As early as 2040, according to the IPCC’s latest report, there will likely be millions of displaced people, protracted food shortages, and increased poverty as a result of climate change.The landmark study, which further reported the complete melting of the Arctic ice sheet, was released in October. Yet, on politically active Yale’s campus–where hundreds of students came together just last month in protest of Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation–there was silence in response to the report.
Carrie Heilburn ’19, a senior in Yale University, is the president of Project Bright, Yale Solar Energy Club, and a member of Students for Carbon Dividends. She plans to major in environmental studies and pursue the energy studies certificate.
Although she is limited in her ability to live an environmentally conscious life due to her celiac disease, which restricts her eating, she does what she can. Heilburn turns off the lights when leaving her room, cuts down on waste, recycles, and unplugs when possible.
Heilburn also holds others accountable: she contacts companies that could cut down on their packaging. “I reached out to Wrigley, which manufactures Orbit, and suggested to them that gum has a lot of packaging,” she said, pointing out that there is a clear plastic wrapper on the outside in addition to the main casing and fourteen slots for each individually wrapped piece of gum.
Heilburn belongs to a dedicated group of students on campus who work every day in minor ways to effect major change.
Trini Kechkian ‘21, member of Yale’s Carbon Charge, Green at Yale, and Students for Carbon Dividends, remarks that it has become second nature to take her own bags for grocery shopping and to bring her own cup for coffee. She emphasizes that these habits are not an inconvenience, hoping that other Yalies would see “that it’s a normal thing to do and not a sacrifice.”
Victoria Lim ‘21, a student employee at the Office of Sustainability and a member of Green at Yale and Yale Student Environmental Coalition, explains that everything she owns, including her clothes and her earrings, is used. “I don’t get anything new anymore. Literally everything I own is second hand: my pencil case, my bag, all my accessories are my mom’s and my grandma’s.” Lim explained that the fast fashion industry produces too much pollution and emissions. She even encourages her friends to go thrift shopping, making subtle comments about its value in her daily conversations.
Yet students like Heilburn, Kechkian, and Lim appear to be in the minority. The issue to which they devote most of their days–climate change–does not animate their classmates. “There’s a few really enthusiastic people and then the mass would do whatever’s most convenient and just follow the system,” Lim observed.
On a politically and civically engaged campus, the issue of climate change seems secondary. Alexander Posner ‘19, the President for Students for Carbon Dividends, offered an explanation: “Unlike a lot of political issues, [climate change] is not emotionally-gripping; its effects don’t seem as immediate or threatening, and accordingly, it can be hard to focus the public mind.”
Nora Heaphy ‘21, a member of Fossil Free Yale, said, “We have seen in the past couple weeks our power as a student body — coming together in the face of the Kavanaugh nomination, the work that many students including the Yale Daily News were able to do in the face of Khan in the past couple days, really pressuring the Yale administration to act when they have previously been unwilling to take a stand.” But, she adds, that power is not being harnessed when it comes to climate change.
Heaphy suggested that students recognize that climate change is a problem, but are not moved to do anything about it: “I think that most people that I know are at least aware that this is happening, but there’s a big step between being aware that climate change is happening to people far away and getting up and acting on it.”
But it is not only indifference that climate change activists are battling. They also face hostility from other students on campus. Kechkian described an incident in which her residential college sent out a survey asking students if they would like to see more plant-based options in the buttery and if they would be willing to bring their own tupperwares for food. Some commented, “Stop posting about environmental stuff,” and “No! I will never bring my own tupperware.” Kechkian acknowledged that the majority of the students are not against helping the environment, but that many are unwilling to change their habits.
Lim believes that a good response to this kind of laziness or disengagement is to change the system, rather than trying to convert the individual. She said, “We’re trying to change the way that things function so that most people can just go along with the flow and not even realize that we’re being more sustainable. But it’s actually being changed.”
Though many students may not care or be aware, Yale has taken major steps as an institution. Lim spoke specifically about Yale’s sustainable action plans for each residential college. Ann Kurth, Co-chair of Yale Sustainability Committee, talked about Yale’s endeavor to reduce carbon emissions: “We are really the first University in the U.S. to do a genuine carbon charge scheme.” She added that Yale presented on this at the Global Climate Action Summit, which was held in California earlier this year.
Heilburn agrees that Yale is making a step in the right direction: “We have a great Office of Sustainability, great Office of Energy Management, and the carbon charge program is the first of its kind in the entire nation.” While she believes there could be more visible and tangible renewable energy usage and energy reductions on campus, she pointed out that “the passion is there, the desire is there.”
Posner also applauds Yale for distinguishing itself as a leader on the issue of climate change. As evidence, he pointed to the Yale carbon charge, the scholarship and research at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and the Nobel Prize recently awarded to Yale Professor William Nordhaus for his contributions to climate economics.
Yet how valuable are these actions taken by the University if not supported by its students? If Yalies live eco-friendly lives only because their school’s system and practice demand it, how will they live after they graduate?
Katie Schlick ‘21, co-president of Project Bright and secretary for Yale Student Environmental Coalition, suggested that students will soon have no choice but to care: “The stakes are very high and that’s what we’re trying to convey to people–eventually, no one is going to be spared from this problem.”