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From the Director: The next chapter

Last fall, at the Institute on the Environment’s annual meeting, I made a claim. I stood up, in front of our network of students, staff, faculty, sustainability practitioners, and community partners, and I said: It’s time to reframe this fight. It’s time to change the narrative.

For decades, those of us working in climate and environment had a clear call – we were fighting against science denialism, fighting for visibility and attention to these global issues.

To me, it is clear we have turned a corner.

More than 60% of Americans say that climate change is significantly affecting their communities, according to Pew data. And a strong majority feels (at least prior to recent legislation) that the U.S. government is doing too little to address climate change. We are no longer stuck arguing that people should pay attention, that sustainability is necessary, or cost-effective, or beneficial. The nay-sayers are not gone, but they have faded in number, in volume, and in influence.

And that’s a good thing. Not only because it represents progress, but also because – however good it felt to frame ourselves as the heroes in the story, fighting on the right side of history – that narrative also defined our work in opposition to others.

What’s needed now? What’s needed for the scale and the scope and the complexity of the challenges still ahead? It’s defining our work, in the broadest possible sense, as in collaboration with others. It’s seeing sustainability as something that emerges from systems, is led by communities, and deploys the best of interdisciplinary scholarship and empirical evidence. 

I see that spirit of rolling up one’s sleeves and engaging in the real work of sustainability in so many projects, activities, and programs at IonE. 

I saw it in our diverse delegation of young scholars at the U.N. climate meetings in Egypt last November. They had a front seat to a historic agreement that established a new way of thinking about paying for climate damages in developing countries. They learned from the experience and participated in the global community of observers that directly feeds the deliberation process. 

I see it also in the consortium of partners forming the new Midwest Climate Adaptation Science Center, hosted at IonE, that coordinates science to conserve our natural resources from climate change that is pursued by a national NGO, a Tribal natural resource agency, a Tribal college, and five research universities. 

And I see it in our nascent Midwest Carbon Leadership Project, a burgeoning collaboration among University researchers and regional business/industry leaders, a space to build relationships, explore and define long-range carbon-neutrality unknowns, and co-create research projects to solve them.

Not the next fight, but the next chapter – of what it means to bring about a future where people and the planet prosper together. That’s what I’m thinking about as we approach this Earth Day. 

Tomorrow, Shane Stennes, the University of Minnesota’s first-ever systemwide chief sustainability officer, will be joining me in a special Earth Week People & Planet conversation, reflecting on the role the University of Minnesota can play in a just, sustainable transition for all. We’re also fundraising this Earth Week, for something close to our hearts: ensuring that money is not a barrier for any University of Minnesota student who wants to participate in our COP28 delegation later this year. 

Over the coming week, members of the IonE community will also be sharing their thoughts – looking back, looking ahead, and reflecting on what gives them hope. For me, that answer is simple: knowing that we’ve turned the page from call to action to actually doing the hard work of sustainability, together.

In planetary prosperity,



Jessica Hellmann is the Executive Director and Ecolab Chair for Environmental Leadership at IonE, as well as Director of the Midwest Climate Adaptation Science Center and a University of Minnesota Distinguished McKnight University Professor.

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