In D.C., green Yale takes national lead

In Washington, D.C. yesterday, the esteemed Republican U.S. senator from Idaho, Larry Craig, turned his attention from a Minneapolis bathroom to the Yale classroom.

“[Yale’s] carbon footprint is three times as large as Cal-Berkeley’s,” he told University President Richard Levin, who was visiting the Capitol to testify before the Senate’s environment committee.

Levin confirmed that much — there was no hiding the truth — but also offered a defense: “We’re in a harsher climate,” he began, “and we have …” But a vindictive Craig cut him off. “No excuses!,” he said — and later, “You’re losing.” Upon reaching the climax of the harangue: “Voila!” The scene was bizarre, to say the least.

And the tirade seemed particularly unfitting in April 2008. Later this month, after all, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other North American leaders will descend on New Haven for an epic University-sponsored conference on climate change. Just yesterday, a panel discussion in Rosenfeld Hall marked the culmination of Yale’s four-day Sustainability Summit. In January, Levin announced an impressive 17-percent reduction in Yale’s carbon emissions since 2005.

However much the University still must mollify its own adverse impact on the local environment, a larger — and more globally significant — trend has become clear over the past few months, particularly in recent weeks: Yale has become the leader among higher-education institutions on climate change.

Levin, who says he began taking “bolder” action after presented with a convincing report compiled by three undergraduates on Yale’s environmental practices, should be commended for his crucial role in moving the University toward this admirable position.

Not only has Yale taken tangible action of late; it has acted with innovation and an eye toward its students throughout.

As Levin pointed out in his testimony, more than 60 environmental courses are available to undergraduates — and are further embedded in graduate programs across multiple schools, from architecture to business. As always, the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the recently formed Office of Sustainability is leading the charge nationwide, albeit indirectly, and undergraduate groups such as STEP are …

Well, not so fast.

The mention of such groups — whether the aforementioned, the Yale Student Environmental Coalition, the Student Taskforce for Environmental Partnership or any organization with a similar-minded mission — is cause, we think, for pause on a related question: How can undergraduates at large become more engaged than they are now in the environment? (Shutting off a light switch for spring break — and munching on a grass-fed burger over dining-hall dinner — doesn’t quite cut it.)

We hope, for one, that the University ensures the upcoming conference on climate change is sufficiently cast as an undergraduate-friendly event. The prospect of interacting with those actually with the power to save the world — and, of course, meeting the Governator — could prove one solution. Yale College should also work to expand course offerings along the lines of Steven Sherwood’s “Earth’s Changing Climate” or Ronald Smith’s “Atmosphere, Ocean & Environmental Change” that both educate on global warming and fulfill the science distributional requirement.

In October, we called on Levin to take a stand in order to reactivate “one of our university’s richest traditions: outspoken leadership” and to “ensure not just development at Yale, but discourse.”

In April, he is admirably doing just that when it comes to the environment. The rest is up to us.

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