Oberlin Alumni Magazine

Fall 2008 Vol. 104 No. 1 OAM Home | Oberlin Online

Green Living on a Blue Planet: Why Colleges Must Take the Lead

New college graduates have much to learn about budgeting. Many are financially on their own for the first time. Rent, groceries, taxes, and student loans need to be balanced against income. But today’s college graduates must also concern themselves with a new category of budgeting—one relating to carbon. They are the first graduates to confront a truly worldwide environmental challenge, that of balancing the carbon budget to ameliorate the negative consequences of climate change.

Colleges and universities, therefore, are obligated to teach students how to accomplish such a daunting task. Many of the lessons can take place in the classroom. Others are embodied in the management and development of a campus itself—the maintenance of grounds, the heating and cooling of dorms and classrooms, the construction of new buildings, and the provisioning of food and transportation.

On our campuses and in our economy, each bite we eat, each item we discard, each e-mail we send, and each dollar we spend entails the conversion of fossil fuel to carbon dioxide. Our ever-growing use of fossil fuels has caused a sharp increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, and the result is a carbon budget tipping farther out of balance each day. Achieving carbon neutrality is a necessity, one that requires transitioning our economy and mindset from a society dependent upon fossil fuel to one powered by renewable energy.

In 2006, former World Bank Chief Economist Nicholas Stern concluded that climate change is the number-one threat to our global economy. Already visible are economic losses stemming from increased storms, droughts, heat waves, disease, human displacements, and loss of agricultural productivity. Stern estimates that each metric ton of carbon dioxide emitted causes at least $85 in economic damage. The good news is the current costs of reducing emissions are placed at less than $25 per ton.

The United States will almost certainly be compelled to join other industrial nations in limiting its carbon dioxide emissions. Methods may include enacting a carbon tax, which exacts a charge on each unit of greenhouse gas emitted, as well as cap and trade policies that limit overall emissions but allow businesses to trade emissions allowances so as to minimize economic disruption. Institutions like the Chicago Climate Exchange, the carbon equivalent of the stock market, illustrate the potential for integrating carbon accounting with 21st-century market economics.

But regulating carbon emissions is more than an environmental or economic issue—it’s an ethical one as well. There has never been a clearer example of ecological injustice than our industrial carbon economy. Although China has overtaken the U.S. as the world’s top emitter of carbon dioxide, Americans release many more metric tons of carbon dioxide per person than the Chinese. Meanwhile, all credible forecasts predict that the consequences of climate change will be disproportionately borne by the poorest countries—those least responsible for their emissions and the least equipped to cope with the challenges.

There is good news. Carbon is the ultimate universal currency; it unites every person, village, organization, and country on earth. The things we do on a local scale to reduce our carbon expenditures—commuting by bicycle, eating locally grown foods, conserving electricity and water—help us to reconnect with human and ecological communities. On a global scale, balancing the carbon budget requires an unprecedented degree of cooperation among regions and nations.

The quest to balance carbon emissions might also be an antidote to the consumption and waste so prevalent in our country. Most of us don’t know the origin or consequences of the food we consume, the products we use, or the waste we create. Transitioning away from a culture of consumption is just as important to balancing the carbon budget as conserving energy and using renewable sources.

Institutions of higher education are poised to play a leading role in developing and executing climate neutral policy. College campuses are particularly important because they act as laboratories for exploring and developing the knowledge, culture, policies, technologies, and behaviors necessary to achieve carbon neutrality. Oberlin, like an increasing number of its peer institutions, has adopted a comprehensive environmental policy, addressing things like energy use, purchasing, building construction and management, food, waste, grounds management, and education.

Many colleges are beginning to recognize that an engaged campus community is imperative to moving toward a balanced carbon budget. In 2006, Oberlin was the first of its peer institutions to sign the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment. By September 2008, the presidents of 574 schools had signed the pledge. Each agrees to develop a budget accounting for all carbon-emissions-associated campus operations, as well as a long-term plan for achieving carbon neutrality.

Institutions across the country are also expanding course offerings in climate change policy and science. At Oberlin, coursework goes a step further. In "campus sustainability" classes, students and faculty members actually work with the administration to analyze, explore, and develop strategies to reduce heat-trapping emissions in our own backyard.

The fact is, climate change will touch the lives of all of today’s students, regardless of their chosen careers. The creativity and critical-thinking skills that students develop from an arts and humanities curriculum may help them grapple with the meaning of our rapidly changing climate. Literature, religion, sculpture, photography, language—all provide perspectives from which to understand the relationship between humans and their environments.

A key goal of a liberal-arts education in this century must be to equip students with a diverse set of intellectual tools and learning experiences needed to ensure the future health of our planet. With the help of supportive institutions and faculty members, new college graduates will have the chance to construct a world and culture vastly improved from the one they’ve inherited.

John Petersen ’88 directs the Environmental Studies Program at Oberlin.