From coast to coast, many colleges and universities are taking a close look at sustainability on their campuses. They are recycling, cutting emissions and reconsidering their purchases. But fewer institutions are choosing to prepare for the real oncoming effects of climate change, even though climate impacts are at this point irreversible. To better understand these risks, we asked students from around the country to tell us how climate change is impacting their campus, college experience, and communities.
Twenty-one months. After 21 months of our relentless organizing, Princeton University continues to invest in and partner with the fossil fuel industry. Despite over 2,560 Princeton affiliates’ pledging not to donate until divestment happens, the university has done little for the climate beyond create committees that will consider Princeton’s divestment—eventually.
Princeton loves to tout its leadership on climate change. In 2019, the university released a Sustainability Action Plan, which details ambitions for a net-zero campus by the year 2046. While the sentiments are admirable, these targets are by no means leadership on climate change. As world-renowned climate scientists with the Climate Crisis Advisory Group argued this past August, net-zero emissions by mid-century will not be enough. Net-zero by 2046 is too little, too late.
At the same time, Princeton’s campus finds itself facing frequent flash floods, and even a tornado tied to Tropical Storm Ida—all associated with climate change. This in Central New Jersey, hardly the front lines of climate change. Back home, many Princeton students face far more severe impacts of climate change, which can take a real mental toll.
Young people like myself are faced with the reality that it might be too late to clean up the mess we have inherited. Though our lack of life experience is often used by the Princeton administration as a reason to dismiss the merits of our work, the failure of world “leaders” to lead on climate leaves us fighting for our lives. That reality can be paralyzing, but for many, it is the very reason we organize.
While decarbonizing campus may take decades, Princeton has the opportunity to put its money where its mouth is, end ties with a destructive industry, and quickly affect real change. We don’t need any more committee to “review” our divestment proposal. We cannot afford to wait another 21 months, or we just might end up underwater.
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Climate change remains a stealthy but terrifying specter for college students. I’m a junior at Indiana University and, other than unseasonable temperature snaps, my college experience remains untouched by direct effects of climate change.
When examining the totality of the climate crisis, many fail to realize that the most drastic effects are often focused on the Western, Easten and Southern coasts of the country. As rain remains scarce and fires sweep through the West and water levels creep closer to the east, the middle of the country has kept chugging along relatively unbothered.
But if there’s anything many of my peers are concerned about, it’s climate change. Many times in discussions about our future, from careers to family plans, someone considers how many life goals are feasible in a world in which climate change becomes a dominant force in daily life. We have moved past the questioning stage, and we’ve started to lose a blindly hopeful outlook.
This isn’t to generalize the opinions of all college students, a select portion remain dangerously complacent and unanxious. But the changes we are seeing to our environment are irreversible. Our future is going to be fundamentally altered because of climate change; there’s no debating that. Unfortunately, in many cases climate change can unnecessarily steal attention from other movements in the fight for equity. How could we devote all of our time to fight other issues when there might not be a sustainable future long enough to see the full fruition of societal change?
But to me this misses the point. All of the fights to further justice, whether they be concerned with racial, gendered, or climate justice, march together. The fight against racism is not complete without properly addressing climate racism. The fight to end poverty cannot happen without properly addressing global warming. Climate change is inherently linked to every kind of activism, and has to be part of the conversation across the board.
My college just released a new strategic plan for 2022–26. This includes a name change/rebrand and new mission, vision, and values. It also includes commitments to reconciliation with Indigenous communities, diversity, flexible learning models, and industry partnerships. What it does not include is any mention of sustainability.
The word “climate” appears only two times in this comprehensive strategy about what the college is prioritizing over the next five years. Both of those times, it’s used in an introduction to a section about another topic. The college uses “climate” as a buzzword, something to boost its word count. Climate is used as a reference to broad societal issues, before focusing on the other issues the school is dealing with.
