Vassar declares climate emergency, creates climate change minor

Julian Aguilar/The Miscellany News

On Wednesday, Feb. 19, Vassar declared a Climate Emergency, joining more than 7,000 universities and 1,300 local governments across the globe. This declaration was made public in an emailed statement sent out by President Elizabeth Bradley to the student body. This initiative formalizes the College’s dedication to ambitious sustainability initiatives while simultaneously instituting a renewed sense of urgency surrounding the climate crisis.

Vassar’s Climate Emergency declaration is a part of a larger global movement in which institutions, including networks of higher education across the world, are coming together to make a commitment to addressing an emergency.

This movement to formally recognize the climate crisis was sparked by an open letter, authored by the Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education (EAUC); Second Nature, an organization working to reduce climate change via higher education; and UN Environment’s Youth and Education Alliance (YEA!). The principal aim of the letter, which was published on July 10, 2019, was to get as much support across organizations as possible to declare a Climate Emergency in recognition of the need for a drastic social shift to combat the growing threat. It emphasized the critical role that education has in achieving sustainable development goals (The SDG Accord, “Global Universities and Colleges for the Climate Introduction”).

Today, the letter has been signed across by universities across six continents. Signatories include Strathmore University (Kenya), Tongji University (China), KEDGE Business School (France), University of Glasgow (U.K.), California State University (U.S.), Zayed University (U.A.E.) and the University of Guadalajara (Mexico). The call to action has also been backed by major worldwide education networks such as the Global Alliance and the Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative. Vassar is now a part of this diverse network (The Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education, “Higher and Further Education Institutions across the globe declare Climate Emergency,” 07.10.2019).

The passage of Vassar’s recent Climate Emergency declaration can be at least partially attributed to the grassroots efforts of the College’s Students for Equitable Environmental Decisions (SEED) organization.

As SEED member Celeste Weidemann ’23 explained, SEED had been working on this specific project since the fall of last year. In November 2019, with the assistance of Professor of Geography Joseph Nevins, members of SEED conducted a Skype interview with Professor of Geography, Planning and Environment Sébastien Caquard of Concordia University in Canada. The Department of Geography, Planning and Environment at Concordia had declared a Climate Emergency in June 2019. During this virtual meeting, the members of SEED were introduced to the idea of a Climate Emergency Declaration and learned how Concordia was able to successfully implement one.

Using its own research in conjunction with the advice of Caquard, SEED immediately began drafting a proposal for Vassar to declare its own Climate Emergency. The organization members decided that the declaration should be made by the Vassar community as a whole instead of one department.

Weidemann explained, “We were going to try to do something small-scale, like with different departments…but then we were like, ‘Why don’t we send it to Bradley?’ So… we went top-down instead of bottom-up.”

According to Weidemann, the main driving factor behind SEED’s Climate Emergency initiative was to promote rhetoric that matched the actions the College was already taking.

Sustainability Director Micah Kenfield described the significance of declaring a Climate Emergency: “This declaration is the first time we’ve had a firm explanation of why we’re going carbon neutral: not just because it’s the good thing to do but because we’re in the middle of an emergency … We’re saying that we, as an institution, recognize this language as what we’re in. We’re in an emergency. We’re not just being more sustainable or eco-friendly.”

In the open letter that EAUC, Second Nature and UN YEA! authored, a three-point plan is outlined for all signatories to undertake as a way to address the crisis through their work with students.

The three-point plan is as follows:

  • Committing to going carbon neutral by 2030 or 2050 at the very latest.
  • Mobilizing more resources for action-oriented climate change research and skills creation.
  • Increasing teaching and learning about environmental and sustainability education across curricula, campus and community outreach programmes.

(The Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education, “Higher and Further Education Institutions across the globe declare Climate Emergency,” 07.10.2019)

The members of SEED were quick to recognize that Vassar’s current actions already reflect this plan. For instance, Vassar declared carbon neutrality by 2030 during October of last year, when the Board of Trustees announced their support for a $13 million package for renovations and upgrades to the College’s heating system and other energy-saving projects.

The College has also introduced a new climate change correlate. Last semester, the Committee on Curricular Policies (CCP) and faculty approved the integration of the minor in the Vassar curriculum.

In a written statement, Professor of Earth Science and member of the Environmental Studies program steering committee Kristen Menking elaborated on the significance of this correlate to the Vassar community: “Our hope in formalizing this course of study is that many more students will learn about how the climate system operates and has functioned in the past, how human activities are driving global change, what the impacts of human caused climate change are for ecosystems and human beings, and how to both mitigate and prepare for issues such as species extinctions, sea level rise, changes in weather patterns that bring more rainfall and drought, and the spread of vector borne diseases that respond to temperature changes, among other impacts.” She summarized, “In short, we hope to prepare students to understand and meet the challenges that will arise in the future.”

Kenfield also hopes that this sense of urgency will provide impetus for future actions on campus, such as the College’s five year Climate Action Plan that is presently in the works.

However, the work of climate activists on campus is far from complete. On Feb. 21, 2020, members of SEED proposed a Climate Emergency Response Plan (CERP), which primarily emphasizes the need to divest from fossil fuels, to the Board of TrusteesVassar has not divested from fossil fuel investments despite several protests and calls for them to do so.

As CERP awaits approval, Weidemann cannot contain her excitement for everything the organization will accomplish. “We’re actually going to make a difference,” she said. “I feel like I’m making a difference.”

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