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Gonzaga launches new academic center to address regional climate change issues: ‘The problem is so urgent and so big’

Gonzaga student Laurel Burlingame spent the Thursday noon hour at a table at the Hemmingson Center on the Gonzaga campus with Kevin McKeegan, left, and Patrick Kunz raising awareness for the Center for Climate, Society and the Environment, a climate change resource center that will serve and inform students and communities across the region.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Gonzaga student Laurel Burlingame spent the Thursday noon hour at a table at the Hemmingson Center on the Gonzaga campus with Kevin McKeegan, left, and Patrick Kunz raising awareness for the Center for Climate, Society and the Environment, a climate change resource center that will serve and inform students and communities across the region. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Just in time for Earth Day, Gonzaga University formally launched a new academic center Thursday focused on addressing climate change issues.

The Gonzaga Center for Climate, Society and the Environment will tackle such issues through several pathways, including educational opportunities for students, training for area teachers on incorporating climate literacy and serving as a planning resource for municipal and tribal leaders across the region.

While it doesn’t have a physical headquarters yet, the university formally unveiled the center Thursday with a virtual panel that featured Gov. Jay Inslee, U.S. Climate Action Network Executive Director Keya Chatterjee and Bill McKibben, founder of the climate action movement 350.org.

“We’ve had now two decades of success in Gonzaga basketball. We’ve gotta have at least another two decades of success against climate change,” Inslee said during the pre-recorded event. “We need to be just as good and just as world-class.”

As an interdisciplinary academic project, the Gonzaga Center for Climate, Society and the Environment is a collaborative effort featuring various concentrations at Gonzaga, ranging from biology, education and leadership studies to business administration, law and political science, said Brian Henning, professor of philosophy and environmental studies.

Henning, the climate center’s founding director, said university faculty floated the idea in about 2013. He said faculty decided to get “really serious” with the concept two years ago, developing a concrete proposal in 2019 that received support from across the university, including the president and provost.

“This project is really simply about how do we try and address this urgent problem,” Henning said. “There’s a time for discussion and debate about the science, but we probably know enough to merit quite a bit of action and wanting to move past just debating about it.”

The climate center is already up and running, though it doesn’t yet have a physical space on campus. Henning said the climate center will move into Gonzaga’s Foley Library, where he hopes to someday host workshops and activities.

In the meantime, the center has piloted a training program for educators in the past year in partnership with the NorthEast Washington Educational Service District 101 and Spokane Public Schools. Henning said the program has involved a series of workshops that have provided more than 400 hours of climate literacy training collectively to more than 100 secondary science teachers.

“Citizens, reporters, teachers would know that there’s a place in the region to have questions related to the complexity of climate change and what to do about it, they know there is a resource where they know they can go to help learn more,” Henning said.

As far as staffing goes, beyond Henning’s role as founding director, the climate center is in the process of hiring a program assistant, he said. Climate center projects will otherwise be tackled through collaborations between relevant faculty members as needed.

“We’re a teaching school, and so we wanted to figure out a way to do it that would play to that strength of being good teaching scholars,” Henning said, “so we needed to design it in a way that would attract significant support from benefactors, grants and the university administration itself.”

The climate center received a $100,000 gift from the New Priorities Foundation, Gonzaga announced Wednesday. The gift will fund professional development training and reusable kits that will help the center work with Spokane Public Schools teachers on incorporating climate literacy into classes, according to the university.

Looking ahead, Henning said the center is pursuing funding for a project that would help some Eastern Washington communities “advance their climate planning in a concrete way.”

He said the center has letters of support from the mayors of Clarkston, Malden and Ritzville for the endeavor, which would give area communities the tools to develop climate plans themselves. The funding would go toward hiring and training students to help build capacity for communities to engage in that level of planning, Henning said.

“The problem is so urgent and so big, a lot of people are in this position asking, ‘What can I do?’” he said. “We wanted to figure out a way that as faculty, as teachers and scholars, how can we begin to try and help our community, how can we make a difference in the region to try and understand and begin to better respond to the challenge?”

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