February's Sustainability Champion- David Kitchen
David is the Associate Dean & Director of Summer Programs for the School of Professional and Continuing Studies as well as an Associate Professor. His research and teaching focus on climate change and natural disasters. Read our full interview with him below:
Describe your job as a petroleum geologist and how that impacted your career moving forward:
I began working as a petroleum geologist immediately after finishing graduate school. I worked as a well-site consultant visiting oil rigs, helping to monitor drilling and identify pockets of fossil fuels. During this time, my interest in climate change first developed.
When studying layers of sedimentary rock deep beneath the earth, you discover ancient environments that are perfectly preserved. As I came to understand more about these ancient environments, it became clear that that environments and climate are very dynamic. Cycles related to climate are very apparent in sedimentary rocks and I became interested in the impact of climate change on sedimentology. The more I learned, the more obvious it became that recent changes in global climate are due to the impact of burning of fossil fuels and not a consequence of any natural cycles in Earth’s climate.
After that, my interest branched out from its roots in the geological evidence to examine the important influence that changes in the atmospheric and oceanic can have on global climate. Once I understood more about how rapidly many things are changing, I came to an understanding of the urgency of the situation we're in.
Can you explain how you responded to your concern about climate change?
I thought one of the best things I could do was educate others. I actually began teaching climate change at the University of Ulster and Open University in the UK before coming to University of Richmond.
My interest in teaching about climate change only increased once I got here to the University of Richmond and I began teaching regularly on climate change in 2005. After four years teaching what I believed to be a new and innovative approach to climate change I realized that I would like to share these ideas more broadly. That led to me writing a textbook on climate change, a process took four years. The book is called "Global Climate Change: Turning Knowledge Into Action".
With this textbook, I'm able to reach a much larger audience than if I was only teaching in class. Over 3,000 students have studies this book in 2016
What's unique about the textbook you've written?
I think too many science books focus solely on a problem. For example, the climate is changing we're doomed; the end. I want people to understand not only that the climate is changing, but also that knowledge demands responsibility. Our only solution is turning knowledge into action.
My book begins with the science of climate change. It looks at what drives our climate, then moves on to the impact of climate change. I explore the social and political impacts of a changing climate, then we also look at how societies respond and the social understanding of risk. After that, it moves on to looking at where our energy comes from and renewable energy solutions.
What are some of the most important things you want people to understand about climate change?
Few people really understand deeply the challenges we face with energy. We know that by the end of the century, global population will start to decrease, partly based on sustained economic growth driven by cheap energy from fossil fuels. By this time the wide-spread use of renewable energy will probably offer a viable solution that can break the link between the relief of poverty and greenhouse gas emissions, but this will be 70 years too late. We want to see economic growth in the developing world, but we also need to stay competitive at home, we need to maintain energy security and promote the growth of secure jobs. And we need to do all this without increasing global emissions. This is what I like to call a "wicked problem".
Understanding energy and energy policy is critical to finding a solution without sacrificing economic and social benefits either at home or in the developing world. I try to explain some of these complexities and reach across the political divide. I get frustrated by environmentalists who hold unrealistic utopian views of what can be changed in a short space of time. The right actions can stabilize emissions and sustain economic growth. The wrong actions could destroy our standard of living, national security, and economic progress.
I also want people to understand that environmental responsibility is not just full of negative messages, there are also a lot positive messages. We are on our way to having low-cost abundant clean energy in the future and that is exciting! People on both sides of issues care about facts and the well-being of the environment, so we must break down false narrative that we are divided in our concerns. Clean energy will lead to an increase jobs and national security, it will benefit everybody.
What would you want students in particular to know?
Finding solutions for climate change requires a lot of creativity. Our students should begin thinking of solutions now, because this generation of students will be the one to have to come up with solutions for the future.
We should have informed, engaged, and active students. It's our job as faculty and staff to see that accomplished and to present opportunities for them to be active. Each person should be involved in fighting climate change. Having knowledge is not enough. Once we have knowledge, we have a responsibility to use it. Involvement looks like many different things, from campaigning to letter writing to making lifestyle changes. It is shameful if we learn and then walk away.
How does sustainability play into your current position in the School of Professional and Continuing Studies?
I work with professional development programs. Some focus on green energy, some focus on sustainable certifications. Faculty and staff can use tuition remission credits to take these courses. Our current permaculture program is really exciting.
How has your lifestyle changed as a result of your understanding of climate change?
I've basically made all the common middle class changes and I am aware that I have the luxury of making lifestyle changes. I've changed how I eat, I try to buy organic food, I grow some of my own food, I have gotten energy saving appliances. We conserve water at home, we cut down on runoff from driveway, we cut down on fuel and energy use. I know, of course, that I could do more.
Often people feel guilt for not doing things, whereas people should feel excited about what they are doing. Right now, I've been thinking a lot about how we can motivate people to feel excited about sustainable changes and clean energy, how we can provide people with achievable, reachable goals.