Answering the hardest question on campus

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“…when you tell people what it would actually take to radically reduce carbon emissions, they turn away. They don’t want to give up air travel or air conditioning or HDTV or trips to the mall or the family car or the myriad other things that go along with consuming 5,000 or 8,000 or 12,000 watts. All the major environmental groups know this, which is why they maintain, contrary to the requirements of a 2,000-watt society, that climate change can be tackled with minimal disruption to ‘the American way of life.’”

– Elizabeth Kolbert, New York Review of Books (12/4/14)


At the close of her critical review of Naomi Klein’s book “This Changes Everything,” Elizabeth Kolbert provides a point-blank description, excerpted above, of the seemingly impossible challenge of changing behavior.

But if we want climate negotiations to succeed, American society has to change. We have to change simply to convince countries like China and India that we are serious about cooperating. Because if those countries do not commit with us to curbing emissions, we will all fail together – even as fossil fuels remain the most tempting, the cheapest and most accessible source of energy for them in their own race to match the American lifestyle. In that perspective, pursuing our own emission cuts is not idealistic, but realistic. Why would anyone else do what we are not willing to do ourselves?

What’s it like to go to college with this knowledge? Freshmen on a campus now will be graduating in 2018, into a world newly shaped by strict national or global climate agreements that leave two thirds of fossil fuels in the ground. Young people will be participating in a vast industrial shift from consumption to infrastructure and an explosion of invention and creativity as the world races to rebuild the global energy system with non-fossil power.

Or maybe freshmen will graduate into a world that failed to agree, with an emissions pathway uncontrollably veering upwards to extremes of temperature and impacts beyond adaptation, including diminished crop yields, larger displaced populations, and the inexorable loss of coastal cities, including, as the great ice sheets melt over centuries, New York City.

How should universities teach these students, who enter a different world either way? What exactly is ‘the American way of life?’ Since the old one is gone, and the new one is up in the air, might students become leaders in choosing the next American way of life? Will it be failure, or success? Remove every idea that is not fast enough to be relevant in this time frame, and that’s where you will find the answer.

From Yale, Elizabeth Kolbert’s alma mater, the following essay provides a portrait of student life as our culture addresses, or avoids, the central challenge of our time.

This post is adapted from the original in the Yale Daily News Magazine, and was written by Abigail Carney, a former managing editor of City Atlas.


Featherstone Farm, MN
Featherstone Farm, Minnesota

Emmet Hedin ’17 grew up on an organic vegetable farm in southeast Minnesota, where his family has been farming since his great-grandfather emigrated from Sweden in the late 1800s. “I grew up thinking about weather as one of the most important things in my dad’s life,” Emmet says.

In August 2007, it rained in Minnesota. Money Creek, in the same valley as their farm, had flooded before, but this time, Emmet says, “The water kept coming and coming and coming.”

Emmet was in Kentucky visiting family, and his dad went into Winona for the night to get away from the flood. On the news the next morning, there were reports of washed-away houses and washed-out roads that had crumbled and collapsed. Twenty-three inches of rain had fallen in 36 hours.

His dad, Jack, got into his 4×4 truck to drive to see the crop damage. He passed a road on a hill. Someone had driven across it, but all the gravel beneath the pavement had washed out. The car fell 30 feet down a ravine, killing the driver.

When Jack got to the farm, everything was gone. “There were butternut squash 12 feet up in trees along Rush Creek,” Emmet says. His dad realized that morning he would have to move the entire farm.

That flood was one of two 500-year rain events (meaning an event that is expected to occur only once every 500 years) in the past 10 years in Minnesota. To Emmet, the storms are a sign of what’s to come, and he explains that it isn’t as bad in America as it will be elsewhere. “In 50 years,” he says, “no Bangladeshi farmer is going to have a livelihood.”

Emmet has found it difficult to work towards climate change mitigation while he’s been at Yale. “I think that here,” he says, “we have a tendency to think about a problem, and simply by thinking about it, reason to ourselves that we don’t need to act upon it.”

When Emmet first came to Yale, he took the train to New Haven from Minnesota. He was determined not to fly. As worked out by British physicist and former government advisor David MacKay in his book on energy, “Flying once per year has an energy cost slightly bigger than leaving a 1 kW electric fire [space heater] on 24 hours a day, all year.” Take one intercontinental flight and you’re using about 11,000 kWh of energy, which comes from oil. In one day. This is an immense amount of carbon. According to the World Energy Council in 2010, the average household in India — one of the countries that will be hit hardest by climate change — used only 900 kWh in the entire year. (The average American household used 11,698 kWh, two to three times more than a typical European home. And that 11,698 kWh didn’t include air travel.)

