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CMU's impact on the climate

The world is on fire, and the people with power are holding the gas can and the match.

This is hardly a metaphor. The people most responsible for the climate catastrophe, which has stopped knocking at our door and is now beating it down, are fossil fuel executives and those helping them in their mission to choke the entire world in ever-darker clouds of smoke. That category also includes every politician who refuses to speak out against these obscenely rich figures, every powerful person taking their money to build boxy glass edifices on hillsides in western Pennsylvania cities, and the consultants and marketing specialists selling “clean” coal, or “natural” gas, or “energy independence,” while more than one million species face extinction. Climate change is forcing millions to flee their homes, and all of us are living in a hotter, more unpredictable planet.

Climate change is already reshaping the dynamics of our world, and it’s naïve to think that anything short of revolutionary political change will alter its destruction. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded in their 2018 report that “the report finds that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require ‘rapid and far-reaching’ transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities,” according to a summary released by the IPCC. The report also warns that “a number of climate change impacts…could be avoided by limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared to 2°C, or more. For instance, by 2100, global sea level rise would be 10 cm lower with global warming of 1.5°C compared with 2°C. The likelihood of an Arctic Ocean free of sea ice in summer would be once per century with global warming of 1.5°C, compared with at least once per decade with 2°C. Coral reefs would decline by 70-90 percent with global warming of 1.5°C, where virtually all (> 99 percent) would be lost with 2°C.” Such “rapid and far-reaching” transitions will not be accomplished by policies like not using plastic straws. They won’t be accomplished by a carbon tax, or by “market-based solutions,” or by asking companies worth billions of dollars to please, maybe, pump less oil out of the planet.

Universities in general, including Carnegie Mellon University, are playing both sides. Provost Jim Garrett sent an email on Sept. 9 “announcing the creation of a new campus-wide Sustainability Initiative,” which would “be organized around objectives that strengthen our university’s commitment to sustainability; elevate Carnegie Mellon’s engagement with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a shared blueprint for sustainability adopted by countries, cities and universities such as ours; and improve coordination of our sustainability education, research, and practices among CMU students, faculty, staff and local community members.” Meanwhile, the university takes money from the descendants of oil tycoons like Wilton E. Scott, whose “chief love in the energy business was exploration: the adventure of finding and developing new sources of oil and gas,” according to his obituary. The Wilton E. Scott Institute for Energy Innovation “seeks to optimize energy resources, reduce the environmental impacts of energy production and use, and develop breakthrough technologies and solutions that will have a meaningful global impact and to accelerate the transition to a sustainable, low carbon energy future.” Meanwhile, the Institute boasts a Fossil Fuel Experts page, and the university has not divested its $2.36 billion dollar endowment from fossil fuels.

Institutions have bigger impacts than individuals. Therefore, institutional changes have bigger effects than individual changes. That being said, individual change is still change, and you really should stop using so much plastic (the tap water is literally fine; invest in a filter if it brings you comfort), driving everywhere, taking international flights, and eating meat. All well and good, and every little bit helps. But no matter how much you deprive yourself, no matter how many plastic straws you don’t use, the United States military this year alone will release more greenhouse gases than the entire country of Portugal.

We will not mitigate climate change solely with our reusable packaging and Meatless Mondays. It will take massive public action, and a radical reimagining of our society, to force these institutions to act. What will a world look like without cars spewing pollutants into the air, coal-fired power plants and mountaintop removal, leaky pipelines and toxic water, a few nihilistic frackers who are holding our lives in their hands? We could have fixed this decades ago, but Exxon and their close corporate friends are willing to kill the world for profit.

It’s never too late to do something. But instead of buying a new set of eco-friendly storage containers, why don’t you donate to one of the groups combating deforestation in the Amazon? Or work in your community, building connections with the people around you, working for a broader goal than just temporarily alleviating your guilt at a lifestyle of consumption and waste? Buying something won’t fix anything. Organizing will. The Fridays for Future movement, which started when then-15-year-old Greta Thunberg sat outside the Swedish parliament building “every schoolday for three weeks, to protest against the lack of action on the climate crisis,” has grown to an international movement, with chapters in 29 countries. Extinction Rebellion has held actions around the world, from die-ins to blocking bridges. These organizations are just a few of the partners in the Global Climate Strike, which will be held on Sept. 20 and 27. Fridays for Future PGH will be hosting an action at the City-County Building, 414 Grant St, Pittsburgh, PA 15219 at 12:00 p.m. on Sept. 20. It will take all of us to make the world better, so let's start now.