Thousands arrived on the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College last week for the 55th edition of the St. Peter institution’s Nobel Conference.
Lectures from renowned scientists, university professors and climate change activists were joined by artists, dancers, musicians and students young and old to discuss the “science and ethics” of this topical issue.
Conference organizer Lisa Heldke, philosophy professor at Gustavus and a 1982 graduate, was pleased the two-day event occurred only days after the Sept. 20 global climate strike. Hundreds of local high school and college students participated in an action which drew an estimated 7.6 million people worldwide.
In St. Peter, hundreds also joined a rally at Minnesota Square Park that day.
For Heldke, who said a record 23 Gustavus departments played some role in Nobel Conference 55, the event is an opportunity for the college to provide “a larger purpose to the larger community.”
But during a time of climate change deniers, last week’s topic was a key, she said.
“We made a very conscious choice that this conference would be on this topic,” Heldke said, citing the need for such dialogue and discussion. “Maybe it was happening anyway. But science and ethics conversations tend to begin with that.”
And, “I do think it was really cool that the conference coincided with the strike that happened that Friday,” she added.
JJ Akin, director of media relations and internal communication at Gustavus, said over 4,000 people attended the two-day event, one which included several hundred regional high school students.
“We sold out at 3,400 tickets per day but know that most people come to both days (while) some people come to just day one or day two,” Akin said.
To the broader St. Peter, the annual Nobel Conference is a significant and well-respected part of the community, according to Ed Lee, executive director of the St. Peter Area Chamber of Commerce.
“We like to say we’re the education capital of Minnesota with our progressive public and private schools, Gustavus Adolphus College, MSBA (Minnesota School Boards Association and Scholarship America,” Lee said. “The Nobel Conference helps cement us in that because it’s intellectual, international, in reach of all ages.”
The chamber, which represents 240 St. Peter area businesses, promotes the conference on its website but members realize that Gustavus drives it and the college is a vital contributor to the local economy, he added.
“We’re proud of and thankful to Gustavus for putting St. Peter on a very prestigious map,” Lee said.
“Many of these people have never been to St. Peter,” she noted. “While they’re here, they’ll spend time around town. They’ll explore the town a little more.”
Discussions on ‘this great challenge’
Gustavus President Rebecca Bergman credited “work across the institution” for the success of Nobel Conference 55 as she greeted attendees. And she stressed that the college continues to explore new ways to become a “zero waste campus,” with 90 percent going somewhere other than a landfill.
Bergman also said the college is targeting a 25 percent energy conservation over the next five years.
Yet, the scope of climate change and its impact across the planet will take a concerted effort by many, Heldke noted, and ongoing dialogue.
The official Gustavus “recap” of the Nobel Conference 55 said “thousands on campus and online gathered to learn from and engage with the world’s foremost experts working on this great challenge of our time.”
“We were really pleased with the high quality of speakers and how thy addressed those in attendance,” Heldke said.
While students around the globe have been among those leading the call for action on climate change, Heldke said it’s important to note — as several speakers also stressed — that all generations need to pitch in.
“I want to stop dumping this on youth,” said Dr. Diana Liverman, professor of geography and development at University of Arizona, “I’m still alive and I should be doing something.”
On day two of the conference, Canadian Inuit activist and author Sheila Watt-Cloutier said that despite the resiliency of her people, climate change is severely impacting their way of life.
“We are a very remarkable people who live at the top of the world,” she said. But the impacts of a warming region has challenged them and has begun “to erode our sense of identity.”
“It’s not just about our ice and polar bears. It’s about our children” Watt-Cloutier said. “At issue is our ability and right to exist as indigenous people.”
But while the Arctic region is just a tip of the issue, she stressed, “if you protect the Arctic, you protect the planet.” Still, there are pressing issues and a need for leadership during a time of “political inactions.”
“What affects another affects us all,” Watt-Cloutier said.
The conference’s closing lecture was presented by Dr. Mike Hulme, professor of human geography at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge. He said “Climate change is not a problem that can be solved.” Instead, he stressed, “a well-ordered social world” and “moral ecology” are necessary, as well as action.
Hulme said the challenge is “not the end of development, but to develop better.”