We’re not ready to trust CWRU on climate action

The fight for a “Green New Deal for CWRU” continues

Avi Horwitz, Staff Writer

Last year, as part of a joint Student Sustainability Council (SSC) and Sunrise CWRU Campaign, I helped write an Undergraduate Student Government Resolution addressing necessary updates to Case Western Reserve University’s climate action plan. The passage of this resolution eventually led to the first-ever meeting between students and CWRU administrators regarding climate action. This resulted in a commitment from President Kaler to support a campus bike-share program, an eventual transition of the campus fleet to be fully electric/hybrid and “moving the needle” on energy efficiency—an extremely vague promise. While these are all encouraging steps, none will meaningfully reduce emissions or lay the groundwork for future action. 

Then, over the summer, CWRU finally completed the first update to the University Climate Action Plan since it was originally written in 2011. But, instead of expanding or even providing details on President Kaler’s new commitments, it doubled down on past failures by relying on greenwashing tactics and false solutions—such as manipulative accounting of emissions, an emphasis on individual behavior change and a reliance on carbon offsets. Right now, there is no reason to believe that CWRU has an actual plan to make its campus more sustainable. 

On the other hand, the SSC and Sunrise have a concrete initiative. On Sep. 6, the coalition delivered letters laying out five new climate action priorities to President Kaler, Provost Vinson, Chief Financial Officer John Sideras, Faculty Senate Chair Steven Eppell and the Director of the Office of Energy and Sustainability Stephanie Corbett. I’m now going to give you a quick rundown on why each is essential to a CWRU fulfilling its role in combating the climate crisis. 

You might be surprised to learn that 82.5% of the university’s emissions come from the operation of its buildings. One big reason for this—and you wouldn’t know it from the common imagery of the wind turbine on promotional materials—is that just 0.00009% of CWRU’s energy comes from renewable sources. There hasn’t been much effort to change that embarrassing fact. Schools like Butte College have successfully integrated large amounts of solar panels into their campus. On our own Euclid Avenue, the Museum of Contemporary Art has its heating and cooling provided by underground geothermal energy wells. There’s no excuse as to why CWRU has yet to conduct full-campus geothermal and solar studies. They must do so and begin developing plans for the maximum capacity of these on-site renewable energy options.

The second largest share of university emissions falls under the transportation category, 38% of which is commute-related. The best way to substantially decrease this number is by incentivizing students and employees to use public transportation rather than individually driving and parking their vehicles on campus. While the university does offer subsidized RTA passes to its undergraduate students, nevertheless, graduate students and employees—the groups most likely to need to commute to campus—are left with other more expensive and complicated options. CWRU must expand the RTA pass program to provide free or heavily subsidized transit passes to all students and university employees.

The most essential aspect of successful climate action is ensuring those impacted drive the decisions and implementation. CWRU outsourced the “refresh” of its Climate Action to a consulting firm, probably wasting money for that nonsense. CWRU must recognize and give authority to a new community council to be co-led by students, faculty, staff and community members tasked with continually evaluating and making formal recommendations to the administration regarding climate action and its implementation at CWRU. 

Currently, CWRU’s Office of Energy and Sustainability (OES) only has two employees. Even though these employees don’t have the current capacity to carry out actionable steps, it isn’t a good excuse for the inaction. CWRU must offer more support to the Office of Energy and Sustainability, and must identify and fulfill all additional hiring and funding to ensure that the university’s climate goals can be met promptly and effectively.

Let’s be clear: CWRU definitely can afford to take these necessary actions. When the administration puts their mind to it, they have shown they can raise the required funds for their desired ambitions. Exhibit A is the “Forward Thinking Campaign,” which surpassed expectations and raised approximately $1.8 billion between 2011 and 2019. By showing the same dedication, CWRU could completely finance the essential sustainability measures needed to decarbonize the university and its operations without impacting tuition, research opportunities or employee benefits. As such, CWRU must establish fundraising for climate action as a key priority for the university’s overall efforts. 

Right now, CWRU can begin to show that they understand the scope of the climate crisis and are ready to meet the moment by taking immediate action on five main priorities and laying the foundation for comprehensive climate action on our campus. And if they don’t, the coalition is planning to increase pressure on the administration. SSC and Sunrise have given the administration a deadline of Oct. 26 to share how they’re going to take immediate action and begin tackling these five urgent priorities. 

However, these five items are far from the end of the story for comprehensive climate action. Along with the letter, SSC and Sunrise also delivered the second edition of our Green New Deal for CWRU report—which contains over 20 additional action steps that we believe will be needed to decarbonize CWRU’s operations in a just and equitable fashion. The only way we’re going to realize this vision is by using an organized mass campaign of relentless pressure like the one that successfully forced a commitment by President Kaler to divest the university’s endowment from fossil fuels last fall. 

CWRU students must be more aware and must organize to hold CWRU accountable.