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Toward a Better Future: Transforming the Climate Crisis is a three-day symposium on climate change that looks at the challenge from a variety of viewpoints.
Toward a Better Future: Transforming the Climate Crisis is a three-day symposium on climate change that looks at the challenge from a variety of viewpoints.
Photo by Ben Doyle, Runaway Productions

Climate Change Symposium: Will Houston Become Beachfront Property?

Why should Houstonians care if a glacier in Iceland, almost 4,000 miles away, has officially died out?

"There's a direct connection. In a weird way we are very much connected to this," says Dominic Boyer, professor of anthropology at Rice University, who says NASA scientists predict that the melting of continental ice will cause sea levels to rise enough to turn Houston into a coastal city by the year 2100.

Boyer and Rice University associate professor Cymene Howe traveled to Iceland to visit the now defunct glacier Okjökull, or Ok, and turned that journey into a short film titled Not Ok that will be screened at the upcoming symposium on climate change, Toward a Better Future: Transforming the Climate Crisis.

Howe tells us the journey began a few years ago when she began a research project that looked at how the changing cryosphere, or the loss of glaciers in Iceland, was affecting social systems, cultural values, and how people perceived the natural environment.

"The Ok glacier was declared to not be a glacier anymore; it was declassified in 2014," says Howe. "The other thing we wanted to get across in the film is the ambivalence that Icelanders feel. In the Arctic there is a lot of what we might call opportunistic adaptations." She gives as an example Greenland; now that they're losing their ice sheets, the population is seeing benefits to having access to mineral and petroleum resources.

The professors, who refer to themselves as "two intrepid anthropologists," also have a sense of humor. They're working on getting permission to erect a historic marker in the place where Okjökull once stood. "We're going to ask a famous Icelandic author to create some words," says Howe. "Last summer we hiked up to the site; we called it the unglacier tour.

"This plaque would be a monument to the only unglacier."

In addition to the screening of Not Ok, the three-day conference has a robust line-up of panelists from all walks of life. It sounds a bit like an old joke, but there's nothing funny about it. "A coal miner, a Rabbi, a Lakota tribal leader and a Catholic nun all walked into a room...."

Except the venue isn't a bar, it's the Rothko Chapel and the University of St. Thomas; and participants include not only the unlikely quartet named above, but also an MIT engineer and scientist, youth activists, and New York Times global climate change reporter Somini Sengupta, who will open the interfaith symposium on February 28 with a keynote address.

Friday's programming includes an interesting look at how climate change affects our mind, body and spirit; panelists include a member of the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation, a professor of environmental studies and psychology, and the executive director for Harris County Public Health Department. Expect the conversation to continue with art opportunities, and an exploration into how energy providers are responding to the challenge with low-carbon energy solutions.

Events on Saturday include poetry, hearing from youth activists, and a former Appalachian coal miner who is trying to find common ground between environmentalists and those who still work in the mines. Houston is well represented, including an address by Mayor Sylvester Turner, presentations by community and municipal organizations, and an examination of legislation and public policy.

One of the youth activists scheduled to appear is Jayden Foytlin, a 15-year-old plaintiff in Juliana v. United States, a federal lawsuit that argues the government is violating the next generation's rights by allowing activities that hinder a clean environment.

U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken upheld the idea and is allowing the case to proceed. “Exercising my ‘reasoned judgment,’ I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society," wrote Aiken in the now historic opinion and order.

Before anybody jumps on the bandwagon about whether or not President Donald Trump recognizes climate change science, it's important to note the suit was filed during President Barack Obama's administration, though the current administration has tried to hinder the case's progress.

Guests are able to purchase tickets to the film screening, the keynote, a single day's sessions, or for the entire symposium.

Toward a Better Future: Transforming the Climate Crisis is  scheduled for February 28 through March 2 at 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday, and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at Rothko Chapel, 3900 Yupon, and the University of St. Thomas, 3800 Montrose. For information, call 713-524-9839 or visit rothkochapel.org. $20 to $150.

Symposium schedule and programs:

February 28, 7 p.m.
Opening keynote address, Somini Sengupta, New York Times Global Climate Reporter and George Polk Award-winning foreign correspondent

March 1, 8 a.m.-9 p.m.
Morning observance with Tiokasin Ghosthorse, First Voices Indigenous Radio

An Interfaith Conversation on Climate Change including perspectives from the Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Sikh traditions. Panelists: Vijaya Nagarajan; Sister Damien Marie Savino, F.S.E., Ph.D.; Rajwant Singh; and Rabbi Daniel Swartz; moderated by Steve Kolmes

The Impact of Climate Change on Our Mind, Body, and Spirit. Panelists: Tiokasin Ghosthorse, Umair Shah and Lise Van Susteren; moderated by Alejandro Chaoul.

Challenges Faced by Vulnerable and Frontline Communities. Panelists: Byron Encalade, Bryan Parras and Fawn Sharp; moderated by Erthea Nance.

Exploring the Science, Energy, and Economics of Climate Change and the Opportunities for Imagination and Innovation. Panelists: Jim Blackburn, Mark Boling, Astrid Caldas, Maha N. Haji and Amy Myers Jaffe.

Art exhibition and reception with Transart Foundation for Art and Anthropology, and featuring artwork by Maria Christina Jadick.

Interactive station, created by Writers in the Schools' The Bayouth Collective, at the University of St. Thomas

7 p.m., Film screening for Not OK by Rice University anthropologists Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer, followed by a talk back

March 2, 8 a.m.-4 p.m.
Morning poetry with Jackson Neal, Houston's Youth Poet Laureate

Paving the Way for a Brighter Future: Young Activists Speak Out. Panelists: Jayden Foytlin and Nadia Nazar, among others; moderated by Estrella Sainburg.

Communicating Climate Change. Panelists: Tiokasin Ghosthorse, Jim Morris, Eve Mosher and Nick Mullins.

Houston Climate Action Plan Presentation and Community Discussion with short address by Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Legislation and Public Policy discussion, moderated by Elizabeth Love.

Interactive station, created by Writers in the Schools' The Bayouth Collective, at the University of St. Thomas

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