Jose de Acosta Lecture Emphasizes Ethics of Climate Change

Antara Murshed
Staff Writer

Almost every seat was filled in Fromm Hall’s Xavier Auditorium on Feb. 24 where students and faculty gathered for USF’s 8th annual José de Acosta lecture. The aptly named lecture this year was “Climate Change & Sustainability: What’s Physics, Ethics, and Communication Got to Do With it?” presented by Dr. Jim White. Currently the director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Dr. White gave a succinct, engaging talk comparing the intertwining governing laws of physics and ethics that shape how anthropogenic climate change is going to affect the world and everyone in it.

The annual José de Acosta lecture was established in 2008 through the donations of USF Board of Trustees member Michelle Skaff and her husband, Dan Skaff. The lecture is also sponsored by the Department of Environmental Science, the Environmental Studies program, and the graduate Environmental Management program.

The lecture was named after the sixteenth-century Jesuit missionary and naturalist, José de Acosta. Originally from Spain, de Acosta studied natural history, atmospheric science, and oceanography in Latin America. Dr. White’s lecture emphasized ocean-based impacts regarding climate change while tying in larger ethical quandaries people may face, making his talk fitting for a lecture named after a Jesuit scientist.

“I have been to every de Acosta lecture since it was established and this was definitely one of the better ones. The talk was easily relatable for a wide range of audiences,” said Professor John Lendvay, who is currently the environmental science department chair. Jim White’s lecture managed to address the urgency behind the action that needs to take place in order to address climate change, while also maintaining a humorous outlook on the situation. When discussing the impacts of sea level rise around the world, Dr. White efficiently summarized Florida’s situation by stating, “Miami is toast!”

Dr. White’s one hour lecture displayed a side-by-side analysis of how fixed, unchangeable scientific laws define the consequences of climate change. However, he also stressed that how human society opts to respond to climate change plays an equally important role in earth’s future. In terms of the scientific analysis of his talk, Dr. White’s presentation remained informative and easy to understand. Professor Calla Schmidt, who teaches hydrology and environmental geology here said, “As an earth scientist, I really appreciated the way he distilled our understanding of the physics of earth’s climate system and the relationship between carbon dioxide, temperature, and sea level in an interesting and accessible way.”

After presenting on the key environmental processes involved with imminent climate change, like increases in greenhouse gas emissions, rapid sea level rise, and ocean warming and acidification, Dr. White shifted his focus to the role human beings play in addressing these problems. He argues that the current economic system in place is unsustainable. Industrialized, first world nations have a disproportionate impact on greenhouse gas emissions impacting global warming and in the simplest terms, they carry the most responsibility in this issue. He stated that, “One generation must forgo short-term gains for the long-term benefits of its children.”

The speaker then went on to propose a restructuring of how success and growth is measured under a capitalist economic system. “The definition of economic growth must be redefined,” said Dr. White. He concluded his talk with the argument that growth should not be measured from how much profit is made, but how much people help each other.

The Q&A and the conversations that followed immediately after the talk were very engaged with the topic presented, and the audience was curious to know more. Several students asked Dr. White about how he thinks the process of redefining progress and growth within a capitalist framework would come about in actuality. His answer revolved around instilling empathy in others but lacked a more concrete, structural approach to this proposal. However audience members chose to interpret the lecture, Dr. John Lendvay said, “The signature of a good talk is the conversation that comes afterwards.”

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