“I was not going to subscribe to a system that was based on air travel and fossil fuel consumption,” Emmet says. “That ended quickly when I realized that I was going to be home for like two days Thanksgiving break freshman year if I didn’t take the plane, and I’ve been taking the plane since.”

He considers himself hypocritical because of his air travel, and sometimes feels that he can’t begin a discussion about climate change because his actions don’t match his beliefs. “It’s the problem that faces our future,” he says, “but if I’m aware of the problem and choose not to act on that awareness, how can I possibly seek to influence others and lead by example?”

Rushford, Minnesota, near Hedin family farm, shown flooded in August 2007
Rushford, Minnesota, near Hedin family farm, shown flooded in August 2007

If you ask a room of Yale students if they care about climate change, most of them will say they want to care more than they do.

Adam Goff ’15 asks me, “Let’s say I care about climate change, what does one do about it?” I met Adam three Septembers ago, during our freshman year. We circled Old Campus then, talking about whether we would really be doing anything for the world while we were at Yale.

“I don’t have any good ideas,” Adam says. “Since freshman year I haven’t had any good ideas, or seen any ideas that convinced me.”

Adam has not directly worked on climate change since his freshman year either. “I haven’t found a community I’ve been satisfied with,” he says.

If our world needed climate change action when we first came to Yale, it needs it even more now. The 2014 Pricewaterhouse Low Carbon Economy Index found that: “For the sixth year running, the global economy has missed the decarbonization target needed to limit global warming to 2˚C. Confronted with the challenge in 2013 of decarbonizing at 6 percent a year, we managed only 1.2 percent. To avoid two degrees of warming, the global economy now needs to decarbonize at 6.2 percent a year, more than five times faster than the current rate, every year from now till 2100.”

Our current society is headed toward a world that is 4˚C warmer. Even 2˚C won’t be pretty — James Hansen, who testified about climate change to congressional committees in 1988, calls for a lower, 1.5°C limit if we want to avoid sea level rise, loss of Pacific islands, a disrupted food supply, and more massive storms — but 2˚C will be far less devastating than the larger temperature rise that threatens the world’s farms and coastal cities.

A recent report by Stephen Davis (UC Irvine) and Robert Socolow (Princeton) found that if we want to stay at 2˚C and continue with our current consumption and development patterns, by 2018 we should stop building cars, homes, schools, factories, and power plants unless they are replacements for existing ones or themselves carbon-neutral. (Coal-burning power plants and cars lock you into future emissions after they are built.) 2018 is the year that Yale’s current freshmen will graduate.

Yale’s new building plans take into account salt water incursion from New Haven Harbor.

We are already dealing with the effects of climate change (see Hurricane Sandy, melting ice caps, and droughts and floods in India). According to Michael Oristaglio, executive director of the Yale Climate and Energy Institute, climate change affected the construction of Yale’s two new residential colleges: as sea level rises, groundwater rises and pushes out the freshwater. Modeling shows that soon the salty groundwater is going to be 3 feet higher than it is today. Salt destroys materials, and so Yale had to modify the residential college building plans.

But the effects to come will be worse than anything we’ve dealt with yet (see more malaria; a flooded Florida; and days when the “wet-bulb” temperature, which quantifies heat stress, would put people working outside at risk of heat stroke).

Max Weinreich ’16 believes that the fact that over half of the Yale student body voted in last year’s divestment referendum, with 83 percent of those votes for divestment, was proof that a lot of students care about our reliance on fossil fuels. But he also thinks this caring is limited. He has never met another undergraduate who is factoring climate change into his or her life plans and believes that the average Yale student fails to view climate change as an issue that will primarily threaten human rights. “If you don’t want to see it, you’re never gonna see it,” he says. “You could be underwater and in denial about it.”

According to a November 2013 report from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communications, 23 percent of Americans still don’t believe that climate change is happening, and just over half of all Americans say they are “somewhat” (38 percent) or “very” (15 percent) worried about climate change.

