State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Columbia, What Is Our Role in Responding to Climate Change?

By Christopher Cadham

Columbia Campus


The other week I posted about the public-private partnership program that New York City has developed to help cut carbon emissions. One of the 17 university partners in this program is our very own Columbia University. Columbia was one of the original participants that agreed to cut its carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2017. Over recent years, there has been an increasing movement at Columbia to address climate change, not just globally, but on the university campus.

Much of the debate has centered on the idea of divestment. Both faculty and students have petitioned President Lee C. Bollinger to divest as part of the university’s climate plan. Divestment was a popular response by institutions around the world to apartheid in South Africa, tobacco advertising, and private prisons. It is interesting to note that Columbia was an early adopter in both apartheid and tobacco divestment and was the first school to divest from private prisons.

In response to climate change, divestment means the selling of all stocks, bonds and investment funds in oil, gas and coal companies. The Carbon Underground 200 identifies the largest public coal, oil and gas reserve owners based on the potential CO2 emissions of their reported reserves. This list accounts for 97 percent of the reported fossil fuel reserves, which amount to four times the fossil fuels that can be burned while keeping warming below 2°C. The list is a central screening tool used to determine which companies should not be invested in.

Divestment makes no difference to the company being divested from. The shares that are sold off are almost instantaneously purchased by another party, doing nothing to harm the capital reserves of these extremely profitable organizations. Rather, divestment is a symbolic gesture. It is the pronouncement that people no longer want to profit off the destruction of the planet. However, herein lies the hypocrisy of divestment. While those who have divested may not be financially profiting from coal, oil and gas, they are still reliant on fossil fuels. We all rely on them for heat, cooling, transportation and energy. In today’s world, it is nearly impossible for someone to eliminate his or her dependence on fossil fuels entirely.


Photo of Columbia University courtesy of Beyond My Ken via Wiki Commons


With these critiques in mind, some faculty and researchers of the Earth Institute have put forward their own broader and more holistic divestment plan. The plan maps out a complete divestment from coal while providing conditions that oil and gas companies must meet in order to be considered for current or future Columbia investment. In brief, the plan proposes that the university should not be invested in any company that rejects climate change or is not committed to keeping warming below 2°C. In addition to divestment, the university should also devote the necessary financial and managerial resources to implement sustainability measures. In this capacity, they recommend the university should work over the next 12 months to produce a report that identifies how significant expenditures of short-term funds can reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the near term.

While the discussion of divestment is likely the most contested, it is not the only environmental conversation occurring on the Columbia campus. The university is engaging community members on the development of a series of sustainability principles, which will set forth a high-level vision of what sustainability on campus should look like. The principles are currently being finalized and a draft is available here. In order to meet these abstract principles, the university has built a sustainability planning process that will work to draft a strategic plan for release in April 2017. The report currently focuses on three areas: transportation, greenhouse gas/energy, and waste management. Ultimately, the university is working to build a new governance model on campus to help emphasize what is already being done and to find new solutions.

All of this is not to say that Columbia University has been all talk and no action. In response to the NYC Carbon Challenge, the university has successfully reduced its emissions by 16.8 percent of 2006 levels. Of this reduction, 11.2 percent came from the conversion of fuel from oil to natural gas in 113 residential buildings and a major renovation of the powerhouse—a facility responsible for the heating and cooling of more than 60 buildings on campus. Once all other buildings are converted, there will be a further 2.7 percent reduction. Columbia has also hired an energy services company to work on implementing large-scale energy conservation and renewable energy projects. The shift to hybrid cars for the public safety fleet, installations of green roofs, and switching to energy-saving light bulbs are also contributing to campus-wide reductions.

The recent conversations on campus, including the sustainability principle forums and the discussion on Columbia’s responsibilities to act on climate change, drive home that as a community there is more we need to do. As a research and educational institution that has produced endless amounts of evidence on the dangers of anthropogenic climate change, we must continue to act on climate change. The report from the Senior Sustainability Advisory Team will shed new light on the direction this action will take. What has come out of these discussions is the importance to not merely demand action, but to look closely at ourselves and the different communities that we are a part of and ask: What is our role in responding to climate change?

Christopher Cadham is an MPH student at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and an intern at the Columbia Climate Center.

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