Environmental committee to propose ‘Climate Damage Charge’ for College-funded air travel

Maria Lobato Grabowsky

At today’s faculty meeting, the Campus Environmental Advisory Committee (CEAC) will propose that the College implement a “Climate Damage” fee on all College-funded air travel. The proposal, which will be presented by Professor of English John Kleiner, is meant to encourage faculty and staff to account for the climate impact of their air travel.

If the proposal is approved, academic departments and staff units will be granted a prebate at the start of every fiscal year to help cover the fee, and unused prebate funds will go back into general departmental funds. The charge would be equivalent to $52 per metric ton of carbon-dioxide equivalent emissions, a cost that CEAC calculated based on an Obama administration study on the social cost of carbon. 

“The social cost of a flight has two components: i) private cost, e.g. airfare; and ii) external cost, e.g. damage done by heat waves in Chicago or increased flooding in Bangladesh,” the proposal reads. “By standing in for external cost, a Climate Damage Charge would help employees consider the full social cost of a potential trip.”

The charge would also apply to student travel that is arranged by employees. If the proposal were accepted, Kleiner told the Record, the athletics department would have to pay the charge if a team flies out to compete at nationals or on a training trip, for example, but the College would determine the prebate based on information about how much teams have traveled in the past years. 

“Let’s just say on aggregate [teams] travel 200,000 miles … one can calculate what the climate damage charge for that 200,000 miles would be and then the College is giving that sum to Athletics in advance,” Kleiner said, “Athletics can use that fund to pay for those 200,000 miles again or they can say… maybe it’d be better for us to travel only 150,000 miles… and we’ll have some extra funds that we could use towards some other purpose.”

Women’s tennis coach Anik Cepeda said that the team’s spring break trip enabled the team to bond and to compete against great teams, but that she recognized the environmental downsides of traveling.

Cepeda said she is mindful of the environment when deciding on the number of recruiting trips to take. “We’re looking at upwards of sometimes dozens and dozens of recruits, and so we try to beat as many birds in one bat as we can not only to be more economical… but also environmental, at least for me… That’s always at the forefront of my mind,” Cepeda said.

Under the proposal, the admissions office would have to pay a charge when officers visit high schools or prospective students are invited to campus for the Windows on Williams (WOW) program according to Kleiner. Similar to athletics, the prebate would be based on how much they have traveled in the past years. 

Kleiner said that determining prebates for academic departments was made more difficult by faculty members’ individualized travel budgets. According to Kleiner, CEAC ultimately agreed that each faculty member should receive a prebate equivalent to flying 24,000 miles. “Williams is suggesting that only when a faculty member has essentially traveled around the world every year … should they begin to think about the effect of their travel on the world at large,” he said. (The circumference of the globe is 24,901 miles.)

Regina Fink ’22.5, a student member of CEAC, said “the goal [of the proposal] is trying to make faculty realize that their personal decisions have an impact on carbon emissions.” She noted, however, that student members of the committee did not have a hand in drafting the proposal.

Williams Environmental Council (WEC) member Brodie Leo ’25 expressed his support for the proposal, but said that he thinks the faculty prebate should be modified in the future. “Hopefully, the currently defined values for social cost of carbon and prebate will be altered to have more of an impact on faculty travel,” Brodie wrote in an email to the Record. “As of right now, faculty members’ travel habits will only start to affect their [department’s] budgets at 24,000 miles travelled per year, … which is quite generous.”

Kleiner also said that he thinks the prebate must be uniform for all faculty. Despite certain faculty traveling farther than others depending on their research focus, it would be difficult to determine prebates on an individual basis. Kleiner said, “You end up with an account of what people are entitled to which is inconsistent with Williams’ ambition to be carbon-neutral.”

Some faculty are opposed to the proposal based on the limits it might impose on international travel. Chair and Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Gregory Mitchell said that he believes the Climate Damage Charge would be detrimental to global education. “I think we should be encouraging students and faculty to appreciate and engage interpersonally with cultures and communities outside of this white bubble that we’re in,” Mitchell said. 

Mitchell also argued that this policy would affect faculty differently based on their demographics and level of seniority. “Junior faculty without tenure, who are much more racially diverse … than, say, full professors, are under enormous pressure to conduct research and present at conferences in order to get tenure,” Mitchell said. 

A similar burden falls upon visiting assistant professors who must attend conferences and interviews to pursue employment opportunities, Mitchell added. “Anything that is going to put those contingent faculty at risk for employment, or for tenure and promotion, I think is a deeply flawed policy,” he said.