As the fall semester approaches, student groups at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland continue pushing for divestment from fossil fuels, among other environmentally conscious measures, as part of a larger movement that has extended throughout the nation’s college campuses.
Over 100 colleges and universities in the United States have been led by student organizations in committing to divest from fossil fuels and work toward more environmentally friendly practices.
In September 2021, Harvard University President Lawrence Bacow announced that the university would no longer invest in fossil fuel companies and that all legacy investments were in “runoff mode.”
The decision came after nearly a decade of pressure, including protests and legal complaints, from student organizations like “Divest Harvard.” The University of California announced in 2020 that it had completely divested its portfolio from fossil fuels after a number of student protests and, in 2022, students from Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT and Vanderbilt filed legal complaints urging their schools to divest from fossil fuels.
The state of Ohio is no exception to this nationwide student-led movement. Late in 2022, Ohio’s Oberlin College announced that it no longer had any direct holdings in fossil fuels and would eliminate indirect holdings by 2025.
Two student groups at The Ohio State University, Ohio Youth for Climate Justice and Sunrise Columbus, have similarly been protesting for divestment since the fall of 2021, but have been met with resistance from the board of trustees as well as former president Kristina M. Johnson.
Case Western continues to promote a climate action plan students feel is insufficient to address their climate concerns. The university’s 2020 updated plan promised a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Believing the plan didn’t go far enough, students formed a coalition between CWRU’s Student Sustainability Council and the university’s Sunrise Movement Chapter in September of 2022 to put forth the Green New Deal for Case Western, a document outlining the students’ more ambitious environmental plans as well as the steps needed to reach them.
The university’s climate action plan, originally created in 2011 and later updated in 2020, identifies investing in renewables energy on and off its campus; buying credits in green projects to offset transportation emissions from university vehicles, and encouraging behavioral change in students, faculty and staff as some priority solutions in an effort to achieve a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2050.
The university says it has already achieved a 20 percent reduction in emissions since the original Climate Action Plan was issued in 2011, primarily through a shift from coal to natural gas, a move students argue is more greenwashing than true environmental progress because natural gas, while cleaner than coal, still emits about half the carbon dioxide of coal in addition to nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, methane, nitrous oxide, volatile organic compounds and particulate matter.
“A big part of this transition, the 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the climate action plan, comes from a company’s transition from burning coal to natural gas in order to produce the electricity that we buy from them,” said Nathan George, a second-year economics student and coordinator for the Sunrise Movement at Case Western. “But in reality, natural gas is not that much cleaner than coal. So it’s misleading to suggest that this is a real, true step towards sustainability.”
George said that leaks of methane, a climate super-pollutant 80 times more warming than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, almost entirely negate “any benefit of transitioning from the carbon that comes from the coal, oil, and other traditional fossil fuels.”
George is not alone in his frustration. Members of the Green New Deal Coalition at Case Western focus on the university’s meager reliance on renewable energy sources and the overemphasis of its climate action plan on individual behavior change, rather than on the structural changes they argue are essential to combating climate change.
“One of our slogans in the Green New Deal campaign is ’talk is cheap, climate action now,’” said Abby Blaize, a fifth-year environmental engineering student and co-chair for the Green New Deal Coalition. “There’s a lot of talk and not nearly as much follow-through as we would like to see.”
The Green New Deal proposal includes more than 20 action steps. It calls for a transition to 100 percent renewable energy sources, free or heavily subsidized transit passes to all students and employees, a community council for evaluating climate action and increased support for the university’s Office of Energy and Sustainability, among other items.
Still, the administration stands by the climate action plan, saying it represents an innovative, consistent effort towards minimizing climate change. The administration further says that university leaders regularly engage with students and student groups. “It is the university’s practice for its president to address student issues, including climate change, through the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) and the Graduate Student Council (GSC). During the academic year, the university president meets monthly with the presidents of both groups,” the university said in an email in response to questions about student criticisms of its climate actions.
Despite this, students said they feel unheard. Blaize explained that her experience with university administrators has often left her feeling “ignored, siloed or patronized,” and she believes that more assertive action is needed. Students said in interviews that the bureaucracy of the university and its lengthy processes for implementing changes have, additionally, hindered their efforts.
“As we continue to engage in direct action, the response has been the same, ‘Why don’t you just go through” the Undergraduate Student Government,” said George. “By the time it gets through the USG, a couple years have passed, half of our group has graduated, and new priorities have arisen. But this is an issue that can’t wait; according to the latest IPCC report, we have to completely drop all fossil fuel projects by 2025.”
Students said they plan to continue to push for the Green New Deal, build greater solidarity between environmental groups on campus and expand their sustainability efforts into the greater Cleveland area.
Despite what they regard as the university’s recalcitrance, the student climate activists said they remain hopeful about the future of sustainability at Case Western. “A large part of what brings me hope is talking to students, staff and faculty,” said George. “We have a community of highly intelligent, highly passionate, and highly empathetic people who care about the world and believe that they have the power to change the world for the better. That’s really powerful.”