This year, the College has embarked upon a year of academic inquiry entitled “Confronting Climate Change (CCC).” This initiative will investigate anthropogenic climate change through various speakers, courses and other programs. While the topic is of the utmost severity and importance, the rhetoric is strikingly hypocritical when compared to the College’s actions, or lack thereof.
Last year, President Adam Falk and the Board of Trustees committed to new goals to improve the sustainability and reduce the College’s environmental impact. These commitments are commendable and represent a more aggressive effort by the Trustees to advance the College’s sustainability, but they are simply not enough.
On the Sierra Club’s 2016 list of America’s Greenest Universities, Williams ranks a measly 110th. This is behind comparable institutions such as Colby (4th), Middlebury (12th), Oberlin (13th) and Pomona (40th). There are marked and concerning differences between Williams’ polices and those of more environmentally-conscious schools like Middlebury. For example, according to 2015 reports filed with the Sierra Club, Williams receives 47% of its energy from natural gas and 11% from hydro power while Middlebury receives only 18% of its energy from natural gas and 48% from hydro power. Williams has been pushing for renewable energy, but given the College’s financial resources, I question the lack of action thus far.
Another concerning aspect from the report is that the College does not promote environmental public policy at any level of government. If the College is truly interested in seeing real results from the CCC initiative, it would be logical to assume it would engage in some form of political activism in order to ensure that real change is enacted. Instead, the College has chosen to take the easier route, calling out and investigating the issues associated with climate change while taking a back seat to the debate over governmental actions that will yield the most dramatic changes. This calls into questions the motives of the initiative. Is it only for publicity and to boost the reputation of the College?
In both 2013 and 2014, emissions from the College increased, ending a downward emissions trend. The construction of the new Sawyer library was cited as the cause for the increase. The College also warned that emissions may continue to increase, albeit not to such a great extent, due to various construction projects on campus, such as the bookstore and the science center. I completely support campus beautification and the improvement of facilities, but the motives need to be regarded skeptically as such projects are increasing our environmental footprint. There will always be a desire for new buildings to remain competitive and continue to attract new students, but we must ensure that this is not the leading cause. Construction should only be pursued if it yields substantial improvements to academic life and the student experience. Of course, this is difficult to determine, especially with the shroud of secrecy under which the Trustees operate.
Such secrecy brings up the issue of oil divestment. For all those who support the divestment movement on campus, it is highly hypocritical for the College to launch CCC while investing in activities that demonstrate a lack of commitment to the cause. I understand that divestment will have no financial impact on the oil industry, but it is the sense of institutional responsibility that is of importance. How can the College support academic research into climate change while being invested in companies that have and do perpetuate disinformation through trade organizations? The College must use the power associated with its prestige to help shift the national dialogue and public perception of oil industries. This can largely be achieved through divestment. In a New York Times online debate on divestment, Naomi Oreskes, a professor at Harvard, concluded, “But what is the logic of working diligently … to understand the threat of disruptive climate change, only to invest in an industry whose activities virtually guarantee it?”
The College is in possession of a significant endowment and prestige, enough to embark on cutting edge, aggressive environmental reforms. While many of the College’s initiatives, such as CCC, are laudable and will result in lasting change, they are not enough. Contradictions between the actions of the College and its rhetoric call into question the sincerity of the CCC initiative. Is the College truly dedicated to substantial change, or is it simply engaging in an initiative it can use in future advertisements to prospective students? The College must define what it wants to be. Currently, it walks the fine line between action and inaction, publicly expressing concern for and supporting action to combat climate change while dodging the serious actions needed for worthwhile change. Now is a time for brave and bold action. It is time to place the environment over the short-term financial interests and reputation of the College.
Michael Gordon ’20 is from Palmetto Bay, Fla. He lives in Sage.