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.
- NYC Public Schools to Excuse Climate Strikers - EcoWatch ›
- Portuguese Youth Activists Sue 33 Countries Over Climate Crisis ... ›
- Students Rally for Fossil Fuel Divestment at Ohio State University ... ›
The excess carbon dioxide emitted by human activity since the start of the industrial revolution has already raised the Earth's temperature by more than one degree Celsius, increased the risk of extreme hurricanes and wildfires and killed off more than half of the corals in the Great Barrier Reef. But geologic history shows that the impacts of greenhouse gases could be much worse.
- Earth Is Hurtling Towards a Catastrophe Worse Than the Dinosaur ... ›
- Are We Doomed If We Don't Curb Carbon Emissions by 2030 ... ›
- Humans Release 40 to 100x More CO2 Than Volcanoes, Major ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Teri Schultz
Europe is in a panic over the second wave of COVID-19, with infection rates sky-rocketing and GDP plummeting. Belgium has just announced it will no longer test asymptomatic people, even if they've been in contact with someone who has the disease, because the backlog in processing is overwhelming. Other European countries are also struggling to keep up testing and tracing.
Meanwhile in a small cabin in Helsinki airport, for his preferred payment of a morsel of cat food, rescue dog Kossi needs just a few seconds to tell whether someone has coronavirus.
<div id="bfda0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c60b1a0dedbedbe5e0ce44284aff852f"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1308390775328251906" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Covid-19 dogs started their work today at the Helsinki Airport at arrival hall 2B. Dogs have been trained to detect… https://t.co/nw4mrw6eJM</div> — Helsinki Airport (@Helsinki Airport)<a href="https://twitter.com/HelsinkiAirport/statuses/1308390775328251906">1600779644.0</a></blockquote></div><p>If it were left to Kossi and his pals, crowds of potential virus carriers could be cleared in a fraction of the time for a fraction of the cost with none of the physical discomfort that accompanies the current nasal swab test based on the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method.</p>
No Human Nose Needed<p>A dog can sniff a cloth wiped on a wrist or neck and immediately identify if it comes from someone who has contracted the virus as much as five days before any symptoms appear which would lead a person to go into isolation. "A dog could easily save so so, so many lives," University of Helsinki veterinary researcher Anna Hielm-Bjorkman told DW, who says their testing has shown an accuracy level of nearly 100%.</p><p>It was originally her idea to see whether Kossi, a talented disease-detection dog, could redirect his skills in sniffing out mold, bedbugs and cancer to detecting the new virus just as it started to spread in Europe. "It took him seven minutes to figure out 'okay, this is what you want me to look out for," Hielm-Bjorkman said. "So that totally blew our minds."</p><p>Susanna Paavilainen, the executive director of the Wise Nose scent-detection foundation and the woman who saved Kossi from euthanasia in a Spanish shelter eight years ago, immediately started retraining her dogs to find the coronavirus.</p><p>Miina, who used to track a young girl's blood sugar levels by scent, quickly came on board, along with two others already working in disease detection. In all, they hope to train 15 dogs in the first phase.</p><p>Hielm-Bjorkman said once they discovered the new capabilities, while the normal academic procedure would be to test, publish and get peer-reviewed, their first instinct was to get the dogs into service. "[Researchers] who are actually publishing," she noted wryly, "are not at the airports."</p>
Wags, Not Wages<p>But for that, they needed permission and ideally, some funding. Vantaa Deputy Mayor Timo Aronkyto, who is also responsible for airport security, saw the benefit straight away. "It took me two minutes," he told DW.</p><p>However, his funding options were limited to about $390,000 total for the four-month pilot project aiming to prove that results from the dog tests are at least as accurate as the PCR test. Anyone who tests positive at the voluntary canine site is requested to go to the medical unit for confirmation.</p><p>The interest of Aronkyto, a trained physician, is rooted in both health and wealth. "Our testing at the airport costs more than 1 million [euros] (USD $1.2 million) a month at the moment," he said, explaining he expects that to go up to €3 million (USD. $3.5 million) per month in winter. "These dogs would be much cheaper," he pointed out.</p><p>He's optimistic support will grow as data from the current pilot project accumulates, explaining there is already work underway to change Finnish legislation so eventually sniffer dogs would have the same "authority" as customs dogs.</p><p>Aronkyto anticipates one animal performing both functions in the near future. He plans to continue this level of funding from his city budget into next year but that doesn't train new dogs nor expand the capacity beyond the four that split shifts currently at the airport, even as infection rates rise.</p>
