We Can’t Wait for Our Institutions to Take Action on Climate Change

We Can’t Wait for Our Institutions to Take Action on Climate Change

We Can’t Wait for Our Institutions to Take Action on Climate Change

This year, the Penn State community has a golden opportunity to choose a new direction for its university.


Students and alumni of Pennsylvania State University—my school and Pennsylvania’s flagship land-grant institution—recognize that the climate crisis is personal. The Keystone State accounts for nearly 1 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and is expected to warm nearly 6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050, after already sustaining hundreds of millions of dollars worth of infrastructure damage.

But Penn State can help lead Pennsylvania’s efforts to tackle climate change. With over 700,000 living alumni, the world’s largest dues-paying alumni association, and a massive $4.6B endowment, the university has the resources and reach to make sure that Pennsylvania is doing everything it can to ensure a livable future for its residents.

Unfortunately, Penn State has refused to take substantive action, despite many of its students making it very clear that this is what they want. Last year, thousands of them participated in a student government referendum and 91 percent agreed that Penn State should divest from fossil fuels. Thousands of students signed a petition asking Penn State to reach carbon negativity in operations as soon as possible. Students on Penn State’s Student Fee Board committed $250,000 annually to fund projects that advance environmental sustainability on campus.

Penn State’s highest governing body, the 38-person Penn State Board of Trustees—which is overwhelmingly wealthy, white, male, and over 65—is the body that ultimately makes decisions on behalf of the Penn State community. In response to student calls for action, board members counter that student opinions on the climate crisis are “diverse” and claim that bold action is “not really what students want.”

But it’s not their futures that will be devastated by the climate crisis, and Penn State students and alumni are tired of waiting for out-of-touch, nonrepresentative trustees to wake up to the realities of climate change. Fortunately, the beauty of a democratic system is that the people hold the power to make change. Each year, Penn State alumni elect three alumni to the Board of Trustees. Typically, the election is a nonevent, with status quo candidates who campaign on “transparency,” without tangible plans.

But this year, students and alumni came together to launch Penn State Forward, an effort to put climate action and other student priorities directly on the ballot. Even without the years of campaigning many of the other candidates have put in, we gathered hundreds of signatures to place three young, forward-thinking candidates on the ballot: Dr. Christa Hasenkopf, Dr. Ed Smith, and Dr. Farnaz Farhi. All three have professional expertise and personal experience that make them exceptional choices for the board, with deep backgrounds in climate science, higher education, global health, and diversity and equity. They understand not just the realities of the climate crisis but also how it will impact Penn State and our broader communities and what Penn State can do about it. They’re ready to champion fossil fuel divestment, carbon neutrality, climate change education and research, and partnerships across the commonwealth to invest in clean energy and jobs.

Penn State’s Board of Trustee elections may seem inconsequential, which explains why each year, only around 3 percent of all eligible alumni bother to vote. Out of that 3 percent, most voters graduated in the 1970s or ’80s. Young people haven’t had a reason to get involved in these elections, because no one ever bothered to listen to them. But we’ve seen what can happen when movements are able to mobilize younger and more diverse electorates around causes and candidates that speak to them, and we’re bringing that same energy to Penn State and the climate crisis.

This year, the Penn State community has a golden opportunity to choose a new direction for our university. We have an opportunity to vote for a Penn State that champions climate solutions and is not afraid to think big. And this Penn State can lead Pennsylvania—and our world—toward a more just and sustainable future. The election begins on April 10. If you are a Penn State graduate—or you know a Penn State alum—request your ballot today and make a plan to vote in the 2022 Alumni Trustee election.

Together, we can move Penn State forward. And if you aren’t a Penn State graduate, bring this same energy to your own university. Younger generations are tired of waiting for action on climate change. These institutions won’t change on their own, but we can make them.

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