Professor of Earth Science and Geography brings Paris Accord to Vassar

Chair of Earth Science and Geography Mary Ann Cunningham expressed her concerns surrounding climate change and sustainability, focusing on how Vassar is tackling these issues. Photo courtesy of Vassar Alumnae/i Hub
Chair of Earth Science and Geography Mary Ann Cunningham expressed her concerns surrounding climate change and sustainability, focusing on how Vassar is tackling these issues. Photo courtesy of Vassar Alumnae/i Hub
Chair of Earth Science and Geography Mary Ann Cunningham expressed her concerns surrounding climate change and sustainability, focusing on how Vassar is tackling these issues. Photo courtesy of Vassar Alumnae/i Hub

Conversations surrounding climate have come to surpass the limitations of govern­ment, economy and society. Climate change and discourses surrounding sea level rise, arctic ice melt, habitat degradation and extreme weather conditions are increasingly politicized.

The danger of leaving climate change unad­dressed, or unsolved, has become a concern for scientists, activists, politicians and internation­al institutions alike, and is something the world can no longer afford to push to the wayside.

In December 2015, 195 nations came to a unan­imous consensus on a legally binding agreement with the goal of limiting the effects and causes of climate change, termed “The Paris Climate Agreement.” The deal came into full force on Nov. 4, 2016 with the goal of establishing a col­lective effort by nations to prevent global tem­peratures from rising. Each country submitted a “national climate action plan” with a strategy to cut national carbon emissions. Yet, even if the entire global community adheres to their emission reduction goals, warming will still rise above preferred levels.

In order to attain zero carbon emissions, the international community must look to both renewable energy and alternative production methods divested from fossil fuels. China, one of the world’s largest emitters, has identified the evolving nature of the world’s energy market and now leads the world in renewables. Under the Paris Agreement, governments will come to­gether every five years to take stock of progress and reevaluate goals in order to attain targets levels set by scientific data.

Many are skeptical about the commitment of many countries and their ability to completely eliminate carbon emissions. Although many technologies and alternatives exist to reach these goals, the question of success is reliant on economics and incentives. Clean energies such as wind, water and solar require new machinery, training and significant investment from gov­ernments and nations. A willingness to adapt is confronted by a global conformability in our reliance on fossil fuels.

Chair of Earth Science and Geography Mary Ann Cunningham said, “Getting off of fos­sil fuels is inconceivable to most Americans.” Here at Vassar, there have been some efforts to adopt lower emission practices. Electricity has become the main vehicle for these efforts. The College has power purchase agreements for hy­droelectric and solar energy. New buildings are equipped with on/off light motion sensors and LED bulbs, which conserve energy. Future clean energy efforts look towards geothermal heating. Heat is a major cost and comprises 60 percent of Vassar’s carbon emissions. However, it is pos­sible to dramatically turn around campus con­sumption through sustainable renovation efforts.

Cunningham stated that climate change, sustainability and divestment are very much involved in social justice. On campus, the Vas­sar College Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign is an active voice in the campaign to withdraw endowment funds from investments in com­panies whose activities are deemed harmful to the environment. The more the campus become geared toward sustainable practices, fossil fuel divestment and embraces renewable power, the easier it will be to facilitate conversations about climate change.

Cunningham said of the agreement, “It is so exciting that 195 countries agreed to anything, much less something so revolutionary. It rep­resents a lot of learns, it is well understood that this is about justice, public health, biodiversity and economics, and these are not separably any­more.”

In light of the recent election, many activists and proponents of the Climate Movement have experienced apprehension about the future di­rection of climate change efforts. Visions for a more sustainable future have become caught the volatile web of an emerging world leader, Presi­dent-elect Donald Trump. Throughout his cam­paign, Trump has vocalized his opposition to cli­mate change, calling it a “Chinese hoax.” He has vowed to cancel the United States’ involvement in the Paris Climate Agreement, in addition to eliminating the Environmental Protection Agen­cy, repealing environmental regulations and cutting climate funding and pursuing an energy plan that will work to revive the coal industry. These plans have the potential to be catastroph­ic to environmentalist and sustainability efforts.

If Trump succeeds in erasing the conversation of climate and environment from the national discourse, many on campus feel that it will not only be detrimental to the United States’ inter­ests, but also to the global community. Generally, the student community has expressed that the pattern of denying climate change and the sci­ence behind it would implicate both our country and the entire world in the rampant vulnerabili­ty created by carbon emissions.

Organizations on campus like VC Divest be­lieve that in the coming months and years, our representatives must come to terms with and recognize that climate change does not settle in one party’s camp. It is not Republican or Dem­ocrat. Quality of life, food availability, sea level rise, environmental disaster and potential social upheaval should become the concerns of a glob­al collective, VC students maintain. This conver­sation cannot be impeded by the rhetoric of a single political figure. It is certain that the reach of Climate Movement and other environmental movements will be determined more than ever in the next few years.

For many, the Paris Agreement highlights a greater alliance and the shared stake we all have in the climate conversation.


  1. Please make sure that you change the title. Mary Ann Cunningham is a professor in geography as you said in the article. Where is sociology coming from

  2. Is there any way you can change the headline to “Professor of Geography…”? Mary Ann Cunningham is a professor in the Earth Science and geography department, NOT Sociology. It even says this in the article!

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