Students Must Step Up to Address Climate Change

This past Sunday, hundreds of people gathered outside of the Los Angeles City Hall to urge action on climate change. The event began as a rally, with members of different organizations speaking on environmental action, and finished with a march around City Hall. A diverse group of representatives from non-profits, health care associations, indigenous rights advocacies, California state government, the Martin Luther King Coalition and L.A.-area high school students made up the marchers and speakers, along with the hundreds who attended without an organization. The characteristics of the attendees highlighted the message that was repeated throughout the event: climate change is a problem now and affects everyone.

Los Angeles, however, was not the only site of rallies and marches this past week. All over the world—rom Ottawa to Papua New Guinea, Vienna to Taipei, London to Peru—people took to the streets to show their support for global climate action. Even in Paris, the host of the most important world climate conference ever, security restrictions on large public gatherings and marches did not prevent Parisians from showing their support. Thousands took off their shoes and placed them in Place de la République Square to symbolically march for the climate.

The end of the year marks a high time for environmental dialogue around the world. The leaders from over 190 countries currently meeting in Paris have a lot to address. The effects of climate change have unequivocally arrived around the world.  September 2015 was the warmest September on record, and 2015 is on pace to be the hottest year ever recorded, breaking the official record set in 2014. Nations such as Kiribati and the Marshall Islands are literally beginning to drown and many other island nations, such as Barbados, the Solomon Islands and Saint Lucia are fundamentally threatened by rising sea levels.

While no one storm can be completely linked to climate change, extreme weather events, like Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Patricia, are occurring more frequently. The U.S. Department of Defense has stated that climate change worsens “resource disputes, ethnic tensions and economic discontent.” There is a strong argument that climate degradation is exacerbating the plight of refugees in places such as Syria and Darfur and helping give rise to radical groups such as ISIS. At home, the historical drought in California enters its fifth year. The list of global environmental problems is unending and unfortunately, so are the repercussions if swift and decisive action is not taken. Most scientists agree that avoiding a global temperature rise of two degrees Celsius, which is associated with catastrophic climate damage, requires at least 80 percent of known fossil fuels to be left in the ground and not burned for energy.

At the 5Cs, many of us learn about the importance of these problems and their consequences, but we do not experience them or see drastic changes to our lifestyles like others in the world do. The United States has the honored role of contributing significantly to climate change while being practically unaccountable in addressing it. One reason why is the stronghold that fossil fuel companies have on the energy sector and political system.

Companies like Exxon Mobil and Koch Industries have spent millions of dollars lobbying the US government to keep burning fossil fuels. In addition, Exxon and the Koch family have reportedly spent large amounts of money funding climate denial for decades. Perhaps even more embarrassing is that a major political party in the U.S. practically rejects climate science and is unwilling to address the issue.

While the breadth of climate change can seem overwhelming, college students and colleges themselves can help address this urgent, but not hopeless, problem.  As citizens, we can vote for leaders that take climate change seriously and have plans to address it. In the United States, participating in Presidential elections—and primaries—should not be overlooked but there are many candidates for congress, state and even local positions that also warrant a vote based on their environmental record.

Another way to gain momentum in addressing climate change is through institutional financial actions. Fossil fuel divestment is a hot and controversial topic at colleges and universities worldwide. Students, faculty and administrators are considering whether a school’s endowment should be used to withdraw support from fossil fuel companies. There are hundreds of active student divestment campaigns, including one at Pomona, urging their schools to divest.

While a handful of schools have divested from at least coal and oil sands companies, including Pitzer College, as well as Syracuse University, the University of California, Oxford University and the London School of Economics, the other 5Cs have not. If a school values sustainability and playing a role in combatting climate change, then it should give up its position as a shareholder in companies like Exxon Mobil and Shell by divesting.

While one could argue that schools should retain their position as shareholders in order to work with these companies to find solutions, this strategy has tried and failed. This makes sense considering that the future plans of these companies are far out of line with plans adhering to climate science. Furthermore, investing in these companies with ill-advised business models undermines the commitment of colleges to prepare their students for the future. A robust endowment is very important for a school’s mission to educate all of its students, but not at the cost of supporting companies that are actively destroying the future. 

While personal sacrifice, such as reducing energy usage and waste, is needed, communal action, like the marches and gatherings from this past week, is the medium through which students and colleges can help the most. The 5C community needs to utilize its intellectual prowess to confront this problem scientifically, socially, artistically, economically and politically.

For me, one of the hardest actions was engaging with this problem in the first place. I have had the luxury of being able to ignore global climate change and avoid its impact. Morally, however, it is impossible to ignore. The countless lives climate change has affected, is affecting and will affect should weigh on everyone. We all need to inform ourselves and then set out to help. If climate change is not addressed in Paris, at colleges and by everyone around the world, future generations will ask us why we did not act when we were almost certain of the consequences. Any amount of personal and communal sacrifice is worth the peace of mind found in knowing that we did not fail them. 

Jack Carroll CM '18 is a member of the CMC Environmental Club, Sustainable Students Promoting Environmental Action and Responsibility, and Divest Pomona.