Anti-hashtag environmental activism & the social injustice of climate change complacency
In early September, College President Catharine Bond Hill announced to the faculty that Vassar College has pledged to go carbon neutral, tentatively by the year 2035. This would mean accounting for the College’s emissions in two ways: by reducing carbon emissions in current practices and by offsetting the marginal percentage of emissions that remain after behavioral and institutional change. To this end, President Hill has charged the College Committee of Sustainability with writing an updated Climate Action Plan by the end of the school year.
Achieving carbon neutrality will require aggressive action and sustained momentum; student involvement and support is crucial. We believe that as Vassar students, we ought to uphold a stringent regard for empiricism, recognize the implications of our actions, and correct injustices that we create. We also believe that students, faculty, and staff members know that climate change is upon us. In light of upcoming developments on our campus, you as a student must be informed and active in pursuing personal and administrative accountability. The piece below goes beyond problematizing environmentalist apathy by providing the information and tools that we as students need to catalyze positive change at our college. We aim to equip you with the resources needed to mitigate our impact on the environment and, as a result, produce a model that can be adapted by like institutions. We must be constantly aware of our college’s actions and inaction–staying informed is a necessary first step.
Though we discuss imminent doom and the hypocrisy of environmentalism today, we also examine real, actionable, and tangible strategies to address climate change at Vassar. We also provide Vassar Budget 101 to help you understand the way capital projects are funded at our college; check out the hyperlinks below!
In June, I, Sophie, attended the inaugural White House Youth Climate Conference, which ran in conjunction with this year’s Presidential Leadership Summit in Washington, DC. The Environmental Defense Fund sponsored the event, featuring speakers including Gina McCarthy, an EPA Administrator, and Brian Deese, Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama. Though the conference seemed particularly influential, the only coverage I can find is in the form of the hashtag #ActOnClimate.
During our lunch break, I quickly noticed that the conference’s organizers provided plastic water bottles. Unsurprisingly, the first Google autofill result for “plastic water bottles” is “plastic water bottles bad.” Though I assumed the White House would know better, or have sufficient funding to provide 75 students with reusable bottles, the conference organizers proved me wrong. The student sitting next to me used three bottles, despite the bottle filling station just a few steps away.
Though the event organizers asked us to “reinvigorate our generation” and “restructure the energy sector,” the influential leaders responsible for the conference laughed when I suggested that these changes require a cultural shift away from Twitter campaigns, plastic bottles, and reusable tote bags. At the end of the event, we were all asked to write down various social media handles and tweet with the conference’s hashtag.
The recycled paper, compost, Farm- to-Table, Prius-loving, “Buy Local,” “Choose Organic” environmentalism of 2015 is flashy, trendy, and palatable. The “Go Green” catchphrase of our generation reduces climate action to stocking compostable flatware. The eco-friendly fad cloaks potentially harmful or unproductive actions and touts them as mechanisms for change—the reality is that mitigating the risks of climate change will take much more than adopting a “green” trend. We are not willing to restructure our habits and instead opt for “green” upgrades. Californians have stopped watering their lawns amidst insurmountable drought, but don’t worry, they’re still painting them green. Effective change will not come without aggressive, uncomfortable action. We must learn to abandon the aesthetics of our lifestyles and shed our destructive habits instead of engineering marginally less harmful alternatives in which rampant consumption persists. Climate action will not come easily.
Take, for example, the U.S. Green Building Council’s world-renowned LEED Certification program, a universally accepted benchmarking system for high-performance green buildings. While the program encourages installation of efficient building components, both structural and superficial, it reduces environmentalism to an aesthetic and fails to account for the operational function of a building. Projects may gain LEED points by installing a low-flow toilet, even if that toilet is so low-flow that you ultimately have to flush three times, using more water than a standard toilet. Furthermore, a building can gain points in the innovation category; these are independently-determined accomplishments. Essentially, a given institution can increase its own LEED score by assigning itself points for internal projects. These categories are wildly subjective and make it difficult to compare one platinum-certified building to another.
The overarching flaw of marketable environmentalism is the implied correlation between cost and effectiveness, which assumes one must be affluent to be sustainable. This is far from true. Though white male voices often dominate the environmental movement (see graphic below), climate change disproportionately threatens non-white, low-income populations (ironically, white men are statistically less likely to rank environmental concerns as “high risk”). The notion that climate justice is a universally-relevant cause because we all “breathe the same air” is misinformed and besides the point. We do not all breathe the same air. In fact, differences in air quality have caused mortality rates due to asthma at a level five times higher for black children than their white counterparts. Researchers have also discovered that “minorities are on average exposed to 38 percent higher levels of outdoor nitrogen dioxide than whites in the communities where they live.” This is not coincidental, this is a strategic injustice. We have known about the connection between environmental quality and race for decades, yet marketable environmentalism fails to take these facts into account. Climate action is irrelevant if it does not consider the intersections between environment, race, and class. Our approach to environmentalism must prioritize environmental justice. Sustainable initiatives accomplish nothing if they simply defer costs to systematically deprived communities. It is incredibly important that affluent institutions with abundant resources internalize the costs of their pollution and energy usage.
