Climate change is so complicated and multi-faceted that I cannot digest it even when I talk about each issue line by line with somebody. The conversation starts seriously and ends with helplessness: Who are enemies in climate change? Oil companies? Do they really want to destroy the planet? No, petroleum and oil are very profitable resources. For oil companies, their ways of wealth happened to raise temperature and sea level, and employees just want to earn a living. Okay, so how do we transition to a sustainable world? Maybe renewable energy? Let’s do that right away. No, it’s not that easy.
In Bruff (Tulane University main dining hall), Luff (Loyola University main dining hall), and LBC, this conversation loop continues without much satisfaction.
All current Tulane undergraduates that I have talked to, the ones who were born in 1994 and later, have a clear awareness about climate change and agree that decisive actions must be made. The national statistics are also hopeful. According to the Yale Communication on Climate change, 69% of adults in the United States want to resist carbon emissions from coal power plants, and 75% support regulating CO2 as a pollutant more generally. The numbers show that near majority of people are willing to act on climate change, then why can’t we solve the problem right away?
In a democracy, people vote for representatives and the representatives become decision makers. In the United States, Mr. Trump became the president against Mrs. Clinton by the number of votes calculated under Electoral College system. The result is so contrary to opinions of people around me. No one I had talked to in Tulane before the presidential election thought Mr. Trump had a chance of becoming the next president. The popular Facebook posts on my News Feed criticized or cynically made fun of Mr. Trump’s quotes on women, Mexicans, terrors, and climate change. Not a single post I had encountered supported his comments and policies that are far away from ideal future directions that I discuss with my colleagues.
The fact that I have never talked to or met anybody who supports Mr. Trump showcases that I am living in a bubble. In October 2015, 69.2% of 2015 American high school graduates enrolled in colleges or universities according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Tulane University is one of 4,000 public and private universities in the United States, with an annual tuition around $50,000 and the acceptance rate of 30%. Unless one receives a scholarship, it is realistic to assume that the people around me are from rich households with great education to survive through one-out-of-three competition. In other words, the people around me are far from representative of the United States.
This does not deprive me of the hope that undergraduates are capable of taking actions regarding climate change issues. The university is a unique environment where people in different disciplines share the physical space of campus. Since climate change calls for interdisciplinary analysis and solution, campus can be the optimum environment to gather thoughts from students that are interested in different issues. In an ideal scenario, such synergistic effect can increase awareness among undergraduates about recognized and unrecognized issues regarding climate change.
Fortunately, student organizations at Tulane University have been active in supporting environmental initiatives on campus. I had an opportunity to interview the president of University Student Government (a.k.a. USG) Sam Levin and the Director of the Sustainability Committee John Alexander for my project to discuss the future of Tulane among rising sea level and high flood risk. Both were passionate about decreasing the carbon footprint of the university, and expanding sustainability projects, such as solar panel installation, composting, eliminating styrofoam, and a bike-share program.
USG and the Sustainability Committee have also been active in pushing divestment of Tulane University. Last spring, 54% of the student body expressed support to the question, “Do you support fossil fuel divestment at Tulane University?”, while only 28% opposed. Responding to the student body’s support, this year, USG passed the fourth consecutive resolution on fossil fuel divestment, and Divest Tulane submitted a letter to President Fitts and the board members requesting divestment. Divestment, however, has one major obstacle. According to Alexander, Tulane University hires an outside investment firm to invest in mutual fund for them, which gives Tulane less agility and ability with which to divest from the funds.
Obstacles in acting on climate change can be overcome by knowing them to the root, so that solutions can cut in. In the ideal world addressing climate change, student organizations conduct research to check and monitor the institution, and students learn locally about climate change. The level of student education in personal context is dire. According to the Yale Climate Opinion Maps in 2016, 51% of adults believed that global warming is already harming people in the US or within ten years. 58% believed that global warming will harm people in the US, and 70% believed that it will affect future generation, but only 40% believed that global warming will harm them personally. These statistics say that the general public do not think they will be affected, but others will by global warming. Tulane University has a particular potential to increase awareness about personal stakes to students because of its location on the Gulf Coast.
