Less than a year after the closure of the Yale Climate and Energy Institute, faculty members in the climate sciences say the University continues to promote research and teaching in the field.
The institute, which oversaw and funded multidisciplinary research on climate change and energy use from 2009 to 2016, closed in June due to a lack of funding. Although media outlets and Yale community members decried its closure as indicative of the University’s shrinking commitment to climate studies, Yale has maintained its course offerings and programs in the field. However, faculty interviewed said an umbrella institution like the YCEI would strengthen scholarship, due to the interdisciplinary nature of climate science, and that the University could better reaffirm its commitment to the topic.
“I think we could do better,” said Gary Brudvig, chemistry professor and director of the West Campus Energy Sciences Institute, which was launched under the YCEI. “It certainly wasn’t a step forward to end the YCEI … it sends a message on campus and outside of campus that the University doesn’t have this as a priority, which I think is really not true but certainly doesn’t give us a good image.”
David Bercovici, a geology and geophysics professor and the former interim co-director of the YCEI, said many students and faculty involved with the institute were upset when it closed last spring. He added that the announcement of the closure was picked up by news agencies like Fox News as “proof that Yale had given up on climate science,” which he called a distortion.
Geology and geophysics professor Trude Storelvmo said that as a climate scientist, it was difficult for her to read such articles. Citing her global warming seminar, which attracted 90 shoppers for 20 slots this spring, she argued there still exists high student demand for courses on this subject.
“My hope is that some new ambitious initiative within the broader topic of climate will be launched, and in part I hope that will be the case because I’m seeing what our peer institutions are doing in this area,” Storelvmo said, referring to other Ivy League schools that are growing their climate science faculty and launching related initiatives.
Still, faculty acknowledged Yale’s progress in climate science teaching and research. Brudvig cited the Office of Sustainability’s work to improve energy efficiency on campus and the increased number of course offerings related to climate science as examples of the University’s commitment.
Even before the establishment of the YCEI, Yale had already begun investing more in the climate sciences, Bercovici said. For example, he said the Geology and Geophysics department began a push to hire more climate scientists starting in 2007, and later lobbied alongside other departments for the creation of the institute. The institute’s years of operation, Bercovici said, saw new research and collaborations within and between departments, papers published, grants acquired, faculty hired in climate and energy fields and the establishment of new programs such as the Energy Sciences Institute and the undergraduate Energy Studies Program.
“Those efforts, those people and those institutes and programs are still here even if the YCEI is not,” Bercovici said. “It’s too bad the YCEI is gone for many reasons, but the bottom line is there is a legacy … we did some good in the end, whatever else one might say about it, and Yale and its students still benefit from these today.”
He added that undergraduate and graduate student groups continue to organize around environmental concerns. Brudvig also praised the Energy Scholars Program, through which undergraduates take classes about the scientific, economic and policy aspects of climate science and complete a capstone project to receive a certification in energy. Brudvig said the majority of students in the program are not STEM majors and come from departments such as political science, history and economics.
Bill Nordhaus ’63 GRD ’73, an economics professor who specializes in environmental and resource economics, said the closure of the institute was detrimental to cross-departmental collaboration, stressing the need for the University to create another home for broad-based research on climate change in the next decade. Brudvig said focused centers like the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the Yale Center for Environment Law & Policy — both of which contributed to the Yale Climate & Energy Institute — do important work, but does not have an umbrella organization like the institute to unite them.
“Research on climate change involves not only earth sciences but also social sciences, public health and law,” Nordhaus said. “Yale is extremely strong in virtually all fields. However, Yale has been slow in providing institutional support for initiatives that cross disciplinary boundaries.”
Faculty members added that efforts to research and mitigate climate change are particularly urgent in light of increasingly rapid environmental changes and President Donald Trump’s expressed skepticism about global warming. It is becoming clear that the environment is going through dramatic changes at a faster pace than scientists thought, Storelvmo said, citing examples such as the disappearance of Arctic sea ice and the increase in global temperatures.
Bercovici warned that the Trump administration will likely defund climate science research by cutting civil funding in his proposed budget, deconstructing the Environmental Protection Agency and enforcing his recent gag order on EPA scientists.
“It is going to be incumbent on all universities to be more proactive in keeping important but ‘politically problematic’ activities alive and going,” Bercovici said. “If rich universities like Yale choose to ignore this coming crisis and act like everything is status quo, then it will be a damaging downward spiral for more than just our community, and really eventually the entire human race.”
Universities like Yale have a moral duty to inform the public about the climate crisis and the political context surrounding it, said Alexandre Sayegh, a postdoctoral fellow at the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies currently teaching a course on the ethics of climate change. He added that individual academics and students are obligated to share their information with the general public, and that universities themselves make statements as social entities.
Storelvmo said that Yale’s ability to facilitate collaboration across academic departments places it at an advantage in addressing the complex issue of climate change.
“Yale has a lot of strengths and is some ways is uniquely positioned to address this really important problem, if it were just willing to prioritize it,” she said.
The Energy Studies program accepted 36 students from the class of 2019 this fall, marking the largest class of energy scholars since the program started in 2013.