Vassar Budgeting 101
The fact of the matter is that Vassar has a lot of money (Fig 1). The recession hit us hard, but the trend is clear. Vassar’s endowment grew over 15 percent in the 2013-2104 fiscal year marking an average 12.6 percent growth over the past five years. Despite the growth, department budgets have stagnated, capital budgets have been slashed, and we all know about the College’s chronic understaffing and the effort it takes to hire new employees. And yet, our Master Planning process is considering complete overhaul renovations of Main Building and Blodgett, new construction for Admissions, and the destruction of Mudd Chemistry with no commitment to any standard of green building design.
Our current institutional thinking is limited and short term. The upcoming Climate Action Plan, a joint effort between administration, students, and faculty to improve sustainability practices on campus, should work to restructure Vassar’s economic practices in terms of green project approval. The Resource Conservation Fund (RCF) was established in 2012 to create a mechanism to pay for efficiency upgrades on campus. The RCF has a budget of $50,000 (without an actual budget line) and an unofficial restriction of 2.5 year payback period for projects. It has produced some accomplishments, like switching the Watsons to natural gas and replacing 6 flood lights in the Powerhouse theater. The former paid itself off in about 2.5 years, the latter in less than a year. These investments are common sense, but what about the lighting in our other theaters, dorms, and old buildings? Impactful sustainability initiatives often take much longer than two-and-a-half years, nearing 10 years for solar projects.
To put that in context, the Billion Dollar Green Challenge (BDGC) is a program with 51 academic institutions pledging at least one percent of their endowment (that’s $974,000 for us, versus the $50,000 RCF) to a green revolving fund which has funded over 900 projects with a median payback period of three-and-a-half years. The size and payback restrictions of the RCF prevent the kinds of investments we need to seriously reduce our emissions. If you’re worried about competing financial interests at the College, understand the key to a revolving fund is in its name– the projects pay themselves back with reduced energy consumption and when those reductions are met, the funds revolve back to finance new projects.
When it comes to large capital projects, current inefficient practices continue. For example, Vassar received a $1 million grant to renovate a 5,600 square foot section of the Vassar Farm’s barn with hopes of creating a hub of environmental science and education in the Hudson Valley. Due to grant restrictions and an interest to conserve funds, Vassar installed a septic tank built for a third of the barn with limited consideration of the septic infrastructure needed to accommodate the other wing or the entirety of the barn’s structure. There are intentions, though not immediate, to renovate the rest of the barn. The College’s tendency toward short-term thinking will hurt us financially in the long run if current systems must be scrapped and replaced.
We have cut our emissions in half since 2005, but the major reductions in the past have come from a single transition from oil to natural gas and change in the resource mix of our electric utilities. Although substantial, the change came from common-sense business decisions of reduced heating costs, not through the consideration of hazardous extraction techniques or the controversy over natural gas as a “bridge” fuel.
Until now, Vassar has remained hesitant to establish itself as a leader in climate change mitigation; now is the time for that to change. We must diversify the ways we address the climate crisis. Pledging to go carbon neutral is an important first step that should not go unnoticed. To explore what carbon neutrality could possibly look like, we modeled several options for an internal program at Vassar with a group of URSI Fellows, Ford Fellows, and two graduate students working with the Environmental Defense Fund.
Here’s what we could do:
At the beginning of this school year, President Hill charged Vassar’s Sustainability Office to form a Climate Action Plan (CAP). The CAP Task Force will meet as early as Fall 2015 to set Vassar on a path to major carbon reductions, with an ultimate goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2035. The Task Force will solicit feedback from the broader student, faculty, administrator, and staff community. By the end of 2016, the Task Force will make a final recommendation to the President on which structure best supports the goal of carbon neutrality in conjunction with Vassar’s forthcoming Master Plan. Over the summer, we investigated a hypothetical mechanism for achieving neutrality. A carbon charge assigns a price to every ton of carbon dioxide emitted–the charge can be applied at a high level, taxing the utility budget, for example, or it can be applied on a more granular level, separated by academic departments or dean departments. The money collected by the charge would go to sustainability initiatives and phase out over time as emissions are eliminated.
Our solution entails using the Social Cost of Carbon, an EPA-determined measure for the per-ton cost of carbon emissions to society, measured by the impact on agriculture, human health, and energy systems. Estimates vary, but the current accepted price stands at 40 dollars assigned per metric ton of carbon dioxide emitted. The carbon charge program is a market mechanism that internalizes the negative impact (externality) of our emissions and models what many environmentalists and economists have called a potential solution to the climate crisis — assigning a price to carbon.
