Wash. U. hosts climate change panel, continues push toward increased sustainability on campus
Washington University hosted a climate change panel with speakers Ira Flatow of NPR and climatologists Bronwen Konecky and Gavin Schmidt in Hillman Hall Sept. 18.
The lecture is the first in the Assembly Series fall program “Science Matters.” The program, funded by the Compton-Ferguson endowment, aims to bring experts to campus who can explore and explain scientific topics for a general audience. Flatow, host of NPR’s “Science Friday,” served as moderator, while Konecky and Schmidt discussed a range of issues affecting and arising from global climate change.
The program began with a discussion of the science behind climate change, with Schmidt presenting a visual that detailed how much humans, as opposed to natural occurrences, are contributing to the global phenomenon.
“All of the mean global climate change in the last century is because of our activities. All of it. Not 10 percent, not 15 percent, not 20 percent—all of it,” Schmidt said.
The panel discussed how models can be used to make predictions on climate change and how climate change affects systems like agriculture and the water cycle. The topic then shifted to the more political and humanitarian side of the climate change issue.
“Climate change is not an environmental issue. We talk about it a lot as an environmental thing: We care about polar bears; we care about rainforests,” Konecky said. “But it’s really a humanitarian issue, and it’s an issue that climate change impacts fall disproportionately on the poor.”
Sophomores Kristen Riedinger and Mary Gay attended the panel.
“I really liked how they included a lot of the humanitarian effects as opposed to just the science,” Riedinger said.
“I was really happy to hear them being very honest about the science and about what the possibilities are and the future,” Gay said.
Near the end of the panel, the conversation turned towards the future and mitigation efforts. Schmidt advised that there are three options in the face of climate change: prevention, adaptation or to suffer the consequences.
“The goal, it seems to me, of running a society is to minimize the suffering and reduce the cost of adaptation by doing a little bit of mitigation,” Schmidt said.
The panel is one of several steps that Washington University has taken to be part of the climate change conversation.
Following President Donald Trump’s administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Agreement, Chancellor Mark Wrighton reaffirmed the University’s commitment to being a sustainable campus.
“Washington University reaffirms our obligation to undertake world-class research and education on global climate issues spanning all disciplines. Further, in its own operations, Washington University will continue to invest in energy efficiency systems and renewable energy to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions,” Wrighton wrote in a statement.
The Office of Sustainability has been met with success in implementing several new sustainable practices aimed at reducing the University’s carbon emissions to 1990s levels by 2020.
“By 2015, we had decreased emissions for the Danforth and School of Medicine Campuses by 17,199 metric tons of CO2-equivalent, despite adding nearly 600,000 square feet of new space for teaching and research. That reduction is equivalent to permanently taking [approximately] 3,600 cars off the road,” Associate Vice Chancellor for Sustainability Phil Valko said.
Over the summer, the Office of Sustainability instituted a new thermostat set-point policy that saved thousands in energy costs and reduced the University’s carbon emissions to meet 5 to 8 percent of the University’s 2020 carbon reduction goal.
The Office of Sustainability also installed new showerheads in Residential Life areas that will eliminate 15 percent of total water usage on South 40 and introduced new signage to educate students about proper recycling practices in order to reach the University goal of becoming a zero waste campus.
While aiming to reduce the University’s own carbon dioxide emissions, the Office of Sustainability is also collaborating with several partners to establish a regional greenhouse gas reduction target.
Beyond the Office of Sustainability, the commitment to reducing Washington University’s environmental impact can be seen on the student level. The Washington University Climate Program provides opportunities for students to be involved in the climate change conversation, including an opportunity to join the annual student delegation to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference Of the Parties.
Student groups have also joined the effort to work towards more environmentally friendly practices. The student-owned laundry business, Wash U Wash, made the switch to using environmentally friendly cleaning solvents last year. Additionally, several fraternities switched to using recyclable cups rather than red solo cups in an initiative named “YOLO no Solo.”
Although committed to implementing sustainable practices, the University has encountered several controversies related to its actions on climate change.
One such controversy is that Green Action alumni created a petition and withheld donations from the University unless it discontinued the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization and divested from fossil fuel companies, among other environmental and social justice requests.
The consortium was faced with calls from some members of Green Action to change its name. While the organization has no issue with the goals or work of the consortium, some members believe the name misleads the public into believing the assumption that coal isn’t as harmful as it is.
Last year, an umbrella campaign of the environmental justice group Green Action called “Fossil Free WashU” petitioned the University to begin a five year process of divesting from the top 200 fossil fuel companies. This was followed by protests and petitions from faculty and alumni for more financial transparency and endowment reform. The University did not divest its endowment.
Instead, the Chancellor announced the creation of an advisory committee on the endowment that would be comprised of students, faculty and alumni, for which the main purpose is to advise the Chancellor on how to best make calls on transparency and socially responsible investment.