In order to understand how and why Mitch Barrows ’16 became invested in environmental issues, you have to go back to where he grew up.
“The closest town had 300 people,” Barrows said of his home in Michigan. “And I lived outside of it.”
He spent most of his childhood outside, entertaining himself with “trees and dirt and grass and all that good stuff.” It never occurred to him that people who lived elsewhere might have different relationships with the environment. His own world was a bubble, where humankind and nature were inextricably linked.
In high school, he began to travel to places that he’d never been before. Visits to industrial cities like Gary, Indiana, and Chicago exposed him to people who, unlike him, felt no real connection to nature. This is when Barrows first began identifying as an environmentalist, an identity he once thought applied to everyone.
At Yale, Barrows’s commitment to the environment has only sharpened. As project manager of Fossil Free Yale (FFY) — a student organization that leads the campaign to convince the University’s Corporation Council on Investor Responsibility (CCIR) to divest from fossil fuel companies — Barrows has been an unsilenceable voice in the movement ever since.
Barrows, like most involved in FFY, was disheartened to hear the Yale Corporation’s decision not to divest from fossil fuel companies, announced in an email to students on Aug. 27. After a couple of years of hard work within the guidelines of the administration, Barrows and his collaborators hit a wall.
In the same email announcing the CCIR’s decision against divestment — sent as FFY met with the Corporation and the University President Peter Salovey in Woodbridge Hall — Salovey laid out a series of six new sustainability initiatives for the University to follow.
Salovey acknowledged the importance of Yale’s investment decisions, but argued that the University’s role in environmental activism lay in other areas. “I believe that Yale’s most important contributions come from its teaching and research, its internal practices and its leadership by example and encouragement among peer institutions,” Salovey’s email read.
Many students and faculty members interviewed expressed disappointment with the divestment decision, and in a survey sent to a random sample of undergraduate students by the News, 64 percent (75 people) of 119 respondents said they opposed the Corporation’s decision.
And that general support of environmental initiatives taps into a larger feeling amongst the student body. Of 119 respondents, 78 (66 percent) said they personally believe climate change to be “important” or “very important.” Not everyone participates with the same fervor as Barrows — only 28 (24 percent) said they had taken a course concerning environmentalism, and only 18 (15 percent) said they had participated in environmentally oriented extracurriculars — but the prominence of these issues has become clear.
So when Salovey announced a new set of sustainability initiatives in the same email as the divestment decision, activists found themselves torn. The University had stepped away from the chance to make a significant gesture on green issues, but proposed other steps forward.
Some were pleased with a pivot away from a unitary focus on divestment, while others promised to push back against the CCIR. For Barrows — who has come to view climate change as the “most important justice issue of our time” to which most other global issues are linked — the administration’s efforts weren’t nearly enough. Sustainability is all well and good, but a university with more than 12,000 students, a $20 billion endowment and a name recognized around the world could, in Barrows’s view, do much, much more.
Other activists echoed that notion—the university has the means, and the student support, to go beyond the status quo. Gabe Rissman ’17, the former policy coordinator for Fossil Free Yale, said divestment is still the most effective action Yale could take, but there’s no need to choose only one.
“It’s not an either or, it’s an all of the above,” he said. “We should do everything we can be doing.”
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On the concourse level wall of Kline Biology Tower, nine adjacent LCD panels spanning a total of 50 square feet display a constantly changing slide show detailing Yale’s environmental initiatives. Curators Lori Bronars and Gwyneth Crowley worked on this digital media exhibit for nearly 6 months before it went on display, and with good reason: Yale’s sustainability efforts are numerous, highly varied and incredibly far-reaching.
The exhibit’s 73 slides covered everything from the number of LEED-certified spaces on campus (three platinum, 16 gold, two silver) to environmentally sound waste management practices, to efforts to make campus transportation more green. Yale has a bike-sharing service, a “green roof” atop the Yale Health building to mitigate storm water runoff. A new radio show from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies promises to spread climate change awareness in just 90-second blurbs. The fledgling Yale Climate & Energy Institute, which took off about five years ago, provides an interdisciplinary, interdepartmental course of studies for students of all backgrounds interested in combating climate change in various ways.
The six new initiatives President Salovey recently announced will only broaden these efforts. The University will invest $21 million over the next three years to improve energy conservation and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in buildings on central, medical and west campuses. A new task force chaired by Sterling Professor of economics William Nordhaus will investigate the potential for implementing a new internal carbon charge. The University will install a 1.25 megawatt array of solar panels, to cover over 350,000 square feet of roof and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 500 metric tons per year. At least two new Green Innovation Fellowships will be established to fund innovative student, faculty or staff ventures in emerging green businesses. Yale will join the Climate Registry in an effort to ensure transparent greenhouse gas monitoring and disclosure methods. The Sustainability Advisory Council will examine whether University-wide goals are ambitious enough.
According to the administration, these initiatives reinforce Yale’s pre-existing commitment to green issues.
