Montgomery Norton ’05 and those who helped pull off Focus the Nation, the recent UCI symposium on climate change, don’t want to scare anybody. But as Norton puts it: “If people knew what we know about global warming, they’d be terrified.”

So maybe they do want to scare people a little – enough to get them to change their wasteful habits.

“To become truly sustainable, we have to make a shift,” says Norton, who is pursuing a master’s in urban and regional planning. “The concept of waste has to disappear.”

That’s why Norton – along with Gabriela Brockhoff, a fellow graduate student in urban planning, and Jessica Pratt, assistant specialist in ecology & evolutionary biology – spent more than a year organizing the symposium as part of the largest teach-in in U.S. history. Focus the Nation took place at 1,776 colleges, universities and institutions across all 50 states Jan. 30-31. Its purpose: To mobilize campuses and communities to “solve the greatest challenge to civilization,” Norton says.

UCI’s symposium included an Environmental Expo of local businesses and organizations; a discussion of political climate by mayors Beth Krom of Irvine, Debbie Cook of Huntington Beach and Miguel Pulido of Santa Ana; a talk on “UC Solutions” to global warming by Wendell Brase, vice chancellor of administrative & business services; and a lecture by green jobs pioneer Van Jones.

“We made an impact. For the students who attended, the event was transformative,” Norton says. “They were amazed at the level of personal dedication people have for this issue. We built a stronger coalition for sustainability across campus. It was incredibly powerful.”

Norton himself impressed people when he introduced Chancellor Michael Drake, who spoke on efforts UCI has made toward sustainability. Norton dedicated the symposium “to all of those who couldn’t afford to be here, those who have to work 9 to 5 and can’t take time off.”

“I want to make sure social equity is part of our sustainability equation. Because it’s the poor and people in third world countries who will suffer most from global warming,” he later explains. “We need to help those who can’t afford hybrids, those who can’t afford to be sustainable.”

Norton, a member of the UCI sustainability committee, first learned about sustainability while getting his bachelor’s in social ecology with a minor in education at UCI. He spent the summer after graduation in Finland, studying that country’s successful integration of sustainability.

“Sustainability is a word that covers all of my interests,” he says. “It means integrating ecology, economy and equity, rather than running an institution on profit margins alone. It’s about realizing there’s a social and environmental cost to what we do.”

He’s always been concerned about social, ecological and health issues – interests he inherited from his mother, a holistic health practitioner.

“I was raised to be socially conscious,” he says. “My environmental awareness just developed over time, through my appreciation of nature.”

Norton signed on to plan the symposium after hearing a presentation by Eban Goodstein, economics professor at Lewis & Clark College and Focus the Nation project director. Organizing the event was “a full-time job” that involved a Focus the Nation steering committee, Students for Sustainability and the OC Chapter of the Society for Conservation Biology.

“The biggest challenge was knowing who to talk to,” he says.

Norton hopes the symposium will build awareness about steps UCI is taking to fight global warming, from its earth-friendly biodiesel buses to a new solar system to be installed on campus rooftops. He wants to engage faculty, staff and students in the cause.

“We have to work together to solve this huge problem,” he says. “The whole point is to say, ‘Wake up, America.’”