The pitfalls of climate activism

Milo Vetter, Staff Writer

There’s a stereotype that climate activists are idealists with little to no understanding of what they’re trying to change. That stereotype may be an exaggeration, but it is sometimes accurate. When I first learned about Case Western Reserve University’s undergraduate climate advocacy group, Sunrise CWRU, I became curious about whether this stereotype applies to the student activists at CWRU. Sunrise makes strong demands from the university administration, and I, as much as anyone, would like to see these demands met, but to what extent are they possible? The organization wants to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, but what does that current dependence look like?

To find out, I interviewed Stephanie Corbett, the director of CWRU’s Office of Energy and Sustainability along with the University Farm. She told me that a large portion of CWRU’s greenhouse emissions come from the Medical Center Company’s natural gas plant on the south side of University Hospitals—those creepy smokestacks that you can see from the Agnar Pytte Center for Science Education and Research. This plant burns natural gas to make steam for heating, while a separate plant produces chilled water. While this system does cause unavoidable emissions, it is comparatively much more efficient than other options for heating and cooling around campus. “Because [the Medical Center Company] creates the chilled water for those buildings, that means we don’t have to have other small chillers from building to building. So there is some efficiency to be gained,” Corbett said.

So, if we hypothetically wanted to stop CWRU’s reliance on the Medical Center Company’s natural gas combustion, how would CWRU do it? Well, somebody would have to add water heaters and chillers to any building that needs to be heated or any lab that needs to be cooled. Of course, the steam and chilled water plants would still be necessary for other buildings that are not affiliated with CWRU, making them far less efficient in their operations as they would continue spewing emissions but for the service of less buildings. Not to mention that all of the infrastructure that distributes steam and chilled water around campus would be abandoned as well, and new infrastructure would have to replace it. This is, obviously, an extremely expensive solution—especially considering that these new electric heaters and chillers would be less efficient (due to smaller scale) and more expensive to operate. And for what benefit? After all, an electric water heater is only as green as the electricity that powers it. The demand to reduce reliance on natural gas seemed so simple—so, where did we go wrong?

The problem presented by this kind of climate advocacy is illustrated in a 2022 book “How the World Really Works” by Vaclav Smil, an interdisciplinary scientist and author with a focus in energy studies. There are a couple of chapters about globalization and the mechanics of supply chains, but the book is mainly a criticism of climate activism. To a climate activist, the idea of a net-zero world by 2050 may seem overly optimistic but possible. However, to Smil, it is completely laughable. 

The conversation about greenhouse gases focuses mainly on electricity and sometimes transportation, but these make up only a fraction of global emissions. According to a 2014 International Panel on Climate Change report, while electricity and transportation make up 25% and 14% of emissions, agriculture and industry make up 24% and 21%, respectively. While the decarbonization of the first two sectors is feasible, the same isn’t true about the other two. 

To show why, Smil identifies what he calls “the four pillars of modern civilization.” First is ammonia, the main ingredient in the plant fertilizers that enable us to feed seven billion people. Next is plastics, a broad category of petroleum-based materials that exist in almost everything we consume, from furniture to clothing to packaging. The third is steel, a material so ubiquitous that it speaks for itself. The last is cement, the backbone of modern infrastructure and architecture. All of these materials are essential to our society, and they are both irreplaceable at the moment and impossible to produce without carbon emissions. Smil then goes on to describe the logistic reality of phasing out the four pillars. Long story short, it would require a majority of the population to return to agriculture and a halt of almost all construction and industry—including the kind that saves lives.

Now, I personally find a sense of comfort in knowing what’s possible and what’s impossible; however, I understand that for many concerned with the climate crisis, the last two paragraphs must have felt a little bit like a bucket of ice water thrown over their head. I do want to distance myself from Smil’s work, mainly because he spends quite a bit of it ridiculing and criticizing climate activists for their apparent inability to recognize reality. I think that assessment is wrong because the reason why climate activists largely ignore agriculture and industry in favor of electricity and transportation is precisely because the former two cannot be mitigated easily. They simply focus on the work that can be done and allocate their efforts accordingly.

We can apply this philosophy here at CWRU. Since replacing the gas plant would be prohibitively expensive, what should we do instead? The Office of Energy and Sustainability is hard at work on these problems, with solutions like more food waste composting, increased energy efficiency, reduced consumption and investment in renewable energy sources both on and off campus. One windmill just isn’t going to cut it!. To facilitate this process, we should continue to advocate for more funding allocated to climate solutions—especially energy renewability and efficiency.

It’s tempting to think about climate action as one big thing you accomplish and then the problem is solved, but that kind of thinking is a recipe for burnout. Climate change isn’t something that either happens or doesn’t happen. Every month you spend without eating meat is a family that doesn’t have to abandon their Central American home due to aridification; every commitment an institution achieves is a building in Puerto Rico that isn’t destroyed by the next hurricane. Stephanie Corbett echoed this sentiment when, paraphrasing CWRU’s 2011 Climate Action Plan, she said, “achieving a climate action plan … is like running a marathon. It’s not a sprint.” Climate action should not be an intense fight by a few people but instead a consistent fight by all of us.