Preparing our students with the breadth and depth of knowledge to address the complex problems caused by climate change requires critical, contextual and creative action, the hallmarks of a liberal arts education. While we have identified a technically creative path toward carbon neutrality, we recognize the oversized impact Amherst graduates have on the world, and we have a strong sense of obligation to ensure that this impact supports our global need to address climate change. This need will be met not merely through technical advances—humanity has an opportunity, through this crisis, to design policies that address and correct the environmental injustices that continue in our society and provide equal access to a new, green economy.
Amherst has made significant progress and will continue to do so with the ongoing engagement of our Department of Environmental Studies and Office of Environmental Sustainability (OES). Environmental studies became a major in 2008 and a department in the spring of 2014. This is a popular major: Amherst has graduated an average of 17 environmental studies majors per year since 2010 and has 27 current senior majors. Over the last 10 years, environmental studies has ranked in the top 10 at the College in course enrollments. Assistant Professor Ashwin Ravikumar was hired as a full-time environmental studies faculty member in 2017 and teaches courses on environmental policy and justice. The OES and our campus farm, Book & Plow, engage with the curriculum by providing lectures, tours and project support for a range of majors and departments.
In addition to curricular engagement, we have recently hosted powerful speakers such as DeMott Lecturer Naomi Klein, whose book This Changes Everything was assigned summer reading for incoming students in 2015; Nobel Prize winner and former U.S. Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu, who discussed technological solutions to climate change; and Professor Dorceta Taylor, who spoke on the need to create coalitions between movements for civil and environmental rights. The OES regularly hires student researchers to investigate ways to address sustainability challenges on campus and in our community, and recently partnered with the Loeb Center for Career Exploration and Planning to host the first collaborative and thematic career exploration trek focused on climate action. 16
This plan allows Amherst to further expand engagement with students, following these established pathways and creating new ones. Opportunities we will make available for students to learn with and improve upon our Climate Action Plan include:
- Having students play active and varied roles in the governance of the Climate Action Plan and the communication of its implementation. We will explore how best to ensure students feel their participation is valued and prioritized.
- Integrating data collection into the energy system transition. Temperature readers in the geothermal wells, solar data and building-energy-use information will provide significant learning opportunities through class projects, research and thesis work.
- Continuing and expanding the internships already provided by the OES. These include recent summer research projects on renewable energy procurement and carbon tax schemes that were used to update the task force during the development of the plan.
- Designing project-based team learning opportunities to consult the campus on the plan as it evolves. For example, a student group could approach the question of the validity of carbon offsets attributed to projects in our local community.
- Allowing students to engage with an alumni network of thought leaders and sustainability experts. Alumni can stay informed about the plan through engagement with students and can provide feedback on both the plan and ways students can further engage on campus and beyond.
- Communicating regularly about the progress of the plan and creating opportunities for students to learn about the plan from their peers. Incorporating our Climate Action Plan into the Eco-Rep program and into the Solving Climate Change LEAP during orientation will reach a range of first-year students.
Throughout implementation, we will critically review the impact students are having on the plan, the impact these opportunities are having on students’ educational experience, and how we can continually improve upon this innovative aspect of our plan. We will use this analysis to help support our goal of moving “beyond carbon-neutral.”