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Observer Editorial: Sustainability plan a ‘[dream] too small’

| Friday, November 18, 2016

In 2005, when University President Fr. John Jenkins delivered his inaugural address, he sought to define the role of a great Catholic university in the 21st century, praying “Let no one ever again say that we dreamed too small.” In the decade since then, the University has certainly been ambitious: Academic standards for students are higher, research efforts have expanded, the endowment has more than doubled and the football team – save for this season – is looking its best in 20-plus years. However, there is one front in which the University has dreamed too small, failing to reach its full potential in the face of serious ecological, humanitarian and moral consequences: climate change.

The University’s failure to combat climate change ultimately begins with how it chooses to allocate its financial resources. As last year’s editorial board argued, it is time to divest from fossil fuels. By financially supporting traditional energy companies in return for profits, the University is complicit in the activities of an industry that not only cause irreparable damage to the environment through high-risk fuel recovery methods, but also violate sacred Native American land, directly contributes to the ill health of coal miners and permanently ruins marine habitats, among other injustices. It shouldn’t matter if the rest of the world continues to support these industries; the University has a deep-set moral obligation to better our world.

However, the University’s responsibility to the future of the environment extends beyond its investments, encompassing both its day-to-day operations and its long-term sustainability plan introduced this past September. In official press releases, the administration has hailed this new plan as both “realistic and ambitious.” But this board believes that ambition, and the subsequent goals, are too small. While we applaud the University’s decision to shift away from burning coal, we’re simply not doing enough — we are still active participants in the destruction of our planet by consuming natural gas. By doing so, the University is complicit in the activities of corporations that engage in fracking, and thereby contaminate local water sources, increase global warming and produce other as-yet-uncertain effects on the environment. Additionally, given the University’s immense financial resources, an investment of $113 million over an undetermined time period in order to achieve 25 percent renewable power by 2050 gives the impression that slowing climate change is not a big priority for the administration — especially considering that the University currently has $400 million invested in the fossil fuel industry.

The language of the sustainability plan is, at best, tepid. It invokes Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato si’” at several points throughout, yet fails to capture the true meaning of his words by refusing to describe climate change as a crisis of the utmost urgency. Pope Francis calls the environment’s destruction a crisis almost 30 times in his letter — the University’s sustainability plan does not demonstrate the same sense of urgency.

Furthermore, the University’s plan presents a serious lack of accountability and timeliness. The standing committee only meets once a year to review and improve the University’s sustainability plan, while its working groups — intended to set and document the actual, measurable benchmarks — are only required to report once every two years.

In addition to the lackadaisical approach to combatting the destruction of the environment, the University has chosen to be vague about its goals. It talks about reduction of carbon emissions in terms of reduction per gross square feet rather than in real numbers, which is problematic because — as any of us who have taken a 10-minute walk around campus know — the University is locked into a perpetual state of growth. This means that while the University could become more efficient on a foot-by-foot basis, the goals leave room for the University to actually increase its total emissions.

When looking at the plans other universities have set forth to combat climate change, the University’s plans appear to be even less ambitious. Stanford’s Climate Action Plan calls for reducing carbon emissions to at least 80 percent below 1990 levels in absolute terms in the face of rapid campus growth. Cornell recently revised their climate action plan to be at net zero emissions by 2035 — 15 years earlier than Notre Dame’s benchmark. It’s true that these schools started working on sustainability plans almost a decade earlier and, thus, have had more time to implement them. But we must be bold in designing our sustainability plans if we are to have a future. Whether or not these schools achieve these goals remains to be seen, but the fact remains that our administration is unwilling to make bigger sacrifices for the sake of our future.

In the aftermath of this most recent election cycle, much of the talk has centered on how our nation — and specifically, our media — has enabled and normalized hate. This week, our administration took an important step by declaring its intentions to ensure that undocumented students are able to complete their education. However, the University cannot say that it is fully invested in the well-being of its students if it is willing to profit from the destruction of the environment. Through its refusal to divest in fossil fuels and inability to develop a more comprehensive and timely sustainability plan, the administration is normalizing climate violence while quietly accepting the irreversible damage it will inflict upon us in the future. At best, this represents willful ignorance that diverges from the culture of intellectuality the University claims to foster; at worst, an alarming apathy toward our moral obligations.

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