A report from the RSA Action and Research Centre in the UK concluded that “about two-thirds of the population intellectually accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change, but ‘deny’ some or all of the commensurate feelings, responsibility and agency that are necessary to deal with it.” This report names this phenomenon “stealth denial”: people accept the facts of climate change, but continue to live as if those facts were not true.

“I think most Yale students would say that they care, because that’s the right thing to say,” Caroline Warner ’15 says, “but in reality they’re not taking any action. I’m not going to say I care if I’m not going to do anything about it.”


“We live in a castle,” Ariana Shapiro ’16 says. “That can delude people into not acting.” Many students I spoke to described how difficult it is to be invested in anything not directly related to their lives here. Yet, that’s the excuse of most non-Yale students too, and it comes with two problems. One: climate change is related to our lives. Two: there are other big, scary issues that we have an easier time acting on or, at the least, acknowledging that we care about. Climate change is always last in a survey the Pew Research Center does on the concerns of Americans, yet we have even less power over some of the other items on the Pew list (ex: terrorism, the decline of morality).

“The fact that there are not riots in the streets means that we’ve done something terribly wrong.”

So why aren’t we more involved in climate change action? Paul Lussier, who is teaching the seminar “Climate Change in the Media” and has worked in the media for 30 years, explains that climate change communication has previously operated under the “information-deficit model”: people don’t know enough about climate change, and once they know more, they will act. But Lussier believes that people already have a general awareness. What’s lacking is action based on that awareness.

“The fact that there are not riots in the streets means that we’ve done something terribly wrong,” he says. The aim of his course is to help students craft narratives and re-craft existing narratives that will lead to climate change action. Lussier calls climate change “the mother of all challenges” because all media narratives are based on either Good vs. Evil, Man vs. Nature, or Man vs. Woman, and climate change challenges all three of these.

“In most narratives our lifestyle is good,” Lussier says. “Here we are forcing a model that’s questioning our most basic assumptions … to call fossil fuels into question is to call our identity into question.” Emmet, a student in Lussier’s class, explains that the conception of wilderness as dangerous and existing for our use is fundamental to our history. Acting on climate change, he says, “means shifting that paradigm, and conceiving of ourselves as the problem, not nature.”

Lussier says that if a terrorist were doing to the planet what climate change is, we would already be at war. The problem here is identifying the enemy, because we are the enemy. In a similar way, others have described the looming threat from climate change like the approach of Godzilla, but our ability to see the threat is blocked by our lack of social cohesion. To move beyond this, Lussier believes we need to create narratives that encourage a wide variety of groups and people to act.

This has already begun. Many faith groups are encouraging their members to reduce their carbon use and to advocate for political action on climate. Pope Francis is expected to release a historic papal encyclical on climate change, following a visit to the Philippines and sending an early message for the Paris climate negotiations later in the year. American sports are turning to address the issue; the NHL released a report this year about how climate change threatens the future of hockey. The report included plans for the NHL to make their practices more sustainable.

And this semester at Yale, members of a project course at the Forestry School are working to see if Yale’s sustainability initiatives are aggressive enough, and what more can be done. Fossil Free Yale organizers told me that this year they are focusing more on divestment as crucial to social justice. And hopefully the students that graduate this May will take their concern about climate change with them. Patrick Reed ’15, the former president of the Yale Student Environmental Coalition (YSEC) and one of the founders of Fossil Free Yale, says, “I think it’s even better if instead of dropping everything to work at a nonprofit, [Yale graduates] do what they’re passionate about and mitigate within that.”


Once students are involved in climate change action, whether this is through a group like Fossil Free Yale or an effort to get their sports team to use less energy, the challenges do not disappear.

“Dealing with the reality of climate change comes with the same stages as dealing with a trauma,” says Chelsea Watson ’17 a Fossil Free Yale organizer. “I am terrified by climate change,” Ariana, who has also been involved with Fossil Free Yale, tells me. “That’s my predominant feeling, I think.”

Chelsea believes that the more you do about climate change, the more hopeful you feel. She is optimistic because in just two years more than 400 divestment campaigns have started, allowing thousands of students to take action. For Ariana, who has been involved with the climate movement since she came home to a pamphlet in 2010 that showed all the land in her county that had been leased for fracking, thinking in the short term and taking action are the only ways to avoid being paralyzed by fear.

