Climatological Conundrums

Philosophers from USF and other national and international universities will gather in the Phyllis P. Marshall Center this weekend to tackle issues of climate change and global warming in the world’s first international conference on climate and philosophy.

The conference will unite climate science and philosophy and may impact the future direction of research in the field of environmental ethics, said Martin Schonfeld, the USF associate philosophy professor who generated the idea for the conference. The conference will be held today through Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

This conference is relevant for everyone because climate is something that affects everyone, Schonfeld said. Recent events such as the heat waves across Europe, poor crop yields in China and the devastating hurricanes that rocked Florida and the Gulf Coast are linked with climate fluctuations and exemplify the impact of climate on individuals around the globe.

Schonfeld, who has been pushing for two years within the philosophy department for this conference, said Hurricane Katrina was the event that finally convinced the department the conference was needed.

“That’s when the department decided that we had to do something about this. That was the tipping point,” Schonfeld said.

According to Schonfeld, although there is debate among political pundits and other non-scientists about whether people are causing climate change and the level of negative impact that climate change will have, there is no debate on these questions in scientific circles.

“These are facts. You find consensus virtually everywhere in the sciences. If you pick up Scientific American, Discovery, Science, Nature, National Geographic, there is no debate. They are all in agreement about it now,” Schonfeld said.

During the first two days of the conference, philosophers from USF and abroad will present lectures on climate-related issues in philosophy. The third day will be geared more toward students and the general public. Groups of USF philosophy professors, graduate philosophy students and USF philosophy alumni will participate in a series of think tanks.

The conference is free to faculty, students and the general public all three days.

The conference is sponsored by the Philosophy Graduate Student Organization and the Society for Classical Pragmatism Studies, two philosophy graduate student organizations.

Although funding from the philosophy department covered part of the costs, it was the efforts of the graduate students that pulled the conference together, Schonfeld said.

“It was ultimately carried out by the students,” Schonfeld said. “And that is the cool part about it. This is really just run on goodwill and nothing. It’s not top down, it’s bottom up.”

During the planning stages, the conference’s organizers decided to run the event as a student affair within the department because the University grants graduate student organizations free rental of University facilities. Since there was no cost for using the Grand Ballroom, there was no cost to pass along to attendees, said Philip Bishop, a philosophy graduate student who helped organize the conference.

“The graduate student organization is more than happy to donate its use of the ballroom for something as important as a conference on global warming and climate change,” Bishop said.

Change and growth in the philosophical discourse on climate is one of the outcomes organizers hope the conference will generate. Issues of climate and environmental ethics have to this point been marginalized within philosophy, but once they are discussed in philosophical circles, they will soon filter down into public awareness, said Christopher Kirby, another graduate philosophy student responsible for organizing the conference.

“There is a saying in philosophy,” Kirby said. “‘Last year’s philosophy is this year’s common sense.’ We hope to start an avalanche of public consciousness about this issue.”

Schonfeld also sees changes on the horizon, changes he hopes this conference will help facilitate. But regardless of whether USF leads the way, Schonfeld said, these changes are coming.

“I had very strongly the sense that the clock is ticking, and if we didn’t do this, someone else was going to,” Schonfeld said. “Environmental ethics is going to be the next big thing for philosophers. This is going to happen no matter what, but I’d rather have it happen here, for the first time in the world, at USF.”