Confronting ‘Confronting Climate Change’: Exposing the College’s hypocrisy and lack of leadership in tackling climate change

In a statement released in September 2015 President Adam Falk and the Board of Trustees said, “It is our strongly held view that all of us — all members of the Williams community, and indeed all members of society — bear some culpability for the current state of the climate, and that all of us, in turn, have a moral responsibility to invest in the solution.”

At face value, Falk’s statement is honorable. Yet the idea that we can address climate change by solely investing in solutions is problematic. According to the administration, the College has a moral responsibility to spend money.

Absent from the school’s Confronting Climate Change (CCC) initiative is any element of real sacrifice or authentic commitment to climate action. The administration is determined to throw money at sustainability improvements rather than advocate for far-reaching change. It’s disappointing that our trustees decided to remain invested in fossil fuel companies despite widespread support for divestment. It’s disappointing that the College continually brags about being a national leader in addressing climate change, despite being incredibly late to the game. But above all, it’s disappointing that the Board and the President think the College can spend its way out of the climate crisis — that all it has to do is invest.

What we need at this moment goes far beyond cleaning up our own backyard, beyond spending money on campus-wide sustainability improvements, beyond installing solar panels on our buildings. We are past the point where we can address climate change through the small-scale actions of institutions and individuals. Consider this: if all U.S. colleges and universities achieved carbon neutrality — a feat that would be impossible given many schools’ funding situations — the total reduction in global greenhouse gases would be negligible.

The best way the College can mitigate climate change is through symbolic action, through difficult conversations and through education. Last fall, in President Falk’s campus-wide email explaining the College’s shameful decision to remain invested in fossil fuels, he wrote, “we believe that divestment itself is a largely symbolic strategy, with little likelihood of having a substantive impact.” Falk’s rationale makes absolutely no sense given that placing a solar panel on a building has almost no substantive impact on global carbon emissions, either. The only difference: it looks good on tours.

And isn’t symbolic the point? We are small consumers on a global scale, and ultimately the best thing we can do is leverage our outsize moral leadership as an institution of great influence. Reducing our own emissions, though a good idea, allows us to simply pat ourselves on the back without doing anything to challenge the global fossil fuel economy.

The administration calls divestment too symbolic and unquantifiable and says that what we need to do is focus on physical realities, like on-campus emissions reductions. But serving a campus-wide farm-to-table dinner, creating green alumni funds and adding solar panels to our buildings are symbolic actions, too. As a small institution, any confrontation of climate change at the College is symbolic. Divestment is a great example of an action that might have a substantive impact.

This is not another piece advocating fossil fuel divestment. We do need divestment, and we need it now, but the point of this piece is to call out the College’s CCC initiative as half-hearted and misguided.

In that same statement referenced earlier, Falk declared that the College will spend “$50 million over the next 5 years, and will represent leadership among our peers in addressing the challenge of climate change.” Though we appreciate the modest commitments to climate action that the College has taken this year, it is absurd to call ourselves leaders. Throwing money at a problem doesn’t count as leadership. Leadership is taking steps that others haven’t. Steve Kaagan ’65 was a leader when he returned his honorary degree to the College last year in protest of the administration’s decision not to divest. That was brave. That was a sacrifice. That was demanding change.

We, members of the Williams community, are the opposite of leaders. We are late to the game. Across the country, other colleges and universities have made much bolder commitments to climate action. In fact, the College lands in the bottom half of all schools that submitted surveys to the Sierra Club’s environmental schools ranking.

CCC is, and should be, a great public relations move. I, as a student committed to environmental justice, just sincerely hope it’s more than that. The Board and the President are picking and choosing exactly where to engage with environmental issues to the point where it feels like they don’t actually care. It feels like the College is picking the most public and quantifiable actions that look good. For example, buying carbon credits is easy, but fails to spark action or meaningful conversation in the same way that building lasting relationships with local farms, diverting money from excessive construction projects, tearing down low-use buildings, or divesting from fossil fuels would. Bringing in speakers that help us question our values and inspire activism, such as Van Jones and Maxine Burkett, is a real start, but we need more.

Students, past and present, are deeply ashamed by the College’s lack of leadership. It seems that the administration fundamentally misunderstands the hypocrisy of confronting climate change without confronting the political and economic systems at the root of the crisis. Putting a solar panel on a roof says, “We’re rich, and we don’t need these systems to change.” Divesting from fossil fuels says, “We’re rich, and we demand that these systems change.”

Disclaimer: I love solar panels. They’re just not enough.

Nick Gardner ’19 is from Stillwater, Minn. He lives in Fayerweather.  

  • Lindsay Tucker

    Nick, I appreciate your passion to preserve the planet. But look at the practicality of the approach.

    The cost of electricity generation by photovoltaic cells has been falling at a geometric rate for 30 years. It’s approaching parity with coal and natural gas and will reach that level in a few years. (1) (2). And with recent improvements in battery technology, for the first time ever, solar energy can be harvested and stored for base load power.

    This isn’t some non-binding Paris/Kyoto agreement. It doesn’t just exist in a lab. It’s is happening everywhere. Companies are installing PV’s on homes for free to just to sell the power back to the utility.

    And best of all, cut through the media hype and you’ll find people are using less power. Fewer people are commuting to work. Millennials prefer cities over suburbs. Fewer cars will need to be manufactured after self driving technology goes mainstream and people have no need to buy a car that will spend most of it’s time sitting in their garage. People are using less physical stuff then the did in the past. We’re growing more food on less land using fewer fertilizers than we have in the past (3). We’re causing lots of problems on our planet. But there are many reasons for optimism. Take a look at the third link below. It’s eye opening.

    It’s certainly nice to make a symbolic action that sets an example for others. But in matters where there is a significant cost, the only way you’re going to get meaningful results is to help develop a cost competitive alternative.