In the wake of record-high winter temperatures, UW-Oshkosh continues promote eco-friendly resources.

The usually harsh, frigid Wisconsin winter seems to have lost some of its bite this year. While this is good news for people who don’t like cold weather, it is bad news for skiers, ice fishermen and, potentially, humankind.

According to a new study by British research firm Met Office, 2007 may be the warmest year on record globally. With city-sized ice shelves breaking off from the Canadian Arctic, glaciers disappearing faster than we can keep track of, and Wisconsinites walking around comfortably in sweatshirts in January, it begs the question – What is going on here?

In contrast to worldwide trends of rising carbon dioxide emissions, temperatures and sea levels, UW-Oshkosh has quietly established itself as an innovative leader in energy conservation and sustainability. In October 2006, Provost and Vice Chancellor Lane Earns announced the formation of the UW-Oshkosh Sustainability Team, captained by Dr. Michael Lizotte, biology professor and director of UW-Oshkosh’s Aquatic Research Laboratory, and Facilities Management Director Stephen Arndt.

In the announcement, Earns outlined the university’s vision for the team. “UW-Oshkosh already is considered a national model in several aspects of sustainability,” Earns said. “This team is being asked to come up with specific steps in education, research, operations and outreach to make us a truly sustainable institution.”

The debate about whether the planet is warming and whether human beings have affected the warming process is over, Lizotte said. “Consensus was probably reached over 10 years ago,” he said. “Skeptics are getting very, very rare.” The new, more alarming debate is about how fast these changes are going to come. A report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center stated that, including 2006, six of the seven warmest years on record have occurred since 2001 and the 10 warmest years have occurred since 1995. To put this in some historical context, the NOAA began keeping annual global temperature records in 1880.

Lizotte said the sustainability team hopes to counter the causes of global warming by limiting the university’s contribution of greenhouse gases through the burning of fossil fuels used to create electricity, dealing with the coal-burning heating plant on campus, and addressing student and faculty transportation issues.

“Roughly 13,000 people work in and out of this campus and study here,” Lizotte said, “and the majority of them drive cars.” The team’s focus will encompass much more than just operational concerns, Arndt said. The comprehensive plan, expected to be released May 2007, will include teaching sustainability across the curriculum, providing student outreach to the community and sponsoring various research opportunities. On most campuses, ideas like this tend to come from students, faculty or staff who often have trouble convincing their administrators that these issues need to be addressed.

Lizotte said Oshkosh has the opposite problem. “We have the people at the top all saying the right things,” he said. “Now we just have to convince the students, faculty and staff that this is the right thing to do.” Gov. Jim Doyle in June selected Oshkosh as one of four UW System schools to take part in an initiative that challenges each campus to become completely energy independent by 2012. Oshkosh was chosen for this honor because of its prior track record on conservation. The university currently purchases 11 percent of its power from alternative energy sources, more than any other UW System school, Arndt said. In 2000, Arndt led an initiative to replace 1,005 toilets on campus with more efficient models, saving the university 24 million gallons of water per year. Students are getting into the act as well.

Grassroots organizations like Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC) and the Campus Greens are helping to spread the word about sustainability and personal environmental responsibility throughout the campus.

“We feel that education plays a large part in making changes,” said Jessi Dresen, co-president of SEAC. “I think people get set in their ways and they don’t realize how much of an impact they are having as one person.” For many students, making small changes to their lifestyle for the betterment of the planet is easier said than done. “A lot of the ways that we cause the most damage are things that are fun,” Lizotte said.

“At some point, it becomes imperative for people to discuss and look at their own lifestyles.” The top three areas Oshkosh students can improve on to lessen their overall impact on the environment include car driving, electricity use and meat consumption, Lizotte said. These activities each exact a huge environmental cost and even small personal decreases can make a big difference.

“The message has to come from people seeing how it affects their own lives,” he said.

“It is important for institutions like universities to show some leadership and show that things are possible.” So, does this unusually warm winter signal that the end is near? Maybe not, but for Arndt it’s hard not to be frightened by the idea that Earth’s climate is changing before our eyes.

“I hate to think that we’re slowly incinerating the world,” he said. “I hope that what we’re doing is not too little, too late.”