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The Penn State community demands greater climate action from the university | Letter to the Editor

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Letter to the editor

This Letter to the Editor was written by Penn State student Matthew Long, a senior studying digital and print journalism. 

Last updated Oct. 15.

The first year of the new decade turned out to be much different than most expected.

Thousands are dying daily from COVID-19, with a death toll surpassing 690,000, while protests around the world are calling for racial justice in marginalized populations.

These ongoing events have already prompted momentous change throughout society in the matter of several months. Economies have been pushed to the brink of collapse, people have been remaining in quarantine in their homes since March, statues of slave owners and racist individuals are continually being taken down, and police departments in the U.S. are undergoing operational overhauls to prevent future instances of racial profiling. Daily life for most, as it used to be, has been uprooted over the course of the past eight months, including those in the Penn State community.

Students have made compromises with the loss of many graduation celebrations, on-campus jobs and overall college experiences as this pandemic rages on throughout the fall semester, while many staff and faculty members have completely transformed their work flows to adjust to a virtual format. In the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Penn State and local communities bound together in demanding action be taken to stop systemic racism, as demonstrated by protests on Allen Street in State College. 

The actions seen over the past few months show that the Penn State community remains vigilant in these trying times, facing racial injustice and an ongoing pandemic, but the university is still lacking in effectively tackling one defining and increasingly prevalent factor that connects and intensifies all of the conflicts: climate change.

Environmental racism, an issue perpetuated by climate change, has become quite apparent in the deaths of COVID-19 victims. Disproportionately more lives have been lost to COVID-19 amongst marginalized populations due to increased levels of air pollution in their respective communities.

According to a Harvard study released in April, higher levels of particulate matter in the air directly increase the probability of death by 8% per 1 μg/m3 of fine particulate matter and predominantly black communities that surround petrochemical plants and oil refineries, like in Texas, have been experiencing these higher death rates from COVID-19. Though the link between COVID-19, racism and climate change is evident, climate change has been widely regarded and treated as a separate issue within the Penn State community.

It has not been acted upon like the existential crisis that it is; however, several student and faculty-run organizations are aiming to change that.

On April 22 during a “Climate and Carbon Challenges at Penn State” webinar hosted by Penn State’s Sustainability Institute, members of a climate action coalition, consisting of Penn State students from sustainability-focused student organizations and faculty members, outlined a vision for a sustainable future at Penn State. This group created a petition directed toward the Penn State administration to enforce a set of climate goals and aspirations that will ensure the university is doing everything possible to combat and mitigate the effects of climate change.

Some of the demands addressed in the petition include committing to reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions between 2030-40, divesting from fossil fuels and reinvesting toward a green economy, and reallocating a portion of the Student Fee toward university sustainability initiatives. Since its announcement on Earth Day, the petition has garnered over 500 signatures from members of the Penn State community — 75% of which came from students.

The actions and acts set by this group are also echoed by Penn State’s Faculty Senate, a governing body that represents the voice of university faculty. On April 28, the Faculty Senate passed a “Faculty Senate Climate Action Resolution,” also demanding greater action be done by Penn State. This resolution demands that the university achieves a “100% reduction in purchased electricity-generated GHG emissions by 2030 and 100% or more reduction in net GHG emissions by 2050 based on 2005 levels through direct mitigation activities, carbon sequestration and offsetting opportunities.”

The ambitions and goals set by these two groups lay a solid foundation on which the university should act, providing a pathway toward a truly sustainable and net-zero emissions university; however, they also tell a much larger story about higher education institutions in the U.S. and their relationship with fossil fuels and climate action.

These two topics are typically sensitive whenever addressed by university officials at any institution, as many have placed considerable investments toward fossil fuel companies until this past decade.

Dozens of institutions in the U.S. have committed to either partially or fully divesting from fossil fuels in the past few years. The University of California and Cornell University both announced just this past May that they would remove fossil fuels from their multi-billion-dollar investment portfolios. These actions show that higher education institutions have not put climate aside during these trying times, yet one of the largest universities in the world that has made significant advancements in the field of sustainability still invests in fossil fuels. A fossil free PSU divestment group estimates that Penn State invests tens of millions of dollars from its roughly $4.5 billion endowment in the fossil fuel industry every year.

The university’s failure to halt fossil fuel investments contradicts its own 2016-25 Strategic Plan, which states “Penn State will confront the global challenges of climate change and sustainability directly and assertively in all their complexity.”

This lack of fiscal responsibility in the face of climate disaster is just one example that highlights an undertone of hypocrisy as many of the world’s foremost climate scientists work and publish research at Penn State. Such inaction not only undermines the decades of hard work done in the name of climate change by faculty, staff and students, but compromises the ethical integrity of the Penn State brand. Though Penn State is widely considered a sustainability leader among higher education institutions — by succeeding in lowering emissions and utilizing large-scale renewable energy projects — continuing to invest in fossil fuel companies is one of several glaring issues that remain a hindrance in truly living up to that standard.

As the university makes decisions in the near future, climate change must be a key point in every conversation. The COVID-19 pandemic is a global tragedy as deaths continue minute by minute. Nevertheless, it is also an opportune moment for Penn State to reevaluate its priorities as an institution.

When cutting costs due to the pandemic, Penn State must seriously look at its moral standards if it cuts staff members’ paychecks in the 2021-22 budget while not even attempting to reduce investments toward fossil fuel companies. Many projects will undoubtedly be delayed, but projects aimed at directly reducing emissions should not be among those put on standby, rather be placed as priorities. 

Divestment, COVID-19 response and environmental racism are just a few aspects of the multi-faceted issue of climate change at Penn State, but it has become abundantly clear by the actions of the Penn State community that this institution needs to meet the challenge, listen to its community and take action immediately.

To do otherwise would not only be a disservice to the voices of those in the Penn State community who have been demanding change for years, but it would represent a failure to act on all the issues we are facing today: racial inequality, global warming, and good health and well-being.

To learn more about or sign the student-led petition on climate action, visit psuclimateaction.weebly.com.

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