More than 150 Yale students were at the People's Climate March in October, 2014. (Photo: Philip Arndt)
More than 150 Yale students were at the People’s Climate March in September, 2014. (Photo: Philip Arndt)

Emmet Hedin cancelled his flight home to Minnesota for October break and he will take the train home this Christmas. He acknowledges that the flight from JFK to Minnesota will take off regardless of whether he’s on it, but he decided that he needed to do something. “We have a lot of conversations about the problem itself,” he says. “This is one thing we can do about it.” He believes that any discussion of what kind of future you want should lead to a discussion about what kind of solutions you want, and not flying should be one of them.

We need a carbon tax, but we need a carbon tax because it will change behavior.

Giving up flying entirely might seem difficult. “Am I not going to fly?” Justine asks. “My best friend goes to school in England.” Max and many others I interviewed don’t believe that personal behavioral change is enough. “I actually think it’s a problem when people put the blame for climate change squarely on their personal habits,” Max says, “because whether or not you take out the compost instead of throwing it in the trash, that’s not saving lives.” He was frustrated when President Salovey sent out an email about the new digital subscription to The New York Times two days after releasing Yale’s decision not to divest. The use of fossil fuels is entrenched in our economic system, and Max, and thousands of other students, think we need actions like divestment that will move toward systemic change.

But going home for one less break, or choosing not to go abroad over the summer is not only possible but also crucial to acknowledging the magnitude of the threat that climate change poses. Shane Feyers FES ’15 says, “The people with the biggest footprint are those with the easiest lives.” He explains the paradox of the leaders of the climate movement who fly to give lectures about how dire the situation is. We’ve grown up with the social norms of flying and driving often, but they are not necessities.

We need a carbon tax (or a ‘fee and dividend’) but we need it because it will change behavior. Saul Griffith, inventor and MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant winner, recognized the importance of behavioral change after he estimated that our global society requires 15 terawatts of energy. To avoid more than 2˚C of global temperature increase, we would need to replace all but three of those 15 terawatts with renewable and non-carbon based sources of energy by 2033. To do this, Griffith calculated, would require building one three-gigawatt nuclear power plant every week; 100-megawatt geothermal-powered steam turbine every eight hours; one 300-foot-diameter wind turbine every five minutes; and one Olympic swimming pool’s worth of genetically engineered algae, 50 square meters of solar-themed reflectors, and a 100 square meters of new solar cells every second for the next 25 years. Griffith did this analysis in 2009, given that we haven’t yet begun an industrial buildup that would rival that of World War II, it’s worse by now.

When Griffith calculated the effort required to rebuild our energy system, he realized that even more crucial, and more feasible, than new infrastructure is helping members of affluent societies reduce their energy use without reducing their perceived quality of life.

Experts believe behavior change is the fastest, cleanest tool that we have left, and aren’t waiting for a tax to change their own behavior.

Other climate leaders such as Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, and Eric Holthaus, meteorologist and journalist, agree. Each has given up flying to reduce his carbon emissions. They believe that the systematic change we desperately need isn’t technological, but social. Social change requires people realizing that even if grappling psychologically with the threat of a warming world can be traumatic, the changes needed to avoid it aren’t. Emmet doesn’t think that flying less is that big of a step when the alternative is considered. “People think about the solution as something that will change their life,” he says, but, in reality, taking action can be simple.

And once you act, it becomes more likely that your family members and friends will act, too. Changing your lifestyle doesn’t mean giving up on political action, it strengthens it.

Theda Skocpol, a sociologist at Harvard University, studied the 2010 failure of cap-and-trade legislation in Congress. Under cap-and-trade, companies purchase permits from the government that allow them to emit set levels of greenhouse gases, incentivizing reduced emissions. Skocpol is now an advocate of a simpler policy alternative called “fee and dividend,” which forgoes carbon credits in favor of a fee on carbon taken at its point of entry into the economy, and the fee is then paid to the citizens as a dividend. For such a policy to pass, Skocpol writes that “a broad alliance of organizations must be constructed — uniting community groups, churches and synagogues, service-worker unions, doctors’ and nurses’ associations, and green businesses. Networks need to reach beyond self-described environmentalists and include many groups outside of Washington, D.C.” These political networks can be built upon a shared commitment to using less energy.

Climate change is an existential problem, but the solutions are tangible. We need to fly and drive less. We need to eat less meat. We need to research better batteries. We need to demand a carbon tax from our legislators. We need to work within the groups we’re already a part of to use less energy.

If Godzilla were coming over the horizon, we wouldn’t act alone.


