Sustainable solutions lie in lab, not lights

Perhaps some of Yale’s environmentalists were surprised by Monday’s News story about the University’s refusal to join some 70 other schools in pledging climate neutrality by 2020. Surely the same institution that managed to cut its energy use by 10 percent last year would want to take this step to remain a leader among universities in sustainability?

But the News believes Yale made the wise decision not to pledge to such a far-off goal. Agreeing so early to meet such a high standard is a political move, not the kind of practical action needed to solve the all too real environmental problems that loom in our and our children’s future. In theory, reducing our environmental footprint is something we should all strive for, but it is necessary to be honest about which solutions are just talk and which solutions can make a meaningful difference in the battle against New Haven’s becoming the tropics or, worse, Atlantis.

Yale can make a difference in the fight against climate change, but our most meaningful contribution to this struggle will not come just from turning off the lights behind us, or even putting political pressure on peer universities to reduce their own energy use. Ours is not just a campus of energy-hungry buildings, not just a politically influential institution — Yale is one of the world’s premier research and teaching institutions, with top-notch labs and the ability to harness not just wind power, but the brainpower of some of the world’s top scientists and scholars.

In addition to promising, as President Levin already has, to consume less energy, Yale could do more to emphasize the work being done by our environmental programs and forestry school to develop the next generation of technologies that could, literally, save the world. While Yale has garnered headlines for Levin’s success in making Yale’s campus environmentally friendly, Yale is not alone in its focus on sustainability; research universities such as Stanford, Levin’s alma mater and home to the Woods Institute for the Environment, are working equally hard to make the rest of the world environmentally friendly too.

Yale is in the process of investing $1 billion in our science and engineering programs, and the Class of 1954 Environmental Science Center opened its doors just a few years ago. Rather than plan now to pledge resources to bring our campus to climate neutrality by 2020 — as admirable a goal as that is — Yale would be better off continuing to ramp up its investment in environmental engineering so Yale can become more of a leader with respect to our scholarship on issues of sustainability.

So yes, continue to turn off your lights and wear a sweater in the winter and take colder, shorter showers. But remember — Yale is more than an influential office park, and it is our professors and researchers and students who will, in the long run, be most effective in solving this Herculean problem facing our generation.

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