Student Climate Protesters Urge Their Universities to Go Carbon Neutral
By Alexandra Villarreal
As West coast wildfires color the skies dystopian red and orange and an aggressive hurricane season batters the U.S. Gulf coast, college students are demanding their schools take bold action to address the climate crisis.
Caitlyn Daas is among them. The senior at Appalachian State University and organizer with the Appalachian Climate Action Collaborative (ClimACT) stands on the frontlines of her school's grassroots push to go "climate neutral," part of a years-long, national movement that has inspired hundreds of institutional commitments to reduce academia's carbon footprint.
Carbon neutrality commitments typically require schools to dramatically cut their carbon emissions by reimagining how they run their campuses — everything from the electricity they purchase to the air travel they fund. Colleges across the country, from the University of San Francisco to American University in Washington DC have already attained carbon neutrality. Other academic institutions, including the University of California system, have taken steps to fully divest from fossil fuels.
But as young activists like Daas urge their universities to do their part to avert climate disaster, many are frustrated by tepid responses from administrators whom they feel lack their same sense of urgency and drive. Appalachian State, part of the University of North Carolina system, has committed to reaching net-zero emissions decades down the line, but Daas and her fellow activists fear that's far too late. She's baffled that an institution devoted to higher learning is seemingly ignoring the science around the climate emergency.
"If our voices don't matter, can you please stop telling us that they do?" Daas says.
College activists concerned about the climate crisis have largely focused their efforts on two popular movements that go hand-in-hand: reaching carbon neutrality, and divesting university endowments. Broadly, the term "net carbon neutrality" means that a campus zeroes out all of its carbon emissions, says Timothy Carter, president of Second Nature, a nonprofit focused on climate action in higher education. This can be achieved through modifying campus operations, often with the help of alternatives, such as renewable energy certificates and voluntary carbon offsets (activities that atone for other emissions). In Second Nature's definition, investment holdings don't factor in a school's carbon footprint. Carbon neutrality often falls within a wider umbrella of climate neutrality, which also incorporates justice and other concerns.
Divestment campaigns, meanwhile, pressure universities to shed investments in fossil fuels in their endowments. "We cannot truly be climate neutral if we continue to invest in a fossil fuel industry," says Nadia Sheppard, chair of the Climate Reality Project campus corps chapter at North Carolina State University, where oil, gas and consumable, nonrenewable fuels account for around $43m in university investments.
Across North Carolina, the heated campus battles brewing over climate policy this fall represent a microcosm of the national conversation. The University of North Carolina system – which includes 16 universities and one gifted public residential high school – has set a 2050 goal to go carbon neutral, the same year as the state at large.
But students are frustrated by the distant deadline. "I do believe 2050 is realistic," says Isaiah Green, president of the UNC system-wide Association of Student Governments. "But it's so realistic that it's just not enough, in my opinion."
Laura England, a ClimACT member and senior lecturer in sustainable development at Appalachian State, approaches the issue with similar gravity as the undergraduates at her school. "That concept, 'our house is burning,' was a metaphor. But really in 2020, it is literal," she says.
Students and faculty at Appalachian State are angling for net zero emissions by 2025, or at least 2035, but have felt unheard. ClimACT lambasted the school's administration last week in a letter emancipating themselves from the official climate action planning process, at least until its leadership declares a climate emergency and responds accordingly. "The question we face is astonishingly simple," the group wrote. "Do we have the political will to chart a path toward a safe and just climate future, or will we continue careening toward hot house earth?"
Lee F Ball Jr, chief sustainability officer at Appalachian State, admires young people's passion and would "bottle" and "serve it" if he could. But to reach neutrality by 2025, the university would need to spend tens of millions of dollars it doesn't have.
"There's no real silver bullet of clean energy out there that we've been able to find, so we're in a wild west of carbon accounting and climate action," Ball says. "There's no rulebook, there's no prescription for this stuff."
Other students in the UNC system are advocating for more transparency and accountability around their school's investments.
Kelsey Hall, the leader of a divest campaign at UNC Asheville, successfully pushed the school administration to divest around 10% of its endowment from fossil fuels last year. But the other 90% remains in the hands of the UNC management company, which invests in a nebulous category of "energy and natural resources" – oil, natural gas, power, etc.