This isn’t to say the school doesn’t do anything to offset the effects of climate change. We do have a sustainability office on campus that pilots programs like conscious purchasing, campus gardens, composting, and recycling. Almost every new building the college has added in the past 20 years has been a “green” building.
But, at its core, my college doesn’t make space for sustainability on campus or in its overall direction as an institution. There is currently no option for a student U-Pass, an affordable transit pass for students. But it offers ample parking at its flagship campuses and makes good money off those parking passes.
The only good thing about my college’s lack of movement on climate action is that its inaction leaves room for students to hold it accountable. If the leadership published empty promises and meaningless initiatives, it might be harder to hold them accountable. But since they’ve promised nothing, students have an opportunity to organize and make their voices heard about sustainable practices right now and in the future.
Red River College
From the physical threats it poses to Harvard’s campus—with the Boston area facing from 2.5 to 7.4 feet of sea level rise by 2100—to its impacts on students’ homes, families, and futures, climate change looms large over my university. It challenges my peers and me to think critically about how we can leverage the unique resources and knowledge available to us to advance climate action. And in doing so, it reveals the immense need to hold our universities accountable for serious climate action. That means moving them beyond rhetoric. It means bringing their institutional capacity and clout to bear against a fundamentally unsustainable and unjust status quo; that includes pushing them to disclose and dismantle fossil fuel ties beyond their endowment which pervade, among other aspects of campus life, key climate and energy policy research.
Facing an unprecedented crisis, we’re organizing in unprecedented ways—and it’s working. Here at Harvard, we won a major victory when the university finally committed to divest from fossil fuels after a decade of tireless activism. That victory is an incredible testament to the power of student organizing. But we need Harvard and all of its peer institutions to move further and faster. The failure of the latest international climate conference, COP26, to yield a framework that can mitigate dangerous levels of planetary warming along with the crumbling of desperately needed US climate policy proposals in Congress and the sluggishness of the Biden administration on climate only affirm that we need strategies for advancing climate action, equity, and justice that operate outside of conventional politics and diplomacy. Throughout history, college students have played an invaluable role in bringing systems of exploitation to an end by using such strategies, like divestment; the current moment is no different. As climate change casts a growing shadow over campus life, students will continue to demonstrate the climate leadership our futures demand; we will continue to challenge the actors blocking a just and sustainable world, and seek to build that world ourselves from the ground up.
So far, classes have been canceled on two separate occasions this semester because of flash flood warnings caused by heavy rain in New York. While my friends and I relished the extra time added to our weeks, the knowledge that this is one of the many irreversible effects of climate change loomed large. The rains this fall were described as rare and “record-breaking.” In other words, the weather changes reminded us that we are in a climate crisis and that our city is not prepared for it. Several times this year, subway stations were filled with water, preventing students scattered around the five boroughs from getting to campus. Even part of Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus flooded in September.
Honestly, as college students, we aren’t sure what we can do anymore. On the one hand, most of us try to be environmentally conscious, but will vegan tacos and tote bags really help save our city from going underwater? Even though we seem to be trying, we cannot escape the terrible hold that Amazon has over us. Multiple times a week, I see trucks unloading hundreds of Amazon packages, and I will be the first to admit guilt. It’s just cheaper and faster when I don’t have the time nor patience to shop around elsewhere. Clearly, a lot of my peers feel the same.
How much does individual action matter when institutional changes, from corporations to universities alike, are barely implemented and with little transparency? Take recycling, for example. We’re not even sure how much we’re recycling, as our school’s website simply claims to “recycle as much material as possible” while quoting only one statistic from 2015. And even if we are recycling, is it enough when consumerism has us addicted? While a lot of us know we are responsible on an individual level, it is incredibly discouraging to feel like we are not in control of climate change, its effects, and the efforts to slow it down.
The most vivid memory of my first semester in California, in 2018, is the bonfire-like smell of building hallways. The air was hazy from massive wildfires ravaging the West Coast, a smokiness that paled in comparison to the crimson skies of 2020.
