University hosts two-day symposium on climate change

Jeffrey Sachs gave the keynote speech at the Tufts climate change conference, addressing the role universities can play in addressing climate change. Alex Knapp / The Tufts Daily

Tufts administration, faculty, students and guest speakers gathered on March 31 and April 1 for a two-day symposium on climate change, titled “Climate Change: The Role of the University.” The event was sponsored by the Tufts Office of the Provost and the Tufts Institute of the Environment (TIE) in collaboration with Tufts Climate Action (TCA).

Luke Sherman, a member of the symposium’s planning committee and a panelist, said the idea for the symposium was originally created as a result of last spring’s TCA sit-ins protesting Tufts’ decision not to divest.

“[This symposium] was one of the compromises reached between TCA and the administration in terms of how to respond to the Tufts student demands for divestiture,” Sherman, a senior, said.

The symposium came together after an October 2015 meeting, during which Tufts administration and staff discussed fossil fuel divestment and the actions which the university could take on specific environmental issues with TCA, according to the symposium’s website.

The event opened on Thursday evening in Pearson Hall with a keynote address given by Jeffrey Sachs, special advisor to Ban Ki Moon. Sachs spoke to a full room about climate change and its role as a pressing concern.

“It is absolutely one of the most important issues that you will face in your lives,” Sachs said.

Sachs discussed the urgent need to end fossil fuel use but explained that it is difficult to do so since the modern world economy grew up on fossil fuels.

“There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with fossil fuels…and so fossil fuels are good [because] they made the modern world, but they now threaten everything we have, so it’s a paradox. Nothing’s wrong with fossil fuels except that they could wreck the world,” Sachs said.

Sachs then spoke on the matter of divestment and praised the Tufts students who protested the university to divest from fossil fuels.

“When the students protested about this, you did right, because it’s important we behave as a moral community,” he said. “I do believe every investor needs to [divest] for two reasons: one is ethics, the second is that it’s a lousy investment in my view…because the whole coal sector is bankrupt…because there’s no future for coal.”

He concluded that promoting divestment was the proper stance for students to take.

Friday’s events consisted of three panel discussions, titled “Climate Research at Tufts University,” “Institutional Social Responsibility: Divestment and Other Actions” and “The University after Paris,” all held in the Alumnae Lounge.

University President Anthony Monaco began the day-long event with a welcome address, in which he spoke about the part Tufts has played and is currently playing in helping to solve the issue of climate change.

“The role of universities will only increase in the next couple of years… [and we will] address the role universities and Tufts in particular can play,” he said.

Monaco also commended the role which Tufts has historically played in addressing climate change and the efforts currently being made by the university.

“We can also be proud in our efforts in campus sustainability,” he said.  “We’re making important steps to ensure Tufts uses energy responsibly.”

Sherman summarized the discussion topics of the three Friday panels, explaining that the first panel dealt with specific climate change research professors were involved in, then the following panel discussed the role of universities in transitioning economies toward low carbon resources. The third panel focused on how Tufts can operationally reduce its carbon footprint.

In the second panel, Tufts Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning lecturer Ann Rappaport discussed the position Tufts currently takes on divestment.

“One of the consequences of the administrative decisions to postpone divestment…was a commitment to put resources behind researching and teaching on climate change and climate justice … we’re still waiting,” she said. “One of the most important aspects of justice is about future generations in terms of our commitment to provide a future in which we’re not compromising the future generations to meet their needs.”

However, Tufts economics professor Dan Richards spoke about divestment from an economic perspective, explaining that it is a low benefit, high cost choice that could hurt future Tufts students seeking scholarships or financial aid.

“Divestment is costly; it is shooting ourselves in the foot so we can claim something we haven’t achieved,” he said. “We’ve had no impact on fossil fuel use…and it’s unfair to future generations at Tufts for students who cannot afford to come here.”

In the third panel, Colin Orians, director of the Environmental Studies program,  added that there is more to the matter of climate change than just divestment.

“I think we sometimes forget that climate is more than carbon. I think that we want to prepare our leaders to have the communication skills, the expertise, to tackle many issues,” he said. “My hope is that as an institution climate is one part of that mission, but it’s not the only mission. Remember it’s more than carbon.”
Panelists at the symposium and attendees alike said they hope to continue productive conversation on the topic of alleviating climate change.

In an email to the Daily, Dr. Antje Danielson, administrative director of TIE and member of the symposium’s planning committee, explained the impact she wanted out of the symposium.

“I want to encourage everyone in the university to approach his or her research and teaching by asking, ‘how does this relate to climate change or how will climate change effect my work and the work of my students,’” she explained.

Danielson also added that Tufts can lead the way for other universities on the issue of climate change.

“I certainly think Tufts can be a leader. In fact, Tufts is already seen as a leader in interdisciplinary environmental research and education,” she wrote.  “All universities need to look at their role; in fact, all organizations need to reevaluate their roles.”