Jake Naughton / The New York Times and Karsten Moran / The New York Times

Bill Nye ’77 (left) and marine biologist and conservation expert Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson (right) discussed climate solutions at the December New York Sustainability Conference.

February 11, 2021

New York Sustainability Conference Revives Cornell’s Commitment to Climate Justice

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Cornell is teaming up with climate justice leaders to build sustainability efforts across the University community, reviving its commitment to the environment in light of the pandemic and worldwide movements for racial and social equality. 

In collaboration with the New York Coalition for Sustainability in Higher Education and Ithaca College, Cornell hosted the 2020 State of New York Sustainability Conference in December, featuring  well-known figures in the science community, including Bill Nye ’77, Sen. Rachel May (D-N.Y.) and marine biologist and conservation expert Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. 

President Martha E. Pollack kicked off each conference day, affirming Cornell’s sustainability efforts during the pandemic — including divesting from fossil fuels, investing in the Earth Source Heat program that would eliminate the use of fossil fuels in heating the Ithaca campus, and using a student-designed solar panel trailer to help Cornell’s landscaping crew cut carbon emissions.

“If there was ever a moment in our history where we have been face to face with our common responsibility for our shared future, it’s right now,” Pollack said on the first day of the conference. “The idea of One Health, where environmental health, animal health and human health are all inextricably intertwined, is just not a theory, but the way our planet works.”

Sarah Brylinsky, sustainability communications and business integration manager at Cornell’s Sustainability Office, said the conference worked to encourage greater interaction between the higher education community and the sustainability movement leaders and create a new vision for a better future.

In a keynote address, Nye encouraged college students to engineer solutions to increase access to clean water, reliable electricity sources and the internet to raise the world’s standard of living.  

“[These] solutions also need to be developed collaboratively, as every person you meet knows something that you don’t and these issues affect all of us,” Nye said. 

As Nye encouraged students to tackle global climate issues, he added that the government also plays a key role in sustainability efforts, as it can enact policies that mitigate social inequity and influence international policy decisions that can “save the world for humankind.”  

Johnson, who co-authored the Blue New Deal, added that climate policies must also consider coastal communities and oceans, as she spoke on the intersections of science, policy, culture and justice with marine biology, conservation and climate change. 

The marine biologist described this legislation supported by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), which aims to center oceans in climate legislation.

“I read the Green New Deal when it was introduced in Congress, and I was shocked to find that the first mention of the ocean was on page 13 of a 14 page report,” Johnson said. “If we don’t include the ocean in a significant way in [climate change policy] we’re just leaving a lot of solutions out that we need right now.”

According to Johnson, the ocean is the key to several climate solutions, such as renewable offshore wind, solar energy and ocean regenerative farming — a process in which people grow seaweeds and shellfish that serve food sources, as well as a way to absorb carbon from the atmosphere.

“I think of the ocean as a hero,” Johnson said. “We need to think about protecting and restoring coastal ecosystems that support so many jobs in the shipping and fishing industries, and play a vital role in mitigating climate change.”

In addition to gaps in climate legislation, the sustainability movement faces the challenge of communicating data available in scientific studies in a way that can be understood by the public.

Raven Baxter wrapped up Friday’s conference, speaking on how to bridge this gap between science, sustainability and the public. Also known as Raven the Science Maven, the science communicator, molecular biologist and rapper featured on Fortune Magazine’s 40 under 40 List integrates science with rap music –– an innovative feat within the scientific community. She said this medium allows her to connect with people who otherwise wouldn’t tune into her content if she just sat in her chair and taught them.

“My music videos contain very technical scientific material and shots of people working in labs juxtaposed with images of popular rap culture like fast cars and night clubs with people dancing,” Baxter said. “This allows me to bring a new audience to science as well as showcase the duality of culture and science that diversity brings to the table.” 

Baxter said she has often been told that she didn’t look like a scientist, sometimes even by her colleagues. However, she said she decided she just wasn’t going to care what anybody thought and remains her authentic self while presenting science to a broad audience. 

As a science communicator, Baxter said connecting with new people through the avenues of music, dance and other forms of art can help scientists engage a broader community.

“Historically, science communicators and scientists have portrayed themselves in a way that doesn’t quite reach a lot of audiences that are not in the mainstream,” Baxter said.“We can help get more people interested in sustainability and helping fight against climate change by becoming more approachable.”