Campus Climate Committee Holds Open Discussions

This past Tuesday, the Campus Climate Committee convened the first of two scheduled campus-wide discussions on how to move forward with the campus’ sustainability initiative. These meetings aim to solidify the committee’s direction before they present their work and findings at the December Board of Managers meeting. Topics ranged from the construction of the new Biology, Engineering, and Psychology (BEP) building to how to structure our environmental curriculum to how Swarthmore can change its daily habits to make the campus a more sustainable place to live. 27 Swarthmore community members attended, excluding the committee members.

In September, Interim President Constance Hungerford put out a call for the community to submit ideas on how to make the campus more sustainable. The committee received over 160 ideas, which have been condensed and summarized into 10 general proposals, which can be found here. These preliminary ideas were presented at the Board of Managers’ September meeting, and the committee has been granted an initial $500,000 to pay for the engineering and architectural expertise required to help expand and evaluate the proposals.

The committee hopes to receive community input on how to weigh each of their goals, which include leadership, cost effectiveness, and dimensions of sustainability such as the College’s ongoing push to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035, conservation of water and food resources, and biodiversity.

The meeting began with a discussion of how, instead of strictly prioritizing one goal over the other, the college might think about how to create projects which will address multiple goals at once.

Maurice Eldridge ‘61, the Vice President for College and Community Relations and Executive Assistant to the President, said these goals are not mutually exclusive, and cited Georgia Tech’s new Engineered Biosystems Building as an example which combines the physical plant with environmental leadership: “It should be dramatically clear upon walking into [the new BEP] building why it is a perfect building. The picture of Georgia Tech’s new building showed all the glass, it was oriented the right way towards the sun, all of those things were quietly teaching.”

The discussion continued by brainstorming how multiple facets could complement each other — Ben Goloff ‘15 suggested the college should pursue projects that combine leadership with equitable distribution of social environmental burdens with environmental education. He also noted Swarthmore need to strike a balance between short-term and long-term goals: “It would be exciting to see projects that both have physical manifestations right now and link to long-term institutional changes, because I think neither of them can work as well on their own.”

Zoe Cina-Sklar ‘15 brought up the importance of student engagement on campus. Carr Everbach, Engineering Professor and Chair, followed up by asking how the College could involve students who are not in clubs like Ecosphere. Cina-Sklar responded, “When it’s only 5 or 10 students are involved, […] you can’t accomplish what you could if this was a campus-wide effort. For example, if composting was institutionalized, and it just became a part of the campus atmosphere instead of an in-group/out-group thing, I think that would make a big difference.”

Betsy Bolton, Coordinator of the Environmental Studies Program, then brought up the conflict between the academic proposals and the goal of carbon neutrality. Some of the academic proposals included expanding the Environmental Studies Program by adding three tenure tracks (which would cost an estimated $9 million), sponsoring open events to promote climate change awareness, and establishing a “President’s Seminar on Climate Change” open to the college community that would meet over the course of one or two years. She said she feels “a little tension between the college’s mission and the educational proposals because they are not directly lowering the college’s carbon footprint. Maybe we need to have some discussion of how the campus’ footprint versus the overall human footprint on the environment which could ultimately be affected in many tremendous ways by our commitment to education.”

Arthur McGarity, Engineering Professor, believed Swarthmore should not compromise its educational mission for the sake of carbon neutrality. He said, “I don’t see [Swarthmore’s carbon footprint] as the pre-eminent environmental problem. I’ve been in this field for 40 years, and I see a lot of environmental problems coming and going. But it’s certainly the hot one right now, so to speak. […] But we need to think about bending that pledge as well, if this single-dimensional pledge and this measure of carbon footprint reduction is really something we want to bend our educational mission for. […] This is a path that is going to force us to make a lot of tough decisions down the road if we stick to this single-minded approach to sustainability.”

Everbach responded with an anecdote: “I remember a conversation I had with Al Bloom once about carbon footprints. He said that if we really wanted to reduce our carbon footprint, we could disband the college, put our property in a conservation easement and reforest the land. And then we would have not only a zero carbon footprint, but a better than zero carbon footprint because we would have all these trees. But would that be a net benefit for the world? The point is that the educational benefit of the College is to have our students go out and affect the world in positive ways and that’s a much bigger benefit than whatever happens on our one square mile of campus.”

Goloff agreed: “If we achieve that goal of 2035 climate neutrality and that’s backed by equal progress in education on environmental and social justice, that’s a huge accomplishment, making Swarthmore both the strongest educational institution that it’s ever been and the most sustainable.”

The conversation then turned back to identifying complementary goals. Laura Rigell ‘16 said one way Swarthmore could combine our pursuit of sustainability with environmental justice is by buying solar panels from a start-up solar cooperative from North Philadelphia, which has high rates of unemployment. Cina-Sklar mentioned that we could incorporate design of the new BEP building into our engineering curriculum.

Hungerford then took this opportunity to elaborate more on the plans for the new BEP building: budgeted at approximately $95 million, the BEP building has been designed to cover 167,000 square feet, which would make it the largest building on campus. Currently, the design of the building meets LEED Silver sustainability standards, which is the third-tier standard. (LEED standards range from Certified to Silver to Gold to Platinum, with Platinum as the highest.) However, the committee is considering redesigning the building to meet Platinum standards, at a much higher cost. She said, “Science buildings tend to be energy-intensive. We worry its energy-gobbling will destroy the progress of all our other initiatives so we’re trying to figure out how to mitigate its consumption.”

One audience member asked who determined how much we spend on sustainability issues like this, and Greg Brown, VP of Finance, responded that the Board made the final decision, but “the Board really wants to be a part of this, not floating around on the outside.” Everbach added, “The Social Responsibility Committee of the Board is trying to educate the rest of the Board about issues of sustainability and over time, the Board may change how much money they want to set aside to make a more sustainable building. The Board is not a fixed entity; they are on a journey of discovery just as we are.”

The conversation ended with further thoughts on how to combine different goals relating to sustainability. Ultimately, the group seemed to agree with Professor McGarity: “We need to come up with our own Swarthmore way of doing it” by combining leadership, physical infrastructure, and a change in daily habits to be more aware of the environment.

The Climate Change Committee will also be holding a “charette,” at which they call in leading experts on sustainability to come in and evaluate our various proposals once they have been finalized in February.

The second open discussion will be held on Monday, November 24th at 4-5 p.m. in Sci 199. Students may share their thoughts with the committee at sustainability@swarthmore.edu.


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