Evidence of the climate crisis is all around us: fire and smoke consume the West Coast, hurricanes batter the Gulf Coast with shocking regularity and global temperature averages break records each year. Fires and floods displace low-income communities in the midst of an unrelenting pandemic, forcing our most vulnerable to bear increasingly impossible burdens. Unless Democrats win both of the Senate run-offs in Georgia, federal legislation on climate change is likely dead on arrival in 2021.
Given this set of facts, one might expect the wealthiest institutions on the planet to decarbonize as quickly as possible. Surely the most powerful institutions, which have benefited from centuries of fossil fuel consumption, should strain their faculties to trailblaze a path to climate sanity for others to follow, especially when the federal government will not lead.
It seems that Yale disagrees. In 2019, University President Peter Salovey created a task force to develop a carbon neutrality plan for the University, a good first step. But the task force is going to under-deliver. Although the task force hasn’t released its official plan, our discussions with the administration through email and an in-person meeting on Feb. 20, 2020, indicated that they will select 2050 as the target date for achieving carbon neutrality — mirroring a goal Yale set four years ago.
Considering the dangers of the climate crisis and the University’s deep financial and technical resources, that timeline is simply too slow. We call on Yale to fully decarbonize by 2030.
Scientists have stressed the importance of decarbonizing as quickly as possible. Thanks to the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, humanity now knows just how much it has to lose once the planet heats up by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius — the temperature target that governments aspired to in the Paris Agreement. The litany of horrors includes sea level rise (Section B.2.2 of the hyperlinked report), ocean acidification (B.4.3), dangerous urban heat islands (B.5.2) and reduced food production (B.5.3). At 2 degrees Celsius, the picture gets even darker for almost all of the impacts listed in the report: That much warming would, as the IPCC has put it, threaten the “health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security and economic growth” (B.5) of “up to several hundred million” members of “disadvantaged and vulnerable populations” (B.5.1).
Avoiding that future demands deep cuts to emissions, now. According to the IPCC, limiting the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius “require[s] rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land … infrastructure, and industrial systems” (C.2). Further, 1.5 degrees Celsius “can only be achieved if global CO2 emissions start to decline well before 2030” (D.1). A Yale decision to act on a 2050 time frame does not meet the urgency expressed by the IPCC.
All global leaders must move quickly to address the climate crisis and hold warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But there are at least three reasons why Yale, in particular, has a duty to decarbonize by 2030.
First, Yale is a global leader in science, research and public policy. The challenge we face is unprecedented and will require an extraordinary degree of innovation. Yale is an institution that has the expertise to lead the way. Yale cannot share experiential knowledge with other communities in time to avert catastrophe if the University moves on a 2050 carbon neutrality time frame.
Second, Yale has a lot of money. With an endowment of some $31 billion even after the pandemic, Yale has an unrivaled level of resources. If Yale — and those in its wealthy peer group — act on a 2050 timeline, how can we expect the rest of the world to act with more urgency?
Third, Yale’s peers are stepping up. The University of California has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2025. Clark University, Smith College, Vassar College and University College London have all committed to carbon neutrality by 2030. Bowdoin College achieved carbon neutrality in 2018. Yale proposes to wait another generation. How can President Salovey explain that discrepancy?
2020 is a year of seemingly unending crises. A skeptic might ask whether now is the time for the University to address the climate crisis through an ambitious decarbonization pledge. Such a person might wonder: How can the University contain the pandemic and address racial justice and decarbonize within 10 years?
But that is a false choice. Climate action becomes more urgent, not less, in the context of racial injustice and a primarily respiratory pandemic. Racial injustice, the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change are not discrete disasters unfolding separately; each amplifies the other two. Yale cannot lead on the climate crisis without advancing racial justice; Yale cannot contain local outbreaks of COVID-19 without supporting historically marginalized communities within New Haven; Yale’s rapid action on emissions would benefit the respiratory health of all New Haven residents and the long-term habitability of our planet. Delay in addressing any of these overlapping crises is a delay in addressing all of them.
In early October, a group of students sent a letter to President Salovey asking him to commit to decarbonizing by 2030, but we have heard nothing. We ask students, faculty and staff to join the hundreds of students who have already signed this letter calling on President Salovey to act.
Yale’s mission statement tells us that “Yale educates aspiring leaders” for public service. It’s time for the University to do its part to ensure that there will still be a habitable world for its students to serve. Yale must pledge to be carbon neutral by 2030.
ALAN MITCHELL LAW ’21 and LEXI M. SMITH LAW ’22 are students at the Yale Law School. Contact them at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.