“I am excited about the innovative sustainability initiatives,” Virginia Chapman, the director of Yale’s Office of Sustainability, wrote in an email, highlighting the third-party verification of Yale’s greenhouse gas emissions and the task force investigating internal carbon pricing as particularly important.
Other supporters noted that these programs will have an impact far beyond New Haven. According to professor Michael Oristaglio ’74 GRD ’74, the executive director of the Yale Climate and Energy Institute, the energy future of the Earth lies in the developing world. These nations have more than three times the population of the developed world, and the choices they make will have by far the larger long term impact on climate change. The best contribution Yale could make, then, would be a scientific innovation to help developing countries grow sustainably. In that sense, Oristaglio considers the new initiatives’ focus on research and education promising.
Most student environmental leaders, however, were less enthusiastic about the scope of these programs.
Tess Maggio ’16, the president of Project Bright — a student organization whose mission is to increase the presence of solar energy sources on campus and in New Haven — said the new solar installations on West Campus, which have been in the works for a long time, are especially exciting. The carbon tax is also a big step, she said.
But she’s less optimistic about the initiatives as a whole.
“I wouldn’t say they’re sufficient, but for right now they’re a step forwards,” Maggio said.
Others argue that step isn’t quite in the right direction. Rissman said the administration’s announcements included “a lot of good things,” which still felt “insufficient when compared to the scope of the harms caused by climate change and the moral obligations we have as a University.”
Barrows took the argument a step further, calling the initiatives “a distraction” from what he sees as a far more important issue. The email announcing the CCIR’s decision was titled “New Sustainability Initiatives at Yale,” yet it included the announcement of the decision against divestment. Barrows didn’t find the actions Salovey was celebrating all that great.
“They seem kind of lukewarm,” he said. “They’re kind of weak to me.”
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The official statement from the CCIR on divestment, which Salovey linked to in that email, articulates one of the clearest, and most common, critiques of the issue — that it’s just a gesture.
“We feel strongly that symbolic action cannot replace real and measurable steps taken to reduce or reverse the actions of climate change,” Neal Keny-Guyer SOM ’82, a member of the CCIR, wrote in an email to the News.
Other members involved in the decision-making process expanded on that central idea. Jonathan Macey LAW ’84, the chair of the Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility, which helps guide CCIR decisions, argued that while possibly creating stigma towards fossil fuel corporations, “divestment would not affect the companies or their operations.” Instead, its effectiveness would lie in getting headlines, and that attention would be counterproductive if divestment seemed to have been done only for the sake of those headlines.
“There has to be some argument that this is going to do some good,” he said.
But the FFY members interviewed hesitated to call the action of divestment “symbolic.” It’s true that divestment from a company will not significantly reduce its stock value or immediately bankrupt it, Rissman said, but it could bring about other forms of tangible change.
Referring to an Oxford University study that researched the impact of divestments throughout history, Rissman said that almost every such movement in our nation’s history has led to restrictive legislation.
“Divestment leads to sentiment and stigma of the companies divested from,” he said. “That’s what people are calling symbolic, but it’s not imaginary. It’s definitely there.”
These discussions lead into larger questions about whether the fossil fuel companies are fully responsible for the effects of their products. While these companies store and market environmentally harmful goods, consumers are the ones who actually use them. That is, the demand side of the market is perhaps deserving of at least as much blame as the supply side.
“It’s at a consumption level,” said Professor Oristaglio, echoing portions of the CCIR statement that argued that both fossil fuel companies and consumers contribute injury. “It’s the consumer side that needs to change.”
The difficulty of assigning blame — or simply limiting it to one party — separates this divestment debate from those over other industries. Macey brought up the decision to divest from companies whose business practices perpetuated the injustices of apartheid South Africa in the early 1990s. In cases like that one, he pointed out, the companies’ control over the transgression was complete.
Additionally, not all actions involving fossil fuels are necessarily bad — fossil fuels are burned in daily actions such as transportation. Fossil fuels, ironically, are even fundamental for researching new sustainable energy alternatives.
“I’m not suggesting these companies are benign, but they’re only one half of the total picture,” Macey said.
While agreeing that the consumer side certainly contributes to the issue, members of FFY argued that action against the supply side in ethical investment cases is not unprecedented. Consumers are not an organized entity, so their contributions are harder to address. University campaigns against tobacco companies in the 1990s, Rissman pointed out, all targeted the supply side of the problem.
But even after deciding what side of the problem to target, specific perpetrators are hard to pin down. Those interviewed disagreed over the quality of the metrics currently used to determine which companies are harmful enough to necessitate divestment.
Professor Daniel Esty LAW ’86, Director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, argued that the data to determine which companies are doing significant harm is not reliable, or even totally available. “Existing metrics that are being used to gauge which companies are doing well in response to climate change are currently insufficient,” he said.
The official statement from the CCIR made much the same point, stating that determining which companies are socially injurious enough to justify divestment is a question “fraught with difficulty.”