The benefit of imposing this structure on ourselves is a shift in institutional decision-making to account for the future price of carbon and the full lifecycle costs of a purchase, called shadow pricing (see figure above). This practice can safeguard our operations from volatile energy prices or future government legislation. Further, the benefit for accounting for these costs comes as a way to establish a fund of money, similar to the revolving fund of the BDGC, that Vassar can use to finance efficiency investments.
This is an aggressive carbon reduction strategy, which would require a fundamental shift in operations and thinking to form a culture of sustainability among administration, faculty, staff, and students. Carbon taxes currently exist in the European Union and in individual countries including Canada, Ireland, Italy, Sweden, and Finland, among others. And yet, this remains a novel idea in the United States. Yale University is piloting the first internal carbon charge program at an academic institution in the Fall of 2015 as a way to model meaningful climate action. Our work this summer and the potential to implement this program here at Vassar provides us with the opportunity to become a leader in climate mitigation policy and create both a symbolic and concrete mechanism for carbon reduction.
Above is a hypothetical model created for our URSI research project, exemplifying one way in which a carbon charge could be executed at Vassar College. A carbon charge is not the only way to achieve neutrality; we examined this route as both an academic endeavor and as a way of identifying what mechanisms of carbon reduction will work most effectively at Vassar. This hybrid model differs from the way corporations and governments institute carbon charges, in that it both creates a fund and internal competition. This model assigns a cost to the total emissions from the College, then creates a green fund. Meanwhile, competition among administrative departments uses the Social Cost of Carbon to reward units that reduce emissions and to charge units that increase emissions over the fiscal year. This model is designed to be noticeable and annoying to these deans and departments, though it does not aim to hinder budgets or restrict standard programming. It does, however, encourage behavioral change and more informed decision-making in regards to purchasing.
We’ve spent three months modeling several options; if you’d like to know more, the resources are provided below. We aim to disprove two commonly held beliefs regarding climate change: one, that individuals cannot have an impact, and two, that trendy, greenwashed environmentalism will push toward carbon neutrality. We also aim to draw the undeniable connection between climate injustice and social injustice. Although this Task Force has been called to address these concerns, there will inevitably be pushback against higher upfront costs and administrative strain to operate this program. Especially concerning the Master Planning process underway, we as students must advocate for more responsible capital budgeting and investments – green building standards, policies on purchases, long term thinking and the internalization of our emissions with a carbon charge program. We invite you to learn, engage, and advocate–most importantly we ask you to understand and reduce the implications of our individual consumption.
Tangible things you can do:
- Come to the URSI symposium on September 30th to speak to us in person and learn more about our work this summer.
- Sign up for the Office of Sustainability email list!
- Educate yourself on Vassar’s Climate Action Task Force by: giving feedback to the College Committee on Sustainability.
- Calculate the carbon impact of your air travel, daily commute, or conference travel. Reduce your impact or offset your emissions if you have the means.
- Submit a proposal to the Resource Conservation Fund.
- Take a sustainability-related course (outside of the Environmental Studies department, too)
- Understand the impact of your diet, and its water footprint (it takes 1,799 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef) in order to make sustainable choices when possible
- Turn off the lights, take shorter showers, unplug your fridge if it only has a can of beer and an apple in it, turn off the water when you wash dishes.
- Ask the Deece to stop supplying off-season produce, namely melons and bananas.
- Apply to be a sustainability intern for the 2016/17 school year.
- Join the EcoLeaders.
- Understand when organic means something: hint, it usually makes a difference when buying eggs, meat products, and even tofu. (Soy products can be just as harmful!)
- Upgrade your lightbulbs to EnergyStar approved products
- Give this household carbon calculator to your families
- Unplug appliances when you’re not using them and turn off computers at night, this really does save a lot of electricity (and around a quarter of Vassar’s emissions come from electricity)
- Never wash on hot! Always use the cold or warm settings on the laundry machines
- Ask your professors if you can email them your paper instead of printing. STOP PRINTING OUT ALL OF YOUR READINGS. Here is a cool PDF reader application.
- Try to be conscious of how many paper napkins, plastic cups, and plastic bags you use.
- If you live in the Town Houses or Terrace Apartments, opt in to the composting program
- Here are other tips
- Stop blaming the poor, it’s the wally yachters who are burning the planet
- People in Poor Neighborhoods Breathe More Hazardous Particles
- Pollution is segregated, too
- Basic History of the Environmental Justice Movement
- Examining Race, Class, and Katrina
- Drought Frames Economic Divide of Californians
- I Decided Not to Have Children for Environmental Reasons
- What will global warming look like? Scientists point to Australia.
- 20 Things We Can Do to Advance a Just and Sustainable Planet
- Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and Urban Development in Southern California by Laura Pulido
- The Quest for Environmental Justice by Robert Bullard
- Living and Dying in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley by Beverly Wright
- Learn about the Farm Bill! Agriculture is a huge contributor to national greenhouse gas emissions.
- Did you know that senior water rights in California are still determined by land ownership from the Gold Rush Era?
- Watch “Addicted to Plastic” — it’s on Netflix!
- Watch the Frontline documentary “Heat”