Cecilia Cassidy
Climate & Energy
Climate Change
Peter Marra
Spring 2024

Letter from the Dean: Why I’m an Environmental Optimist

By Peter P. Marra Dean, The Earth Commons, Georgetown’s Institute for Environment & Sustainability Laudato Si’ Professor of Biology and the Environment Professor, McCourt School of Public Policy

Illustration of two birds on branches above a birdhouse with planet Earth in the middle of it. Design by Cecilia Cassidy.

Devastating fires in Hawaii, sinking islands in the Chesapeake Bay, cities lost to Category 5 hurricanes, and entire species lost to habitat destruction are now all part of our shared and increasingly unstable environmental experience. Increasing levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere devastate our climate while land use change, overharvesting, and invasive species destroy our natural ecosystems. It seems impossible to get through the day without hearing about some new loss in our battle against climate change. For young adults, the constant sense of loss goes beyond the day-to-day — it lingers as a heavy burden with uncertain futures. It is no wonder climate anxiety and depression are growing health issues on college campuses and beyond.

Despite the proclamations of doom and gloom and the realities of the challenges we face, I refuse to be negative about the future of the planet. I feel strongly that there is nothing to be gained in pessimism. At Georgetown, we’re in the business of training, developing, and motivating young minds. It’s incumbent on us to set not only the trajectory of change, but also its tone — to approach our collective futures with hope and positive motivation rather than defeatism. I believe in the power of people to make change. We have done it before. There’s enormous power in our community at Georgetown.

You do not have to look too far to see examples of success. In the early 1980s, scientists discovered a sizable thinning in the atmospheric ozone layer which allowed dangerous UVB rays to penetrate to the earth’s surface, endangering humans and all life on earth. In time, they identified one of the major culprits: chlorofluorocarbons, a chemical commonly found in aerosol sprays and refrigerants. In less than two years, 46 countries around the world came together and banned chlorofluorocarbons under the Montreal Protocol, a landmark environmental agreement signed in 1987 and enacted in 1989. If the now 197 signatory countries maintain these bans on chlorofluorocarbons and other chemicals, ozone levels between the polar regions should reach pre-1980 levels by 2040. 

This is one among many success stories, and there are countless more on the horizon. In the early 1970s, the banning of dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT), an insecticide, and critical legislation like the Endangered Species Act saved species like the Peregrine Falcon and Bald Eagle from extinction. 

At around that same time, a new federal agency, the Nixon administration created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It served as a much-needed environmental watchdog within the United States government, and has since served as a massive positive force in countering various forms of environmental degradation in the United States. 

Institutionalizing instruments of environmental change is essential and often transformational. That’s why I believe so strongly in the need for strong environmental education at Georgetown — a university whose faculty, staff, and students have remarkable potential to make positive environmental change — and why I am so proud of all the progress we have made at the Earth Commons in institutionalizing environmental education and research at Georgetown.

In just a little over four years, we have developed two new Master’s degrees through the Earth Commons Institute and The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences: the first, a joint degree with the McDonough School of Business in Environment and Sustainability Management (MS-ESM) and the second, an MS with the School of Foreign Service in Environment and International Affairs (MS-EIA). Also newly approved is an exciting and innovative new BS in Environment and Sustainability. This new Joint Program in Environment and Sustainability is a brand new collaborative undergraduate degree with the College of Arts & Sciences that will have undergrads on the Hilltop as Freshmen and Sophomores and on the new emerging Capital Campus as Juniors and Seniors. We are also working with the College on revising the Environmental Studies minor so it integrates and partners with the new degree. All these new degrees support new faculty along with their research programs. These new hires complement the incredible Georgetown faculty already working on environmental issues with new focuses in a variety of areas including climate science, wetland biology, ecotoxicology, oceans, greenhouse gas measurement, environmental sociology, justice, and so much more.  

Why am I optimistic about our environmental futures? The environmental and educational infrastructures we are building at Georgetown will prepare hundreds of students a year with interdisciplinary approaches to tackle environmental problems around the world. That’s transformational, as is the exciting research all of our faculty in ECo and across campus are tackling on today’s most pressing environmental problems. So I choose optimism and believe in the power of the Georgetown community to make truly transformative environmental change.

Hoya Saxa!

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