But some have more faith in the methods. Professor Oristaglio, for example, said there are enough metrics to make an informed decision now. And according to Rissman, the process is simple. In revising their proposal in response to criticisms from the ACIR, FFY identified methods that would make this determination even easier — focusing on specific sets of readily available emissions factors.
The arguments go beyond the numbers, however. Some members of Fossil Free Yale, Rissman among them, assert that in deciding not to divest, Yale has failed to adhere to its own ethical guidelines. The social injury caused by the problem, he argues, is clear; President Salovey himself referred to global climate change as “the most important issue that faces the world in our time” in an August comment to the News.
“[The members of the administration] understand the social injury associated with climate change,” Rissman said.
But just because something is a social injury, Macey argued, doesn’t mean that it’s one that needs to be addressed through divestment. He believed that divestment is last step in an ongoing process.
“Social injury is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for divestment,” he said.
If new arguments and data convince him and the other members of the ACIR that divestment would be effective, Macey says, the outcome could be different. But for the moment, they’ve read what there is to read and remain unconvinced.
That the question of divestment is far from over is one thing, at least, that everyone can agree on. In fact, the issue may just be heating up — for better or for worse. Macey saw the current state of the debate — especially at schools beside Yale, where negotiations have broken down further — as a “power struggle,” with both sides prioritizing a win over a fair discussion of ideas.
FFY has no intentions of backing down, or even complying with the framework proposed by the administration. At a recent meeting, members overwhelmingly voted to adopt a more radical, less compliant approach to convincing the Yale Corporation to divest.
“We felt held back before, and now there’s nothing holding us back,” Barrows said. “The disrespect that we felt, not just as Fossil Free, but as students, has led to this conclusion that we don’t think we need to follow somebody else’s rules anymore.”
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Environmentalism hasn’t always been a standoff. Decades before the members of Fossil Free Yale protested outside Woodbridge Hall, student environmentalism took root with the founding of the Yale Student Environmental Coalition. Established in 1986, YSEC became an umbrella organization for all environmental student groups and initiatives. According to YSEC’s website, the University created its Office of Sustainability following the organization’s compiling and submission of a report called “The Yale Green Plan.”
Today’s YSEC oversees six subsidiary groups, including FFY, Yale Food Action and the Yale Undergraduate 3D Printing Organization. YSEC’s first meeting saw an attendance of 60 — a turnout that Daniel Leibovic ’17, the group’s president, was very happy with. In his estimation, student interest in the environment is as strong as ever.
Of the possible issues for students to get involved with, divestment has lately seemed to be the most easily available. Still some interviewed voiced criticism of the way that debate could overshadow other discussions. In responding to the News’s survey, 63 percent of students (74 people) agreed that in response to climate change, the University should both engage in research and development and invest responsibly, but 31 percent (36 people) said that the University should exclusively focus on research and development.
Many proponents and members of Fossil Free’s campaign are quick to cite the results of last November’s Yale College Council referendum — in which 83 percent of voters expressed support for divestment — as an example of the students’ support for climate change initiatives. But only 54 percent of the student body even voted on that issue — barely enough to make the referendum binding to a Yale College Council endorsement.
YSEC oversees funding for its constituent groups, and Leibovic said it’s important to recognize various causes. He added that the debate over which tactics are most useful — and implicitly, to which initiatives resources are allocated — is not a new one.
“In my experience, I think that no one knows what the best way to address this issue is, or else we would have solved it already,” Leibovic reasoned. His personal preference is for the development of renewable, more efficient energy technologies, but he also said ideally, there should be a balance between different components and methods of environmental action.
Carlos Gould ’15, who has been involved with both FFY and the Sustainability Service Corps, and who now works for Yale Facilities, said he believes that the best driver toward sustainability is behavioral change.
In his position with the SSC, Gould worked with the Energy Team and investigated energy use within the residential colleges. He found that a significant chunk — 13 percent — of all electricity consumed within the colleges comes from dorm rooms and not just energy sinks like dining halls, libraries and other public spaces. The Corps now focuses on programming that will help students better manage their carbon footprints. Such positive changes in habit will carry on through their lives, he said.
“If we can change you to be more sustainable now, you’re going to be more sustainable for the rest of your life,” Gould said. He added that as individuals begin to act more sustainably, they may, in turn cause their friends to reconsider their habits.
Others agreed that individual actions may contribute broadly to the sustainability effort. Esty emphasized the positive effects of becoming a more conscious consumer. In a similar vein, Barrows said he personally has adopted a vegetarian diet and made efforts to fly less.
When asked what Yale students, in general, can do, Maggio, the president of Project Bright, had an answer that summed up others’ sentiments.
“Be supportive of the sustainability efforts at Yale. It’s little steps — shorter showers, turn off the lights. Making lifestyle alterations is just as much a part of it as demanding larger action. But obviously there’s only so much you can really do. The best thing we can do as students is just to be as educated about the issue as possible.”