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Students' Role in Rutgers Climate Action

The following was written for a recurring opinion column entitled "Climate Corner" by Nolan Fehon in the Daily Targum.

With forest fires raging, fish stocks shifting and homes flooding with the worst yet to come, climate change is a hot topic of today. That holds true for youth around the world, and is especially true here at Rutgers.  

Last year Rutgers students and New Jersey community members organized a climate march through the College Avenue campus and George Street in an attempt to get local officials and Rutgers administration to make ambitious yet necessary steps in the name of climate action. The approximately 600 bodies yelling and stopping traffic clearly made an impression on Rutgers administration as the Rutgers Climate Task Force was formed five days later.

The creation of the Task Force was a great step forward, but only satisfied one of the student requests. Concerning the creation of an Office of Sustainability, ethical divestment including fossil fuels and a commitment to carbon neutrality, these requests are still up in the air.

So how do we, as activists, work with what we have got? In this case, we have a unique opportunity with the Climate Action Plan the Task Force is developing. By engaging with its plans, giving comments and criticism and using student numbers to show support, we can make progress on sustainability across the board. 

With student opinion being so important for the Climate Action Plan, it is a good thing the Task Force is eager to listen. How do I know it is listening? Because I am the New Brunswick undergraduate representative for the Climate Task Force. 

It is my job to listen to what New Brunswick students want in a Climate Action Plan and relay that into Task Force meetings as the plan is being developed. I am not the only one though, there are Task Force student representatives on each campus that you can reach by direct messaging the Task Force Instagram.

What are some categories students can offer input into? Well, the Task Force has seven working groups: Energy and Buildings, Transportation, Food and Water systems, Supply Chain and Waste Management, Land Use and Offsets, Climate Preparedness and Climate Positive and Equitable Economic Development.

With a school as big and diverse as Rutgers, I could find students with input on each one of these categories at a single bus stop on the College Avenue campus.  

To get an idea of where the development of the climate action plan is, students can go to the Climate Task Force’s website to read its reports. If, for some odd reason, they do not feel like reading 200 pages, they can check out the Task Force's social media for a more concise presentation.

But what is this climate action plan really trying to do? What are students trying to accomplish? Well, as laid out by the Task Force, the plan should do a few things:

  1. In recognizing our climate is already warming to some degree regardless of what Rutgers does, we must prepare for structural, societal and economic damage.

  2. We must understand how much the University’s actions are further exacerbating the warming of our planet, so that we can change them and prevent further perpetuation of the problem.

  3. Identify and overcome the barriers to climate action at our institution, so that we may communicate our approach to support swift climate action around the world.

That is the general idea, but it still does not give much of a framework when it comes to how we want to prioritize different projects. Let us use a tangible example.

Should Rutgers prioritize electrifying its bus fleet or making its heating and cooling systems in all buildings more efficient? Assuming there was a fiscal constraint, we might need to make this kind of decision. 

A student can look at this question in a few ways.

You can choose by the potential emissions reductions of each source. The bus system occupies only two percent of emissions, while heating and cooling our buildings occupies approximately half of emissions (preliminary analysis). If you care most about net emissions, you would likely choose to retrofit the buildings.

Maybe you do not care as much about Rutgers emissions but more about how we could serve as a global template. In this case, you may want to electrify our bus system not based on lowering our own emissions, but by reducing emissions around the world as others follow our example. 

At its core, climate change is a human problem, and maybe some students care most about the sustainable culture created by projects in the Climate Action Plan and less about pure emissions reductions. Quiet zero carbon emitting busses might send a more noticeable message to the average student that Rutgers is sustainable, and possibly, spark more student discussions around sustainability and Rutgers.

With so much to consider, students may feel overwhelmed or ill-prepared to advise Rutgers on what it ought to be doing to slow our changing climate, but every one of us are stakeholders at Rutgers. The reputation of Rutgers, including its sustainable reputation, dictate the value of our education and in this case the state of the world we are inheriting.  Everyone of us has a stake in this plan, so every one of us has a say.   

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