling way, he is a force to be reckoned with, whether he’s discussing the connections between global warming and the economy with a roomful of undergraduates or delivering pointed testimony to Congress.

“Eban’s not the type to just sit back to study a problem,” Doppelt says. “He believes that someone who takes the time to really understand an issue has a responsibility to do something, to take action.”

Making a global change for the better “isn’t impossible,” he says, “but it needs to start yesterday.

While there is plenty of political debate about global warming, scientists agree that Earth’s temperature has inched up 1 degree Fahrenheit in the past hundred years and looks to be rising even more.

A difference of a few degrees may not seem like much, but changes can profoundly impact the environment. The overwhelming majority of scientists attribute the rise in temperature to a sharp increase over the past 50 years in greenhouse gases, which are emitted by power plants, factories, and cars, and which trap heat in the atmosphere. Global warming has been linked to increased numbers of hurricanes, heat waves, even polar bear drownings as glaciers rapidly melt.

A recent ABC News/Time/Stanford University poll found only about half of Americans feel global warming is “very/extremely important.” However, the poll showed also that the public is becoming more aware of and educated about the issue. But Goodstein says he feels America still has a way to go to meet the challenge of what he calls “far and away the biggest environmental issue humans have ever faced.”

Goodstein’s own reverence for nature was nurtured during his childhood in Sewanee, Tennessee, where his parents were academics–his father taught economics and his mother history at the University of the South. He recalls as a child exploring the Cumberland Mountains, hiking through verdant forests, and spelunking in dark caves. These boyhood adventures forged a profound respect for the natural world at an early age.

A geology major at Williams College, Goodstein won a Watson Fellowship after college and traveled to Africa to work on mining and economic development projects. He returned to the States to study economics at the University of Michigan, where he ultimately earned his doctorate. He taught economics at Skidmore College and wrote a college textbook on economics and the environment before coming to Lewis & Clark in 1995. He was drawn to teach in Portland, he says, by the city’s reputation as a center for environmental research and policy, as well as the College’s reputation as a high-quality institution with smart, socially aware, and engaged undergraduates.

Indeed, over the years, Goodstein has made a point of involving students in his professional research. His students conducted the first-ever greenhouse gas inventory of the campus, which led in 2002-03 to Lewis & Clark’s becoming the first college in the nation to reduce greenhouse emissions in compliance with the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty aimed at stopping global warming. Goodstein also coauthored a research paper titled “Climate Change in the Pacific Northwest,” an up-close look at the economic impact of reduced snowpack on agriculture and wild salmon, with then-junior Laura Matson ’05.

“He really helped instill a passion in me for global warming,” says Matson, who now works for the city of Portland’s Office of Sustainable Development.

“I wasn’t just making photocopies,” she recalls. “It was a tremendous learning experience, very collaborative… . I was involved every step of the way.”

Goodstein’s interest in global warming was largely academic in the beginning. He authored the textbook Economics and the Environment and The Trade-Off Myth, a book debunking the conventional wisdom that creating jobs and protecting the environment are mutually exclusive. But he soon grew frustrated by what he saw as a lack of social and political action and underwent a transformation into professor/activist.

In 1997, Goodstein founded the Green House Network, a national organization that enlists and trains volunteers to speak about global warming and climate change to schools and civic organizations.

Public education is essential, Goodstein says, because there’s so much misinformation about climate change. He bristles at the very notion of a debate about global warming: “There is no debate.”

Still, there are those who consider rising temperatures as an example of nature taking its course, and who question whether humanity or Mother Nature is the primary cause of global warming. 

President George W. Bush may be the most prominent–and powerful–skeptic. “I have said consistently that global warming is a serious problem,” Bush said last summer. “There’s debate over whether it’s man-made or naturally caused.” Bush’s administration has argued for reducing the rate of growth of greenhouse gases but at the same time has opposed joining the Kyoto Protocol on the grounds that it would hurt the nation’s businesses.

Closer to home, Oregon’s state climatologist George Taylor has questioned the science behind climate change, noting that the planet has always undergone warming and cooling trends. Taylor believes that rising temperatures in the Northwest, at least, are due more to natural factors than to a rise in greenhouse gases, which he says probably have an effect, but “not a dominant one.”

Of Goodstein, Taylor says, “He is sincere, passionate, and principled. He’s been unable to change my mind on the climate issue, and I haven’t changed his, but I’ve enjoyed our interactions.”

Goodstein pulls no punches with his own political views. He was disappointed by President Bill Clinton’s policies and feels the Bush administration’s approach is deplorable. “They’ve done worse than nothing,” he says.

He is a good deal more sanguine about what’s happening politically closer to home. He says Oregon has a strong environmental record, and he admires California’s recent commitment to the Kyoto Protocol.

But time is running out, Goodstein says. If the global community fails to take significant action over the next decade to stop greenhouse gas emissions, the damage to the planet will be irreparable.

Goodstein recently completed a memoir tentatively titled Fighting for Love in the Century of Extinction (due out this summer from University Press of New England), which looks at global warming from a deeply personal perspective. The book is a manifesto and a call to action. The future climate change scenarios he sketches can seem bleak, but the book is suffused with a sense of hope and possibility, and a deep and abiding love for humanity and for nature’s precious, fragile beauty. 

“Decisions we make over the next ten years,” he writes, “will profoundly affect the lives not just of our children and grandchildren, but every human being who will ever walk the face of the earth, from now until the end of time, forever. Now, we hold in our hands truly incredible gifts to the future: gifts of bright fish among sand and coral; gifts of intact glaciers and ice sheets the size of continents; gifts of polar bears, and seals and salmon; gifts of frogs and forests… . What amazing gifts we have in our power to pass on. What a time to be alive… . I am grateful for the opportunity to fight for the things I love.”

Romel Hernandez is a freelance writer in Portland.