Tufts community responds to UN climate change report

Shoshana Blank, education and outreach program administrator at Tufts' Office of Sustainability, poses for a portrait on Oct. 22. Erik Britt / The Tufts Daily

The United Nations’ Oct. 8 report on global warming has promoted student activist groups and faculty to consider if Tufts could do more to address the climate crisis.

Written by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the report details widespread climate-related risks projected to occur if the planet experiences greater than 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming, according to the IPCC press release. It states that stopping the rise would require a worldwide shift in practices. 

Co-presidents of Students for Environmental Awareness (SEA) Bridget Moynihan and Jenna Clark told the Daily in a joint email that the university can do more to reduce its impact on the environment and that they hope greater action will occur in light of the IPCC’s report.

“With Tufts‘ recent commitment to aiming for carbon neutrality by 2050, the school is taking a step in the right direction, but we believe this isn’t nearly enough,” Moynihan and Clark, both sophomores, wrote. “With the IPCC report citing that some of the worst effects of climate change may occur as soon as 2040, extensive change is needed well before that date.”

Shoshana Blank, the education and outreach program administrator at the Tufts Office of Sustainability, said that the urgency of this report does not come as a surprise to her and others at the Office of Sustainability working in the field of climate science. She said that communal involvement is needed to create and promote significant sustainable change.

“It is really important, in order to make a difference, to do things on a bit of a larger scale rather than just individual changes. That could be getting involved in local initiatives or state or federal initiatives, or even at Tufts, in working towards a more sustainable world,” Blank said.

Blank noted ways in which Tufts can respond to the report’s call to action, explaining that the university already signed on to the American College of University Presidents’ Second Nature Climate Leadership Commitment in April 2016, committing the university to carbon neutrality by 2050. She further explained that the university is creating a carbon neutrality plan to fulfill this commitment and has hired an outside consulting firm to assist in the planning. An Oct. 23 TuftsNow article indicates that Ramboll Group, a Danish multidisciplinary consulting film, has been hired.

“The company is tasked with creating a plan to get to carbon neutrality by 2050 for the [Medford/Somerville] campus, for our energy supply,” Blank said. “So that is something that [the Council for Sustainability of Campus Operations] is working on now that is directly related to the IPCC report.”

Ann Rappaport, co-chair of the Council for the Sustainability of Campus Operations and senior lecturer in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, described the need for Tufts to continue implementing sustainability projects in an expeditious manner.

“We knew our job was to get carbon emissions at the university down to zero as quickly as possible, but that added urgency is something that everybody is sensitive to, particularly those of us who teach about it,” Rappaport said. “What we’re doing now is starting with the projects that have been in the pipeline for a while and looking for ways to do more, faster.”

Program Director of the Office of Sustainability Tina Woolston said that she does not think the new IPCC report will lead the university’s trustees to reconsider divestment from fossil fuels. She noted that a more significant action would be for the university to stop using fossil fuels altogether.

“If we could as a university stop using fossil fuels, that’s actually more significant of an impact than saying out loud that we’re going to divest when we don’t even really have [direct] holdings in fossil fuel companies,” Woolston said. “We don’t have any direct holdings and as far as I know we have only a very small percentage in our mutual funds. It’s so small that fossil fuel companies wouldn’t even notice, it wouldn’t impact their balance sheet so it doesn’t seem like an efficient use of our time to focus on that.”

James Garijo-Garde, a co-leader of Tufts Climate Action, said that he hopes the IPCC report will make the Board of Trustees rethink their stance on divestment.

“We’ve heard sobering scientific findings related to climate change seemingly again and again in recent years, but the Board of Trustees continues to be fearful of disrupting the status quo. The one thing that could be different about this report is its scale: [When] the international community releases a scientific report like this, it’s not a small matter,” Garijo-Garde, a junior, told the Daily in an email.

Garijo-Garde added that another way for the university to reduce its impact on the environment is to reinvest funds currently invested in fossil fuels to local green energy and sustainability initiatives instead.

Moynihan and Clark suggested that the university can further reduce its impact by turning the Medford/Somerville campus into a zero-waste campus.

“Something Tufts could do in the very immediate future to reduce its impact is striving even further to be a zero waste campus,” they wrote. “[The university is] doing some great things, such as composting in the dining halls, but other places, such as Hodgdon [Food-on-the-Run], still produce a lot of waste.”

Rappaport pointed to next week’s information and feedback session on Tufts’ efforts to become carbon neutral as another step that the university is taking to advance the sustainability dialogue.

“[The event’s purpose] is to listen to people in the Tufts community articulate their values,” Rappaport said. “Once we have a sense of community values, not just students but staff and faculty as well, the contractor helping us with the [carbon neutrality plan] planning, Ramboll [Group], will then [present us] with some pathways.”

The university’s effort to add solar panels across campus is another significant sustainable action being taken, according to Rappaport. She noted that solar panels were just added to Lewis Hall this week, and said that the Science and Engineering Complex will be the next to receive panels.

“It’s reducing our carbon footprint, it’s reducing our energy costs and perhaps even most importantly it’s reducing the risk of volatility in our energy. It’s one of these perfect things where the more renewables we use, we know exactly how much it’s going to cost us per kilowatt, we can calculate that out, and so for budgeting it’s fantastic,” Rappaport said.

Blank added that the right steps are being taken to make campus operations more sustainable. She also said that the university hasn’t ranked high in sustainability in recent years compared to other colleges and universities, noting that Harvard University committed within the last year to be fossil fuel-neutral by 2026 and fossil fuel-free by 2050.

“I definitely look to certain schools, like what Boston University just did, and I think it’s a great example of something we’re working towards,” Blank said. “[Boston University] created a Climate Action Plan a year ago, and now [it is] purchasing renewables from South Dakota and enough to meet 100 percent of [its] electricity.”

She then explained some of the challenges that the Office of Sustainability faces in implementing everything the office wants to accomplish.

“We have two staff people working on sustainability, and we have another staff member working as a waste and recycling fellow, so we have limited capacities to work on everything,” Blank said.

Patrick Collins, Tufts’ executive director of public relations, told the Daily in an email that the university has been taking various steps to reduce its impact on the environment, citing construction of the Central Energy Plant and installation of solar panels on the Medford/Somerville and Grafton campuses. Collins also explained that the Board of Trustees has determined that fossil fuel divestment would be ineffective and costly to the university.

“The Board of Trustees has carefully considered fossil fuel divestment and has determined that it would not be impactful and would carry significant financial cost to the university,” Collins said. “In 2017, the board reiterated its support for its current investment policy, which is based on the recommendation of the group of trustees, faculty and students that examined [fossil fuel divestment] in depth in 2014.”

Moynihan and Clark hope this report will urge people to take action rather than hold on to the mentality of climate change being a lost cause.

“We hope that what this report does is ignite the same sense of urgency that we, and many other members of the Tufts community, have been feeling for a long while,” they wrote. “We think we can capitalize on this report coming out to get more students to care about the issue and get them involved.”