Go green or go home

We love rankings here at Williams. Usually that is because we are pretty high on whatever the list is, giving us pride, justifying our hard work and indicating our institution’s commitment to excellence. We like to hear that we are the #1 National Liberal Arts College for the 11th consecutive year, according to U.S. News and World Report. And we also like to tell others.

But have you ever seen a sustainability ranking on Williams’ admission website or recruiting brochures? I would venture to say you have not. Williams is not in the top tier of any current sustainable college ranking. Princeton Review’s highest rating goes to Middlebury, Pomona, Stanford and Columbia, while the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education gives its highest rating to Columbia, Dickinson, Duke, Middlebury, Pomona and Stanford. Williams also chose not to participate in the Sierra Club’s rankings, where you will find Harvard, Middlebury, Princeton, Bowdoin, Colby, Dartmouth and Brown. Williams is also not a signatory to the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, although other signatories include Bates, Bowdoin, Carleton College, Colby, Davidson, Hampshire, Haverford, MCLA, Middlebury, Oberlin, Smith, Union, University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Wesleyan.

The biggest problem, however, is not where we are now but where we are headed. There have been some substantial projects at Williams – including retrofits to the ice hockey rink – which have gotten us closer to our current goal of decreasing greenhouse gas emissions to 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Most of these projects have been win-win scenarios that both decrease emissions and save money; indeed, they add up to over $500,000 a year in energy savings, according to Todd Holland, the energy conservation project manager at Williams. While the energy projects up to now have been important and should not be diminished, we need to stop picking just the low-hanging fruit and be more ambitious. We are only close to our emissions reduction goal because our goal is too modest. Indeed, it is far less ambitious than even Massachusetts’s medium-term state goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Certainly, on our current trajectory, Williams will not come close to achieving Massachusetts’s goal of a reduction in GHG emissions of 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050.

Other top liberal arts colleges are aiming higher. Colby achieved carbon neutrality in 2013. Middlebury is aiming for carbon neutrality by 2016, Dickinson by 2020 and Smith by 2020. Green Mountain College is aiming to meet all its energy needs with 100-percent renewables by 2020.

Amy Johns, interim director of the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives, believes that substantial increases in sustainability can be achieved at Williams with a more significant conservation program, an environmentally-minded building program and a renewable electricity project, among other endeavors. Williams needs a goal that holds us accountable and drives innovation to reach that goal.

I care about our college’s ability and willingness to address important challenges of our time. Climate change is, without a doubt, one of the most pressing global issues we will have to face in our lifetimes. It is not something that is 50 years off, or 20 years off, or five years off; it is right now. Ban Ki Moon calls climate change “the defining issue of our times.” He also notes, as does the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), that climate impacts are already having sweeping effects on every continent and throughout the world’s oceans, “affecting agriculture and food security, human health, water supplies and ecosystems on land and sea.” Indeed, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, an economist and industrial engineer who is also the chairman of the IPCC, emphatically states that “nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change.” Therefore, I find Williams’ lack of initiative on sustainability unacceptable, particularly for an institution of its caliber and means. If we love high rankings because they give us pride and indicate excellence, then Williams’ position in sustainability rankings is a startling call to action.

We do not need 50 easy ways to go green. We need a 50-percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels. We need a new goal. And we need a community behind it.

Claire Swingle ’16 is from Aurora, Colo. She lives in Gladden.