Helsinki Hesitates<p>Notably, however, the Finnish government has not signaled it would like to pick up the program itself, despite a huge surge in publicity and, as Hielm-Bjorkman and Paavilainen emphasize, interest from other countries. Travelers have been eager to participate, waiting in line more than an hour at times.</p><p>Finnish ambassador in Ramallah, Palestine, Paivi Peltokoski, praised the experience after a recent trip but, apparently, her enthusiasm is not overly contagious.</p>
<div id="d9823" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="61d382f115fe66a44eb793d9ebee3d94"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1318564228450615299" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">I was tested negative by two #coronadogs upon arrival at the #Helsinki airport in #Finland. Later a medical test ve… https://t.co/cGlWQn8DJb</div> — Päivi Peltokoski (@Päivi Peltokoski)<a href="https://twitter.com/PaiviPeltokoski/statuses/1318564228450615299">1603205184.0</a></blockquote></div><p>"If the government would see this already as something that they would believe in," Hielm-Bjorkman said, she could envision training hundreds of dogs, stationing sniffers at concert halls or sports matches or elderly care homes. She adds there's a need for a "paradigm shift" for both medical professionals and the public.</p><p>Usually it's doctors telling patients if they're sick, she explained, and "here it's a dog handler."</p>
Little Political Will on German Project<p>This situation is not limited to Finland. In Germany researchers also <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/german-sniffer-dogs-show-promise-at-detecting-coronavirus/a-54300863" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">announced promising results</a> with canines <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/coronavirus-german-military-training-sniffer-dogs/a-54062180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">detecting COVID-19</a>, but no dogs have been used anywhere so far. And then, says Professor Holger Volk of the University of Veterinary Medicine Hanover, there has been insufficient political will or funding to move the project forward, something he called "very troubling" especially with a resurgent infection rate.</p><p>"When we started this whole project, we we did it because we wanted to help to stop the pandemic," Volk told DW. "It's really has been a very frustrating ride. I have had a lot of naysayers in the whole process. If I wasn't a very determined person, having done a lot of research, I would have probably stopped it."</p><p>He agrees with Hielm-Bjorkman's assessment that "it's just not in the perception of doctors that dogs are able to do this precise work." But he also echoes her faith in the vast potential of their discovery. "If you had a dog who could sniff every day quickly your cohort of workers, for example," he said, "think about the impact. You could continue having a workplace."</p><p>Speaking of workplaces, Susanna Paavilainen is starting to think if Finland doesn't want to unleash the dogs' potential at home, she and Kossi might accept one of the many requests from all over the world to provide training. "We can move because Kossi likes warm weather," she says, petting her star sniffer.</p>
An annual comprehensive report on air pollution showed that it was responsible for 6.67 million deaths worldwide, including the premature death of 500,000 babies, with the worst health outcomes occurring in the developing world, according to the State of Global Air, which was released Wednesday.
- U.S. Air Quality Decreased in Recent Years, Study Finds - EcoWatch ›
- Air Pollution Shortens Life Span by Three Years, Researchers Say ... ›
- Cleaner Air in Europe Has Resulted in 11,000 Fewer Deaths, New ... ›
- Half of U.S. Air Pollution Deaths Linked to Out-of-State Emissions ... ›
By Hannah Seo
If you've been considering throwing out that old couch, now might be a good time. Dust in buildings with older furniture is more likely to contain a suite of compounds that impact our health, according to new research.
- How Chemicals Like PFAS Can Increase Your Risk of Severe ... ›
- PFAS Chemicals Contaminate U.S. Food Supply, FDA Confirms ... ›
- This Strategy Protects Public Health From PFAS 'Forever Chemicals ... ›
Poor eating habits, lack of exercise, genetics, and a bunch of other things are known to be behind excessive weight gain. But, did you know that how much sleep you get each night can also determine how much weight you gain or lose?