"Returns [on investments] are very, very close" between the competing portfolios so far, says John G Pierce, vice-chancellor for budget and finance at UNC Asheville. But university leadership isn't prepared to entertain divesting more of its endowment just yet.
"It's frustrating," Hall says. "But it's something that I've learned since becoming involved with the campaign, is just that, like, universities move slowly."
At Duke University, a top tier private institution in North Carolina, the administration has agreed to a much quicker 2024 climate neutrality date. There, students have been more concerned with how they arrive at that target.
They want the school to reduce actual emissions as much as possible, "rather than relying on more questionable, less rigorous ways of offsetting emissions in the books", says Claire Wang, a recent Duke alumna and Rhodes scholar.
"It'd be very easy for a huge polluter to, you know, only pick a low-hanging fruit, maybe bring emissions down 10%, and instead buy very cheap carbon credits for the remaining 90% and say they've reached carbon neutrality," Wang says.
Although student activists often direct their ire toward school administrations, their greatest antagonist may simply be a ticking clock. Undergraduates generally only get a four-year window on campus to make a difference, and they've lost precious time because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has in some ways pulled focus from climate issues.
Environmental campaigns, meanwhile, require long-term, dedicated attention spans. Gabriela Duncan, co-president of UNC Reinvest at UNC Chapel Hill, found article after article in her school paper about past divestment movements, and she knows that "there realistically is no way" that the university will divest during her academic career.
To avoid yet another loss of momentum, she's focusing on creating "a really strong foundation, so that we can have a sustainable movement for many years."
This story originally appeared in The Guardian and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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By Robert J. Orth, Jonathan Lefcheck and Karen McGlathery
A century ago Virginia's coastal lagoons were a natural paradise. Fishing boats bobbed on the waves as geese flocked overhead. Beneath the surface, miles of seagrass gently swayed in the surf, making the seabed look like a vast underwater prairie.
Why Didn’t Seagrasses Recover Naturally?<p>Development, nutrient runoff and other human impacts have damaged marshes, mangroves, coral reefs and seagrasses in many bays and estuaries worldwide. Loss or shrinkage of these key habitats has reduced commercial fisheries, increased erosion, made coastlines more vulnerable to floods and storms and harmed many types of aquatic life. Rapid climate change has compounded these effects through <a href="https://theconversation.com/ocean-warming-has-fisheries-on-the-move-helping-some-but-hurting-more-116248" target="_blank">rising global temperatures</a>, more <a href="https://theconversation.com/more-frequent-and-intense-tropical-storms-mean-less-recovery-time-for-the-worlds-coastlines-123335" target="_blank">frequent and severe storms</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/as-climate-change-alters-the-oceans-what-will-happen-to-dungeness-crabs-61501" target="_blank">ocean acidification</a>.</p><p>In the late 1990s, local residents told two of us who are longtime students of seagrasses (Robert "JJ" Orth and Karen McGlathery) that they had spotted small patches of eelgrass in shallow waters off Virginia's eastern shore. For years the conventional view had been that seagrasses in this area had not recovered from the events of the 1930s because human activities had <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aquabot.2005.07.007" target="_blank">made the area inhospitable for them</a>.</p><p>But studies showed that water quality in these coastal bays was <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02782971" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">comparatively good</a>. This led us to explore a different explanation: Seeds from healthy seagrass populations elsewhere along the Atlantic coast simply weren't reaching these isolated bays. Seagrasses are underwater flowering plants, so seeds are among the main ways they reproduce and spread to new environments.</p>
Eelgrass beds were restored in four bays at the southern tip of Virginia's eastern shore on the Atlantic coast. David J. Wilcox/VIMS, CC BY-ND
Sowing a New Crop<p>From our <a href="https://doi.org/10.2307/1941597" target="_blank">earlier research</a>, we knew that when eelgrass seeds fall from the parent plant, they sink to the sea bottom quickly and don't move far from where they land. We also knew that these seeds don't germinate until late fall or early winter. This meant that if we collected the seeds in spring, when eelgrass flowers, we could hold them until the fall, helping them survive over the months in between.</p><p>We decided to try reseeding eelgrass in the areas where they were missing. Starting in 1999, we collected seeds by hand from underwater meadows in nearby Chesapeake Bay – plucking the long reproductive shoots, bringing them back to our laboratory and holding them in large outdoor seawater tanks until they released their seeds naturally. After about 10 years we started gathering the grasses using a custom-built underwater "lawn mower" to collect many more of the reproductive shoots than we could by hand.