Spreading the Word: WCSU Professor Facilitates Public Discourse & Awareness of Climate Change

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Dr. Stephen “Mitch” Wagener, professor and ecologist at Western Connecticut State University’s Biology department, knows a lot about the natural world around us. At WCSU for just over 20 years now, the professor has recognized his calling – aside from teaching college students that is. Over the past eight years the professor has made educating students and the public at large about climate change a priority.

Dr. Wagener has researched and explored many aspects of ecology over the years, having obtained both his Master’s in Stream Ecology and his PhD in Soil Ecology at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. “My research has given me a very broad sense of how ecosystems work. I’m interested in everything from soils to streams, to moose, to the local climate. All that stuff because that’s the stuff the goes into ecosystem ecology,” the professor explained.

From his experiences studying the northern boreal forest ecosystem in Alaska to his research on zebra mussel veligers in local Connecticut lakes, Dr. Wagener’s knowledge of ecology is diverse, a product of his interdisciplinary approach to climate change. “I’m kind of an interdisciplinary guy, so I’m always just looking for ways to synthesize between science and liberal arts. It has set me up pretty well to look at climate change because it’s the biggest, most broad, most multi-disciplinary thing that has ever happened to human science.”

Dr. Wagener has taken action to remedy the fragmented conversation about climate change by organizing an annual lecture series at WCSU, which is open to the public to better familiarize others with the scientific concepts behind climate change. The year 2017 witnessed the program’s second iteration entitled “Climate Change and Human Civilization”. This year, on Tuesdays in February and March, Professor Wagener and his students as well as other faculty members presented five talks open to the public that relate to specific aspects of climate change. This year’s lecture topics included Climate and Weather, Ice and Sea Level, Climate and Human Health, Lessons from Our Past, and A Sustainable Civilization.

Dr. Wagener’s philosophy is a powerful motivating factor behind the program’s presentations. “Explaining a complex topic simply, without dumbing it down or without condescending, is an art,” the professor shared. “It’s something that requires experience, a great deal of thought, and not everyone has the knack for it. Those who do have a knack for it should use it. I’m using it for the advantage of science by explaining some of these complex concepts to the public.”

Dr. Wagener extends the opportunity to develop these skills by offering extracurricular opportunities to students who’d like to follow his lead and take on the challenge of public speaking for a greater purpose. “It’s an altogether different thing than giving a speech in speech class,” the professor said. “We had up to 80 people in our bigger lecture hall this year, so it’s a great opportunity to speak in front of a larger group than your classmates.”

As an example of how the climate change series works in concert with Dr. Wagener’s education philosophy, he briefly summarized the Ice and Sea Level talk, part of which one of his students delivered. “Our second lecture this year covered ocean acidification, ice, and sea level rise. You may have heard of the first one – it’s where there’s extra CO2 in the atmosphere. Part of that carbon dioxide dissolves in the ocean and makes the ocean just a little bit more acidic, which totally stresses out the coral reefs,” Dr. Wagener explained. “When coral reefs are stressed, they spit out their algae helpers – so basically they commit suicide. Sometimes they can regain their algae if the stress is alleviated, but most of them don’t, and that’s what coral bleaching is. So the more CO2 you put in the atmosphere, one of the results is that it puts great stress on coral reefs and many of them are dying. Particularly, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is in very bad shape right now.”

Ice melt and sea level rise were also discussed in the presentation. “Oceans are getting warmer, there are changes in the reflectivity of the North and South Poles, sea levels are going up. We talked about the effect of this on human civilization. There are a lot of places very close to sea level: Jakarta, Alexandria, London, Tokyo, Yokohama, Shanghai, Lagos, all these large populations are going to have to skedaddle when the sea level rises. Where are they going to go? What the world is facing is hundreds of millions of climate refugees. So it’s kind of important. And that’s just one aspect of climate change.”

Dr. Wagener encourages people to make a difference starting at the individual level: “You know, as individuals we can do things like reduce our footprint, reduce our lifestyles. Scale down. Smaller houses, smaller cars, smaller families, smaller meals (with less meat), things like that. We need to shift very quickly, as fast as we can, to renewable energy, which means solar on your roof, buying an EV car or a plug-in hybrid next time you purchase a car,” Dr. Wagener recommended. “We need to tell the government how we feel and express our opinions on this. We need to elect government officials who believe in and accept science. There are things that, just by scale, the government should be able to do more effectively than we can, but if they’re not going to do it, we have to. Unfortunately, the burden is on citizens to make most of these changes. We’re going to have to do a lot on our own.”

Dr. Wagener’s work for climate change doesn’t stop in the classroom. He also delivers a number of public talks on the subject, twelve so far in 2017, with more being scheduled in the future. In 2016, the professor did nine public talks, appeared on TV in conjunction with the presidential election, and wrote an op-ed for the Danbury newspaper. “Teachers are the force multipliers here. If you give teachers information, the people who are going to hear it multiplies by a factor of ten or more. So it’s really important for us to do our part as educators.”

Dr. Wagener plans to continue organizing WCSU’s lecture series on into the future, and currently collaborates on climate change research with a colleague at Candlewood Lake. He runs Facebook groups connected to each of his courses at Western: Climate Ecology, Climate and Civilization, and Life in Anthropocene. While the main purpose of the groups is to gather more information for courses, test ideas out, and mentor young scientists, Dr. Wagener welcomes anyone to join the groups in order to gather more information about climate change under the condition that they behave themselves.

“A lot of young people are interested in the environment, so speaking during the lecture series gives them another opportunity to take part in some advocacy,” stated Dr. Wagener. “I’m really interested in them having this opportunity if I can give it to them. I feel like it’s a very important experience and skill that I want to impart to them as best I can.”

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