Columbia’s announcement of a new climate school seems like nothing more than smoke and mirrors meant to distract from the fact that the University is still not divesting from fossil fuels, prioritizing carbon neutrality, or adhering to all six R’s of sustainability.
With the announcement of a climate school, Columbia seems to have engaged in virtue signaling to much the same degree as a person using a paper straw. In reality, that straw isn’t really reducing your carbon footprint by much, if at all. If the University wants to make tangible efforts toward sustainability, it should both divest from fossil fuels and commit to carbon neutrality before its current goal of 2050.
While University President Lee Bollinger has declared that Columbia will reach full carbon neutrality by 2050, this goal is unambitious and lacking in the bold leadership to which Columbia aspires. Harvard, Princeton, Brown, and Cornell have all committed to carbon neutrality sooner than Columbia. There is also a handful of countries that has committed to becoming carbon neutral well before 2050. If the University was serious about committing to carbon neutrality, Columbia’s $10.9 billion endowment seems to readily enable us to achieve carbon neutrality at the same time as our peers—if not sooner.
The administration may want to justify dragging its feet with carbon neutrality; however, there is another option that could immediately demonstrate its commitment to the environment: divestment. There is no apparent excuse for not divesting from fossil fuels. The administration claims that it is waiting for a broad consensus before divesting. However, the Columbia community has overwhelmingly shown support for institutional divestment. With over 100 faculty members calling for divestment, the Extinction Rebellion hunger strike, seemingly biweekly Sunrise Movement protests, and a student culture of activism, Columbia is ripe for a watershed moment in its supposed crusade against climate change.
Other than the issue of simply failing to take action, there remains the unanswered question of the climate school’s viability. Its predecessor, the Earth Institute, has failed to actualize many of the organization’s shared goals: mainly, failing to attract faculty or donations. Just as “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” the Earth Institute by any other name would still face the same shortcomings.
The most poignant test of the climate school’s viability is its ability to attract students. As there are eight different graduate degrees related to fields under the Earth Institute offered through five different schools, the climate school may end up fighting for scraps of human capital. In 2018, only 27 undergraduates graduated with degrees in sustainable development. Despite the fact that the same number of students graduated with a major in mathematics, Columbia is not floating the idea of separating the math department from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
Columbia, while not perfect, has a strong record of sustainable practices. Our dining halls compost, do not use styrofoam, and recovers and recycles cooking oil through The Doe Fund. The campus is composed of LEED-certified buildings, green roofs, and geothermal and water pumps. Our student body can be proud of its No. 1 ranking for sustainable transportation, its extensive recycling program (yes, Columbia does actually recycle what you put in recycling bins), and the plethora of programs spearheaded by EcoReps. Actions like these made Columbia a leader in sustainability in the past, and future actions like divestment and committing to carbon neutrality—not the climate school—will continue to help it lead in sustainability in the future.
Ryan Oden is a sophomore in Columbia College studying political science and sociology. He thinks the best alternative to a plastic straw is not using one at all.
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