</p><p>In 2001 we sowed our first round by simply tossing seeds from a boat. Our first test plots covered 28 acres of mud flats in waters 2 to 3 feet deep. Returning the following year, we saw new seedlings sprouting up.</p><p>Each year since then, the <a href="https://www.vims.edu/" target="_blank">Virginia Institute of Marine Science</a> and the <a href="https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/virginia/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Nature Conservancy's Virginia Coast Reserve</a>, along with staff and students from the <a href="https://www.vcrlter.virginia.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">University of Virginia</a>, have led a team of scientists and citizens to collect and seed a combined 536 acres of bare bottom in several coastal bays.</p><p>These initial plots took off and rapidly expanded. By 2020 they covered 9,600 acres across four bays. Several factors helped them flourish. These bays are naturally flushed with cool, clean water from the Atlantic Ocean. And they lie off the tip of Virginia's eastern shore, where there is little coastal development.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a482c2146febd6782c99960c2b55feb8"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/K9NyfPLINtk?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Sheltering Marine Life and Storing Carbon<p>Since eelgrass disappeared from these bays in the 1930s, human understanding of seagrass ecosystems has evolved. Today people don't pack their walls full of seagrass insulation but instead value different services they provide, such as habitat for fish and shellfish – including many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12645" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">commercially and recreationally important species</a>.</p><p>Scientists and government agencies also have recognized the importance of coastal systems in capturing and storing so-called "<a href="https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/bluecarbon.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">blue carbon</a>." In fact, we now know that seagrasses constitute a globally significant <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1477" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">carbon sink</a>. They are a key tool for reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-64094-1" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">slowing climate change</a></p><p>We are working to understand the valuable services that our restored seagrass beds provide. To our surprise, fish and invertebrates returned within only a few years as the meadows expanded. These organisms have established extensive food webs that include species ranging from tiny seahorses to 6-foot-long sandbar sharks.<br></p><p>Other benefits were equally dramatic. Water in the bays become clearer as the seagrass canopy trapped floating particles and deposited them onto the bottom, burying significant stocks of carbon and nitrogen in sediments bound by the grasses' roots. Our research is the first to verify the overall net carbon captured by seagrass, and is now being used to issue carbon offset credits that in turn <a href="https://vaseagrant.org/eelgrass-carbon-credits/" target="_blank">create more funds for restoration</a>.</p><p>One big question was whether restoring seagrasses could make it possible to bring back bay scallops, which once generated millions of dollars for the local economy. Since bay scallops no longer existed in Virginia, we obtained broodstock from North Carolina, which we have <a href="https://chesapeakebaymagazine.com/return-of-the-bay-scallop/" target="_blank">reared and released annually</a> since 2013. Regular surveys now reveal a growing population of bay scallops in the restored eelgrass, although there is still some way to go before they reach levels seen in the 1930s.</p>
Restored seagrass beds (dark areas) along Virginia's Atlantic coast, with sunlight reflecting from a small island. Jonathan Lefcheck, CC BY-ND
A Model for Coastal Restoration<p>Repairing damaged ecosystems is such an urgent mission worldwide that the United Nations has designated 2021-2030 as the <a href="https://www.decadeonrestoration.org/" target="_blank">U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration</a>. We see the success we have achieved with eelgrass restoration as a prime model for similar efforts in coastal areas around the world.</p><p>Our project focused not only on reviving this essential habitat, but also on charting how restoring seagrasses affected the ecosystem and on the co-restoration of bay scallops. It provides a road map for involving scholars, nonprofits organizations, citizens and government agencies in an ecological mission where they can see the results of their work.</p><p>Recent assessments show that the restored zone only covers about 30% of the total habitable bottom in our project area. With continued support, eelgrass – and the many benefits it provides – may continue to thrive and expand well into the 21st century.</p>
By Jessica Corbett
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