Anthropogenic climate change is one of the defining issues of our time, and it will have drastic consequences for the lives of current and future Williams students. Not only have we seen the effects of climate change globally, from droughts and crop shortages to rising sea levels, but we have also directly experienced changes on a local scale in more frequent extreme weather events like Hurricanes Irene and Sandy. The reality of climate change is not lost on the Williams College administration; the College is currently ahead of schedule in meeting a goal of reducing its fossil fuel emissions to 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. However, compared to goals of the College’s peer institutions, this goal is unambitious. So far, 684 colleges and the commonwealth of Massachusetts have committed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. Middlebury, Colby and Oberlin are going even further, with commitments to achieve carbon neutrality within the next ten years. As we approach the deadline of our current goal, it is imperative that the College assume a position of leadership on greenhouse gas emissions reduction.
It seems that the dialogue about the feasibility of fossil fuel reduction pits two basic viewpoints against each other. On one hand, the devastating consequences of climate change mean that reducing fossil fuel emissions is a moral and practical imperative and must be undertaken as rapidly as possible. However, on the other hand, some critics point to the logistical and financial complications associated with emissions reductions. They observe that the process of carrying out reductions is expensive and should be undertaken with caution in order to prevent institutions like the College from over-investing in a goal whose long-term profitability is difficult to predict. Yes, they argue, using less energy saves money, but implementing energy-efficiency measures across the entire Williams campus would be an investment that would take a while to recoup. And while a slightly cooler planet will be another return on the investment, it is impossible to predict its monetary value to the school.
However, we challenge the idea that in the conversation about committing to emissions reductions there is a conflict between morality and money. For one thing, the College has many opportunities to reduce energy use that make financial sense in the short term. Practices including retrofitting existing buildings to improve lighting and heating efficiency, continuation of a green building plan and education about personal energy use practices will have a very short return on investment for the College. These components must naturally figure prominently in our new emissions goal. The College is already in the process of investigating and outlining these energy conservation steps with the help of a consultant. Soon, all that it will need to do is act on these recommendations.
More importantly, larger efforts that bring the school closer to carbon neutrality, such as transitioning from natural gas to renewable energy sources, may be more expensive now, but will also pay off in the future, especially if we incorporate the massive negative externalities associated with global climate change. The College has the luxury to think about these issues on an institutional time scale and should not put the school’s financial bottom line for the next 10 years ahead of its mission of molding responsible, informed and reflective people who care about the world around them. The College’s long-term financial stability depends less on the amount it spends to become less energy-intensive than it does on whether its students and alumni, both today and in the future, have faith in the College’s commitment to social and environmental responsibility on a global scale.
In the past year, more than 1500 members of the Williams community have signed a petition urging the College to join our peer institutions with a new emissions target of 80 percent reduction of 1990 greenhouse gas emissions levels by 2050. As students of the College and inhabitants of a world increasingly altered by anthropogenic climate change, we recognize that we can neither afford to be complacent nor to set goals that are not meaningful in the context of this issue. It is imperative that we do all in our power as an institution to address climate change, and adopting a more stringent emissions reduction goal is a critical component of this effort. We urge College faculty, staff and students to stand with us in demanding institutional commitment to this goal.
Peter Lugthart ’18 is from Dalton, Ga.. He lives in Williams Hall. Alice Stears ’15 is a biology major from Billings, Mont. She lives in Garfield.