“I’m constantly thinking of ways I can improve the environmental conditions in my community and trying to get other people interested in helping me.”
“I’m really worried that young people won’t vote in the next election because they no longer believe in the system.”
“When I went home for winter break, I was shocked at the incredibly warm weather.”
In light of critical dialogue about inclusivity last fall, and in celebration of Earth Day on April 22, the Yale Climate Stories Project has begun asking questions: What is the role of community formation in sustainability at Yale? How can Yale foster conversations that go beyond checklist solutions to saving the planet? Taking an interdisciplinary approach to sustainability, the project invites faculty, staff and students to share anonymous “Climate Stories” online — instances when have they felt personally impacted by social, political, cultural or environmental conditions, either on or off campus.
Paige Curtis ’16, the organizer of the project, cited the class “Climate Communication for Public Policy,” taught by Paul Lussier ’82, as the inspiration behind her initiative.
“It was where my work first started,” Curtis said. “The main takeaway was that you have to connect environmental issues to personal values. Climate change is not solely an economic, scientific or social problem, it’s really a question of what people value and are willing to sacrifice in pursuit of a more stable future.”
When asked about her goals for the project, Curtis described the need for Yalies to broaden their understanding of climate by thinking about social and cultural conditions that are changing along with the environment. She hopes that with enough submissions, the project can reframe Earth Day so that the holiday — whose celebration of the entire Earth seems too broad to be personal — can spur community formation and inclusive sustainability. The idea is that people will feel more emotionally connected to climate-change concerns, and thus be more inclined to take action, Curtis said.
According to the Yale Sustainability website, although green initiatives often tend toward tangible forms of change, Climate Stories serves as a reminder that sustainability still has human experiences at its core. It is easy to quantify progress in terms of stacks of recycled paper or full compost bins, but it is rare to consider shifts in community attitudes toward the environment as real change. In reality, how people think and relate to each other in their social, cultural or political environment can incentivize them to make that space sustainable for everyone involved.
Students have been responding well to this human touch.
“I really like the project’s emphasis on people and their values,” Hannah Kwak said. “I think that ultimately, people are mostly influenced by the stories they’re told, [such as] the dominant attitudes in the media, in their friend groups, et cetera, and I think the project recognizes this.”
Chris Valdes ’17 added that the project seems like an interesting way to humanize issues that students usually think of in terms of big corporations like the Yale administration, and that he looks forward to seeing how the project pans out.
Curtis announced the pilot of the Yale Climate Stories Project on March 7 during a meeting with the Sustainability Service Corps at the Office of Sustainability, which is sponsoring the initiative.
“For the most part, the Yale Office of Sustainability has excellent programs in place to reduce your impact,” Curtis said. “What is missing from sustainability discourse in general are pathways for climate-change action that align with what people care about. This project is an opportunity to reflect on that.”
Curtis is referring to the observation that certain environmental concerns are more pressing in some communities than in others. For instance, some Yalies prioritize lowering the carbon footprint of dining halls, whereas others would like to see more a fuel-efficient shuttle system on campus.
Jane Zhang ’19, SSC coordinator for Berkeley College, attended and enjoyed Curtis’ presentation.
“The Yale Climate Stories Project is meant to engage diverse voices in Yale College in the conversation around climate change and the environment,” she explained. “Through Paige’s presentation to the Sustainability Service Corps, I was reminded of how important it is to consider equity, justice and injustice in campus sustainability and just generally, environmental thought and work.”
Zhang emphasized that the burdens of environmental degradation disproportionately affect minority communities and communities of color. She said she is certain that sharing ideas with people who have different cultural backgrounds and experiences will result in more inclusive and sensitive ways to address environmental issues.
The project has been circulated to various Yale student groups using posters and social media over the past two weeks. While Griffin Walsh ’19 did not hear about the project until very recently, he agreed with its objective.
“The project is extremely important in that it attempts to bring to light the reality that environmental problems like climate change not only affect every one of us, but also that these serious effects are happening right now,” he said. “There are so many major environmental problems that must be addressed, and the awareness raised by this project will hopefully spur people toward taking action to confront these environmental threats.”
Maanya Condamoor FES ’17 is a graduate affiliate of the Office of Sustainability who works with the Sustainability Service Corps to launch community-based environmental campaigns.
She affirmed, “I hope that it will encourage people to think more about all the different smaller impacts climate change will have on their lives, as opposed to thinking on a more global and long-term scale. It personalizes the issue and can help increase interest and participation in sustainability initiatives around campus, like SSC.”
Amber Garrard, the education and outreach manager at the Office of Sustainability, also expressed her support for the project.
“Sustainability recognizes that diversity is critical to ecosystem resilience, and also resilient social systems. The Climate Stories Project is an important platform to help us understand the diverse perspectives within our Yale community that will help build a strong sustainability effort on campus and beyond,” Garrard said, pointing to future institutional-level sustainability goals. “The Yale Office of Sustainability is currently developing Yale’s next Sustainability Strategic Plan for 2025. In the draft, one of the current Ambitions is around empowerment, specifically to foster a diverse and inclusive sustainability movement.”
While the Office of Sustainability has ambitious plans for the future, it is currently engaged in multiple projects. For example, also in the week leading up to Earth Day, the office organized an Energy-Saving Intramural Challenge. Energy statistics in every residential college were compared to baseline values from the preceding week, and colleges competed to achieve the greatest percentage decrease in electricity usage. The winning college will receive a free Salsa Fresca study break.
But in the meantime, even as students partake the various tangible ways to combat climate change — such as using less tap water, carpooling and buying products made from fair labor — they are welcome to share their voices with The Yale Climate Stories Project, which is ongoing and will remain open to submissions beyond Earth Day. Those interested in sharing a Climate Story may do so at http://yaleclimatestories.tumblr.com.