The Coastal Protection and Restoration Agency published the 2017 Coastal Master Plan with a Master Plan data viewer. In the data viewer, the colored map shows the predicted land change and flood risk in next 50 years in low, medium, and high scenarios, each shown without the plan and with the plan. According to the prediction without action, New Orleans will be surrounded by submerged neighborhoods in the medium scenario, or be an island in the high scenario. Fortunately, if the Coastal Master Plan is implemented, much land can be maintained or gained around New Orleans even in the high scenario, such as St. Bernard parish to the East, LaPlace and HahnVille parishes to the West, and most of Barataria parish to the South. However, the flood risk map shows a more concerning result. The neighborhoods west of New Orleans, such as LaPlace and Hahnville parishes, will have less flood depth, up to six feet, the neighborhoods more east than St. Bernard Parish, such as Belle Chasse and Delacroix, and the ones more south than Barataria and Lafitte parishes will be affected by the flood depth starting from 10 feet. When students are fully aware of what can happen around Tulane in the next 50 years, more students will be motivated to stand up for environmental initiatives on campus.
In the ideal world, climate change should be discussed both in sociological and biological contexts. Climate change is not just about reducing carbon footprints, but also about real stakes for both people and nature. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, leaving 80% of the city under water, and causing more than 100 billion dollars in damage. The inequality in adaptive capacity between white and African-American communities is still visible (Harlan et al. 2015). The Uptown neighborhood along St. Charles Avenues that runs from the Mississippi River to the Downtown is lavished with magnificent, historic mansions surrounded by lush gardens. In contrast, just miles away, neighborhoods from the Downtown and the City Park, mostly African-American neighborhoods, are standing sites for Habitat for Humanity volunteers because most of the houses are still left in debris after Katrina. Habitat for Humanity at Tulane hosts service projects biweekly every semester. If the executive board of Habitat for Humanity can co-program a service project with Divest Tulane to put more social context in a service project, many undergraduates will be attracted to volunteer and also learn about Hurricane Katrina more personally.
The Biological stakes of climate change are discussed, but often exotified. For example, polar bears that live in Antarctic are a popular, symbolic costume in environmental protests in any city though cities may have lost their own species during urbanization. For example, Tulane undergraduates are a transient group that graduate in four years. Students are more capable of launching a project for wild life species that are endangered by lack of habitat, disease, and feral mammals, than saving polar bears that are living thousands of kilometers away. In order to motivate students to make changes locally, the surrounding environment and stakes should be more visible. Interacting more with the local nature will encourage students to think about the stakes of losing the whole non-human world that contributes to the biodiversity and sustainability of earth.
New Orleans sits among bayous, swamps, and marshes that have natural environments that can expand students’ understanding of and appreciation for biodiversity. The bayous, swamps, and marshes stretching out from the Mississippi River are unique to the Gulf Coast, and are in one to three hours driving distance from the campus. Since the Reiley Recreation Center offers paddle boarding or hiking opportunities during weekends, the field trips can be coupled with educational components with the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Earth and Environmental Sciences departments. Tulane Alternative Breaks (a.k.a. TAB), a student organization that organizes service trips during fall and spring break, led environmental trips to Austin, Texas and Bucerías, Mexico for the last spring break. TAB is planning for a local environment trip next fall to Grand Isle, and will advertise the trip to collect trip leader and participant applications next fall. As more opportunities are given to the students to explore the local flora and fauna of Louisiana, more students will become deeply aware of the improvements that they can make.
Universities today not only serve as academic institutions, but also social institutions. Many undergraduates apply to and attend universities to build social networks and have opportunities for better careers. After Hurricane Katrina, Tulane University has directed thousands of undergraduates to reach out to the world outside of the social bubble on campus by Center of Public Service and service requirements for graduation. Now the university has the opportunity to deepen the tie between the university and the society in the swirl of climate change. This time, the movement will come from students who are ready to make an impact.
Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, 2017 Coastal Master Plan Map. http://coastal.la.gov/2017-coastal-master-plan/
Bureau of Labor Statistics. College Enrollment and Work Activity of 2015 High School Graduates. Released at April 28, 2016. News Release https://www.bls.gov/news.release/archives/hsgec_04282016.pdf
Miller, Colley. BREAKING: Divest Tulane demands action from President Fitts. The TAB. https://thetab.com/us/tulane/2017/02/16/breaking-divest-tulane-demands-action-president-fitts-2472. Accessed 20 May 2017. Web.
Harlan et al., 2015. Climate Justice and Inequality. Chapter 5 at Climate Change and Society: Sociological Perspectives. Edited by Dunlap, R. E. and Brulle, R. J. Oxford University Press: New York. The American Sociological Association.
Marlon et al. Yale Climate Opinion Maps – U.S. 2016. Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. http://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us-2016/