Demographer and statistician Hans Rosling demonstrates how the combined effects of population growth, growing economies, and climate change require rapid adjustment in this short video:


Acknowledgments, references and additional notes from City Atlas:
• Abigail Carney (’15) received a Yale Alumni Community Service Fellowship from the Yale Club of New York for her work on City Atlas.
• The US has 74 of the top 200 universities in the world, and 15 of the top 20, yet according the New York Times, more Americans believe in astrology than human-caused climate change. According to recent Gallup polls, only 1% of Americans picked ‘environment/pollution’ as a top priority for the country.
Major universities have had knowledge of accurate climate change predictions since at least 1979. One possible explanation for the disparity in understanding between higher education and public opinion is that universities did not feel it was their place to explain climate change to the public (or to their students). It is a disruptive subject. During those years and still today, the dominant direction of top graduates has been finance. Because the big universities have enormous endowments, they are integral parts of global finance, first as recruiting centers, then as clients, and later as beneficiaries of corporate and individual support.
Another twist: because financiers have not seen it in their interest to be aggressively regulated, lobbying and political support from finance favors small-government oriented politicians, who are likely also skeptics about climate change. In short: much of the intellectual product of the world’s top universities (ie., the financial system) has been, in practice if not beliefs, at odds with a public response to climate change. This dynamic is shifting, as financial leaders like Hank Paulson, Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg now openly speak out on climate.
Decoupling financial lobbying from anti-climate change advocacy would be a positive step in finding political solutions, and engaging the banking system fully will be the only way to finance the transition to a zero carbon economy. The world needs approximately $2T/year in energy investment to modernize, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Modernization will yield a strong ROI, as shown by multiple reviews including one from the International Monetary Fund. The IEA reports that costs rise the longer investment is delayed. The World Economic Forum calls 2015 a “make or break year for climate action.”
• None of the major US universities have fully divested their endowments from fossil fuels.
• Student divestment campaigns have been joined by faculty support at universities including Harvard and Stanford. Alumni support is developing, too: at Dartmouth, alumna and author Louise Erdrich put it this way: “Why should Dartmouth divest from fossil fuels? Because when you are educating students to have a better future, you should do all possible to ensure they have a future.”
• Fossil fuel markets themselves may force the issue, as markets absorb the information that two thirds of reserves cannot be burnt.
What is the relevant timetable for our choices in holding to the 2°C target? Carbon Brief puts it at about 21 years at current rates of emissions; in practice that means we have to begin rapid decarbonization now, to taper off to low levels, or zero carbon, by 2050. We have a vast amount of infrastructure to replace, and that takes time (and we will be emitting CO2 during all that time, while building the new systems).
As a sidenote to the mitigation challenge: the 21 year budget measures a “66% chance of 2°C” – not a 100% chance of success. Since FAA regulations would not permit you to get on an airplane that only had a 66% chance of reaching its destination, it’s worth noting how far our collective assessment of risk has drifted. Climate scientist Kevin Anderson details that point in a memorable video lecture, “Real Clothes for the Emperor.”
MIT has an online simulator so you can see the pace of emission cuts necessary against economic growth. Play ‘experiment 2,’ with ’20 year delay’ for smoothness.
Below are three simple behavioral steps to lead the way to a low carbon future, from among recommendations by Saul Griffith, David MacKayAngela Druckman and Tim Jackson:
1 – fly less (replace business trips with teleconference, take vacations closer to home)
2 – eat less meat
3 – buy less stuff that you’re going to throw away
• Saul Griffith’s slides. At slide 74, Griffith uses a personal energy budget of 2400 watts as a baseline, reached by dividing total worldwide energy (in this estimate, 16TW) by a world population of 6.65B, equalling 2400 watts per person. Griffith audited himself and found his 2007 lifestyle was 17,027 watts, largely from air travel. He’s now on a documented project to lead a rewarding life and raise his family in San Francisco on a personal budget of 2200 watts, and his choices look like this.
• You can design Britain’s energy plan for 2050 on a simple simulator
• James Hansen, NASA’s former top expert on climate, believes it is necessary, and possible, that the world stay well below 2°C. Fee and dividend, brought into play while energy prices are low, is part of his suggested solution. Read his current letter here.
• The farm at the top of this post is Featherstone Farm. Emmet Hedin’s father is Jack Hedin, who himself wrote an op-ed in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “Climate change and the family farm”