For years, biology professor Anne Bower tried to convince her students at Philadelphia University that global climate change was real and that it was damaging the planet at an alarming rate.
" 'That's just a theory. Who cares?' " the students would reply to Bower, who teaches environmental studies.
But the naysayers are no more. Global warming "is resonating with students," and they want to know what they can do to help, Bower said.
They will get a chance to find out this week as colleges across the country take part in Focus the Nation, a grassroots effort that brings together teachers, students, scientists and legislators to come up with solutions to what many consider the defining challenge of the 21st century.
More than 1,500 colleges, schools and community groups have signed up, including about a dozen local institutions, with activities, symposiums and discussions culminating in a nationwide "teach-in" today.
The yearlong event was the creation of Eban Goodstein, an economics professor at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., and a longtime environmental activist, and his wife, Chungin Chung, a civil-rights organizer. Major funding comes from Nike, Clif Bar and Stonyfield Farms, as well as other companies and foundations.
Goodstein, an author of several environmental books, ran the Green House Network, which trained people to educate their communities about climate change. A sense of urgency and concern for his children's future stirred him to organize a nationwide event centered on college students.
"They get that global warming is bad and is real," Goodstein said, taking a short break from the frenzy of activity leading up to the big event. "But they don't realize how short the window for action is if we're going to have a substantive impact. I have an 18-year-old daughter, and this is really her future we're talking about."
Students want concrete solutions, which is one reason Focus the Nation was timed to coincide with the presidential campaign, and schools are encouraged to invite legislators to their events, he said.
"Many, many people on campuses are sick of hearing that the world is coming to an end. They want to hear about solutions, and they want to hear from their political leaders," Goodstein said.
College students are taking up climate change as their generation's social movement with the hope of averting a potential catastrophe.
"Many people my age don't even really think about the war in Iraq because it's not happening here," said Victoria Bisbing, a senior who has helped plan a four-day event at Ursinus College in Collegeville. "But the environment is all around us, so they are more concerned with that."
Many schools are working to limit their dependence on energy sources that emit greenhouse gases. Swarthmore College plans to meet 35 percent of its total energy needs from wind-power sources. The University of Pennsylvania has joined more than 100 colleges in RecyleMania, a competition to reduce waste.
Other universities are designing new buildings and updating older ones to be more energy-efficient, with water-saving mechanisms, solar panels, and plant-covered walls and rooftops. And more than 130 colleges have pledged to achieve "climate neutrality" on their campuses.
Ursinus will host one of the biggest events in the state, featuring four legislators, climate-change researcher Richard Alley, Joe Kruger of the National Commission on Energy Policy, and other energy environmental experts through Saturday.
Also scheduled are a show by an environmental artist and activist and a concert by folk-pop singer Dar Williams. Ursinus students have worked with Methacton High School in Norristown to draft environmental legislation to present to policy makers, and with Royersford Elementary School's climate-change club.
Leah Joseph, an environmental-studies professor who is cochairing the event, said the college was the first in the state to sign up after she attended a meeting with Goodstein 18 months ago.
"It wasn't just another conference about climate change. It was a way to start making a change," she said. "We can do this and make a fundamental difference in an issue that is becoming critical."
At the other end of the spectrum, West Chester University joined Focus the Nation two weeks ago but has a week full of events, said Jeanne Peters, a secretary in the geography department who is helping to plan the activities.
While the school has done a lot to become "greener," she said, she wishes students were more concerned about issue.
"They're inheriting this problem. It's going to be here forever. The time for dissent is over. The world agrees that it's a problem and we have to do something about it," she said.
Rowan University announced this week that it was moving to single-stream recycling, which allows various recyclables to go in one bin, and would have teachers and students talking about global warming all day today.
"Those students are going to go out and influence other people, including their parents," said Jess Everett, an environmental engineer who is in charge of planning.
Elaine Grose, an environmental professor at Neumann College, said she always shows her students the movie
An Inconvenient Truth
, and the reaction is usually the same.
"It's like, 'I didn't know that,' " said Grose, whose school will host speakers and a weeklong teach-in.
For Goodstein and his fellow activists, the time for debate is over. Global warming has reached a critical juncture, he said.
"Nobody would say that human-induced global warming is not real," he said, then corrected himself. Some people may still be dubious, he added, but they have "no basis on which to contradict the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community."
Goodstein, who recently wrote a book on global warming titled
Fighting for Love in the Century of Extinction,
is a veteran of two previous climate-change movements: Step It Up, a national movement to stop global warming launched last April, and Campus Climate Challenge, which encourages high school and college students to propose clean-energy policies at their schools. He says he would like to see Focus the Nation bring together various global-warming efforts.
Even Al Gore, who won a Nobel Prize for his environmental activism, has not mobilized the next generation the way Goodstein hopes Focus the Nation will.
"Al Gore has obviously been an amazing leader, but he has not been able to build a grassroots movement from the bottom up. And he ultimately can't provide the solution. That has to come from an engaged and mobilized citizenry," he said.
"This is the greatest generation," he said of today's college students. "If you look at the work they're going to have to do, they'll have to rewire the entire planet with clean-energy technology. As educators, we need to get them ready to do that."