As I remained on campus throughout the following summer to conduct research, the university curtailed its cooling system multiple times because it couldn’t cope with unusual heat. Cold air, we were told, needed to be conserved for high-priority areas, such as the hospital. Some students lost research projects that needed to be temperature-controlled. Stanford has since announced it would expand its system “to keep pace with a growing campus and a warming climate.” As a graduate student studying climate change, I see this crisis bleed out of my dissertation and into my daily life.
In 2020, Stanford announced a new school focused on climate and sustainability. You would think that a university that says it prioritizes climate research and action would have divested from fossil fuels, or at least refused fossil fuel industry money for its environmental research. Neither is the case. Stanford refuses to follow its peers—including Harvard and Dartmouth—in divesting its $37.8 billion endowment. To the contrary, it seems the university is as cozy as ever with the fossil fuel industry: just a few weeks ago, I was encouraged to apply for a “Chevron Fellowship in Energy,” a $115,000, 18-month fellowship for Stanford PhD students who are selected “with input from Chevron” to fund energy research.
The hypocrisy is everywhere: Chevron sponsors our Energy Seminars. This, despite studies by Stanford researchers on the historic, ongoing, deliberate efforts by the fossil fuel industry to misinform the public on climate change.
Why Stanford hasn’t divested—and why the university continues to take fossil fuel money to fund its environmental research—absolutely baffles me. What good does our climate research do if our university refuses to take a stand against the very industry perpetuating this crisis?
Unless Stanford’s new sustainability school is free of fossil fuel funding—a commitment the current administration refuses to make, despite pressure from students, faculty, and alumni—the university’s words will be seen for what they are: no more than hot air.
Academia has a hard time putting its money where its mouth is. While institutions of higher education fund research, faculty, and initiatives that embody the values of environmental stewardship, justice, and anti-oppression, many of their endowments remain invested in the industries most responsible for this climate crisis and accompanying human rights violations. Fortunately, this is starting to change as many big-name institutions with deep pockets are publicly committing to full divestment from the fossil fuel industry. Yet these changes aren’t brought about because a wealthy, gray-haired trustee has a sudden change of heart—it’s thanks to student activism across generations that maintains pressure on campuses for years that the subject of fossil fuel divestment has been brought to the table and seen to its end. However, as many universities are still refusing to budge (like my institution, Northeastern University, which refuses to disentangle its indirect investments from fossil fuels), campuses will remain a hub for students to develop into activists and community organizers as they seek to hold their institutions truly accountable to their “sustainability” claims. The student-led divestment movement will also, I hope, become increasingly intersectional, as young activists draw connections between the violent economies of fossil fuel extraction and putting people in cages; both violent endeavors that are profitable under racial capitalism. At institutions that claim to be in the business of brightening students’ futures, nothing is more hypocritical than investing in the polluting and violent systems that make our futures so uncertain.
Climate change has thrust environmental activism to a central position in student life and that can be seen every day in the cafeteria. Meat is no longer served on Mondays, and vegetarian options make up the majority of the food prepared by the university. It can be difficult to be vegetarian and vegan when those options are in the minority, but the cafeteria at Freie Universität has turned this model on its head. Meat and fish make up 4 percent of the entire menu, and meals center seasonal ingredients to minimize the CO2 impact of acquiring the produce. This move not only makes it easier to be more vegetarian, but it also makes the point that students are more conscious about the food they are eating and are positioned to think about their environmental impact.
Freie Universität Berlin was the first university in Germany to declare a climate emergency, and that decision was led by student activists. The university has an ambitious goal of becoming climate neutral by 2025 and is currently working to weave climate protection into the curricula of all academic studies. On top of that, students at Freie are synthesizing the climate crisis with the everyday operations of the university, from food preparation to heating to paper use. The cafeteria serves as an everyday reminder of our impact on climate change and produces a sense of urgency to act, while also demonstrating that change can be implemented effectively on a large scale.
Freie Universität, Berlin, Germany