Sustainability Speaker Dr. Katherine Wilkinson, The Future is About Our Humanity
Posted 02/04/2018 09:00AM

by Mimi Norton/Lion Staff


Climate change expert Dr. Katharine Wilkinson was Lovett’s sustainability speaker-in-residence this year. Coming from an interdisciplinary background, she approaches climate change in a thought-provoking manner. Yes, there is the science element. But she also wants us to think in a broader way.

“I think that climate change isn’t just asking us questions about where we get our energy,” she told me when we met in Ms. Switzer’s room at the end of the day. “I think it’s asking us the questions about who we are, and how we’re living together, and what it means to be human on a planet that’s changing, and changing because of us.”

It also begs the question: “What’s our responsibility to one another?”

Currently, she is a senior writer at Project Drawdown, a project that measured the one-hundred most substantive ways to combat climate change. However, she holds a B.A. in Religion from Sewanee: The University of the South, where she was a Udall Scholar and valedictorian, and and a D.Phil from Oxford University in Geography & Environment, where she was a Rhodes Scholar.

Her background in religious studies has lead her to view climate change from a more anthropological angle than most of the scientists we usually hear about. She even authored a book in 2012 called Between God and Green: How Evangelicals Are Cultivating a Middle Ground on Climate Change.

Drawdown, as Dr. Wilkinson detailed in her speech, is the point in time when greenhouse gases begin to decline on a yearly basis. Thus, Project Drawdown is working to quantify various solutions and calculate their effect relative to helping us achieve “drawdown.” Katharine has been a part of the team with Project Drawdown for “almost exactly two years.”

The book, Project Drawdown, was published in April of 2017, and Dr. Wilkinson wrote most of it. Paul Hawken was the visionary behind the entire process, but Dr. Wilkinson compiled the work of the research fellows into descriptions that were accessible for all readers.

I had the chance to speak with Dr. Wilkinson after she spent a long day delivering talks to middle and upper school assemblies, chatting with the Green Team, and answering questions in science and econ classes.

I started out the interview by asking about the research that went into the project, since each solution includes the gigatons of CO2 reduced, the net implementation cost, and the net money saved. She told me that sixty research fellows worked on the project, each of them conducting a literature review about their topic. “They read academic journal articles, important reports from the United Nations and its agencies, and big reports out of the work of NGOs or other non-profits to establish a foundation of knowledge about these topics.”

Some students were surprised to hear the sixth most effective solution was educating women and girls, so I asked how that research came to provide specific numbers in terms of CO2 and net savings, since  educating girls and carbon reduction don’t seem directly correlated at first glance.

Dr. Wilkinson explained that the United Nations has different projections of where they think we’ll be in terms of global population in 2050. The high projection, compared to the medium projection, is about a difference of one billion people. She added, “But whether or not we have one billion more or one billion less people, is going to be basically completely contingent on the use of family planning.”

She also mentioned that family planning and girls education are closely related, and if they were combined, they would be the number one solution. She added that when girls stay in school until high school, they choose to have smaller families, they have healthier children, and they actively seek out and use contraception.”

After the research fellows compiled their literature reviews, they would use models to calculate the net-reduction in CO2. There was a core model for solutions that reduced emissions, like energy and transportation, and there was another core model for solutions that related to biosequestration. That way the fellows wouldn’t completely start from scratch for each subject they were researching.

If you’ve browsed the website or read the book, it shouldn’t take too long to notice the jaw-dropping photographs that accompany each of the solutions. Dr. Wilkinson explained, “In many ways, the photos are as important a vehicle for storytelling and message-delivery as the words…. We wanted to use the photos, not just to show what something is, but to get people to ask a question, or to see something with a little more curiosity.”

She acknowledge that there are so many “dry, wonky, impenetrable climate reports, we have enough of those,” so she liked doing something different with Project Drawdown, which emphasizes more grassroots solutions that feel attainable for any community. She added, “It’s really the human-ness of Project Drawdown that seems to be what’s getting people excited.”

I asked how Dr. Wilkinson’s interdisciplinary background helped her in the field of sustainability, and she said, “So often we think environmental issues are issues of science, technology, policy, but I would argue that they are just as much questions of worldview, values, beliefs, and culture, and story, as they are the science, economics, technology, etc.”

Mrs. Switzer, who contacted Dr. Wilkinson and organized her visit, said, “One of the main reasons we were interested in doing something with Project Drawdown is because we are trying to think about goals that the school can set that will help contribute to the solution to this climate crisis.”

With all of the work that the Upper and Middle School green teams do, supplemented by the contributions of time and money from other members of the community, Lovett is certainly trying  to embrace Dr. Wilkinson’s message and start contributing to help achieve Drawdown, and hopefully figure out what it means to be a human on this planet.

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