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ABBIE GRUWELL Student’s passion for the environment prompts her to attend global climate change conferences and plan events on the UI campus to raise awareness of sustainability issues.

Think global, act local. Chances are everyone has heard that slogan before, quite often in the context of protecting the environment. Abbie Gruwell, a University of Iowa senior studying political science and international business, is no exception.

Gruwell’s also familiar with “actions speak louder than words”: she recently traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark, to gain insights on climate change, and has organized events on the UI campus to raise awareness of sustainability issues.

“My devotion to the environment, to sustainability, is a culmination of many things,” says Gruwell, an Iowa City native who serves as an intern in the UI Office of Sustainability. “I was really fond of the outdoors when I was young, and I got into rock climbing in high school. I am passionate about spending time outdoors, so it’s only natural that I want to preserve these environments.”

During the 2009–10 winter break, Gruwell and other UI students landed in Copenhagen to attend the second week of the U.N. Climate Change Conference. The discussions taking place at the conference centered on a holistic approach to climate change, which she found especially interesting.

“It wasn’t just talk about carbon footprints—they discussed climate change’s effect on public health, the economy, migration,” she says. “It was interesting from a political standpoint. If people lose their homes to rising water levels, where are they going to go? Who’s going to take them?”

Gruwell noted that solutions, not climate change itself, were the subject of discussion. “They don’t have the ‘Is it real?’ conversation like we have in the United States,” she says. “They have the ‘What are we going to do about it?’ conversation.”

Eventually the Copenhagen Accord was reached. Although not legally binding, it provided goals to which nations could be held accountable. “What was accomplished in Copenhagen results in a domestic issue for all of us,” Gruwell says. “If the United States can do this, if the European Union can do this, if other countries can do this on a domestic level, it will set a global standard.”

Selling these ideas back home on the UI campus might seem a relatively easy sell; one could argue that this current generation of college students is attuned to environmental issues. But, as Gruwell points out, “We’re also at a more crucial time than most generations. We’re getting involved, but we seem a step behind where we should be.”

In Gruwell’s case, it’s not for a lack of trying. In 2008, she assisted the public dining services in the Iowa Memorial Union on a couple of eco-friendly projects. She worked with director Rich Geer on ridding the operation of Styrofoam products. “I did some research on products that could be used in place of Styrofoam, and contacted Rich—he had just recently taken the job and was in the process of getting rid of the stuff,” Gruwell says. “We agreed it was a no-brainer.”

Gruwell and other interns from the Office of Sustainability worked on a food-radius study, which determined where the food purchased by IMU Dining Services was coming from. With the results in hand, the IMU was able to reduce that food radius by buying closer to home.

Gruwell started down this path of involvement because of her interests in politics and volunteerism on the UI campus. She joined projects such as the 10,000 Hours Show and the University of Iowa Environmental Coalition, and met many students who felt strongly about the environment and sustainability. “They had the passion, the energy, but many were unsure how to do anything with that,” Gruwell says.

She started planning small projects on campus, and eventually spearheaded the Green Summit, a large conference held in April 2009 that will be repeated in 2010 in the Iowa Memorial Union. The speakers at the inaugural conference discussed practical aspects of careers in sustainability.

“I wanted students who loved doing things to protect the environment to make connections,” Gruwell says.

This year’s conference will focus on entrepreneurship and international law; the latter is an area Gruwell hopes to explore in the near future. She will graduate from the University in May and aims to attend law school in 2011. She hopes to make a difference in the realm of international development, and yearns for a societal shift in priorities.

“When we start valuing social goods—a reduced carbon footprint, native land, local foods—as much as we value saving $20 at the store, the world will change,” she says.

story by Christopher Clair; photo by Tim Schoon

April 5, 2010