Two English teachers are passionate about climate change

Sue Ellen Campbell and John Calderazzo are living proof that the sum of two writers/English teachers can become greater than its parts. Add to the equation a combined 50 years of steeping in a passion for nature and the environment and the result is dynamic. The pair have become a team dedicated to establishing clear channels of communication between individuals, research teams and organizations across many disciplines working in the global climate change arena.

Campbell and Calderazzo call themselves “intellectual brokers” and in that role work to move forward the body of climate change knowledge by making it more accessible to both scientists and non-professionals by employing their skills as writers, teachers, organizers, speakers and website developers. Gradually, over the last several years, Campbell and Calderazzo have created a niche for themselves by emphasizing an-all encompassing multidisciplinary approach in their lecture series and by creating an extensive website.

John Calderazzo and Sue Ellen Campbell work together to spread the word about climate change.
John Calderazzo and Sue Ellen Campbell work together to spread the word about climate change.

The teachers met in the 1980s on the campus of Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Their first date was a walk in the woods at Oak Openings natural space near Toledo. A newly-minted PhD, Campbell joined the English Department at Bowling Green where Calderazzo taught composition. They were drawn to each other at least in part because of their common love of nature and concern for the environment. After becoming professors at CSU, they married in 1990.

In the years that followed, both published with great success. Calderazzo wrote essays, articles and two definitive books about volcanoes. With others, Campbell wrote Even Mountains Vanish and spent 10 years writing The Face of the Earth, Natural Landscapes, Science and Culture. The classes they teach in English and creative writing have kept them busy and made them sought after by students for 25 years. During all this time they continued to maintain and nurture their common interest and concern for the natural world.

When Campbell read Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert and Calderazzo delved into a series of articles that came from a massive report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, alarm bells went off for both. After several days of talk across their kitchen table, the pair decided they cared so much that they had to do something.

They weren’t sure just what, but early on Calderazzo concluded that there were plenty of people writing about climate issues. His interest did not lie in adding to the collection. Instead they decided together that they might be able to find a way to use their many years of teaching experience to make a more significant contribution to the climate change discussion.

From their kitchen table they moved on to brainstorm with CSU faculty members in many different disciplines. A need for academicians to share their perspectives and their on-going work with each other and with the larger community became obvious. In doing so, Campbell and Calderazzo realized, all parties could gain information and an increased understanding of how their work might influence the big picture and become integrated into an expanding body of climate change knowledge. “We came away from our meetings with a million ideas,” Campbell said.

“By coordinating activities on campus we thought we could become the glue that would bring climate people together,” Calderazzo added.

During the summer of 2007 they made plans and in the fall initiated a series of lectures, “Changing Climates at Colorado State University.” Open to all, the series took place on the campus. The opening lecture, conducted by the Atmospheric Science Department, presented the basic science involved with climate change. Sometimes lectures were by one person; at other times up to four speakers were involved. Calderazzo and Campbell explained to speakers that their audience would include people from different disciplines and some who were not scientists by training. “You’ll be talking to poets and fashion designers,” Calderazzo said. “No graphs please, and severely limit equations.”‘

The lectures were so popular that by the following spring another series took place, with an added emphasis on including members of the community. In February 2008, Campbell and Calderazzo conducted a two-day-long teach-in at the CSU Student Center. The following year, repeated the teach-in.

Over a two-year period, the “intellectual brokers” coordinated and presented 110 talks in Fort Collins, at CSU, and in Denver, presenting speakers from 28 university departments. They looked through the entire CSU phone book to consider whether majors in any department might have no connection to climate change. Students in the Atmospheric Science Department pointed out that even the Occupational Therapy Department needed to be included among those affected because of repetitive stress problems resulting from endless hours at the computer by those doing modeling.

The lectures, teach-ins and workshops were developed at minimal cost–mostly for a few refreshments, room rentals, and some travel expenses for speakers. Some expenses were covered by grants. This work brought increased visibility to the College of Arts and Sciences. Ecologist Mark Easter observed with a smile that, “It took two English professors to get this dialogue going.”

Campbell and Calderazzo say working together has been rewarding. She leans toward early organization; Calderazzo is comfortable with a public relations orientation. Their vision is the same and their skills and comfort zones complement each other.

Ready to move beyond workshops and lectures, Campbell and Calderazzo began searching for other ways to move their communication agenda forward. They found funding to bring James Balog, subject of the documentary film “Chasing Ice” and a National Geographic photographer to campus for two lectures and five classroom visits. They also helped organize a gathering at the First United Methodist Church in Fort Collins, with the editors and some authors of a book called Moral Ground, focusing on the moral aspects of dealing with climate change. They have also given talks and coaching/training sessions on clear and effective communication regarding climate change.

The Center for Multiscale Modeling of Atmospheric Processes, recognizing the critical value of their work, “bought out” both Calderazzo and Campbell from one of their classes, allowing them to spend that class time on their role facilitating communication. Scientists from CMMAP have been central to their work, especially Scott Denning and Dave Randall. Kelly Wittmeyer, the computer guru at CMMAP, does the technical work on the website.

An important aspect of their new thrust is the development of an extensive website with lists of books and articles, carefully selected, reviewed and categorized to make them as accessible as possible. Campbell has made it her business to read nearly every entry.

They have organized question and answer panels for the Colorado State Alumni organization. Calderazzo has been especially gratified to see academicians, once hesitant to present to non-scientists, decide that it is possible to share with the public without compromising their work. The pair has spoken at the University of Maine and briefed program managers at the National Science Foundation on their work.

As professors with three more years of “transitional retirement” which means they are free from teaching responsibilities for a semester of each school year, they plan to continue with their climate change work, hoping for the arrival of a “tipping point” in public opinion that will prompt the government to take a giant leap in action.

They would not be so heavily involved in facilitating climate change communication if they did not believe change to be possible; that it is not yet too late to make a difference. “It is sometimes depressing,” Campbell admitted. “But I look at all the good people working for change, and it is heartening. Then I know I must continue increasing my knowledge and working on the problem. With this realization, the depressing moments disappear.”

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