On Friday, Nov. 4, a coalition of student organizations at the University of Connecticut held a rally to encourage the UConn Board of Trustees to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to zero by 2040. The event had strong attendance, and speakers discussed many concerns including the ecological severity of climate change, global inequalities associated with environmental impacts and university connections to harmful industrial partners.
The Daily Campus Editorial Board applauds students and community members committed to fighting for environmental justice at UConn. Simultaneously, movements must hold themselves accountable regarding the gravity of the issues they seek to solve, the feasibility of the strategies they employ and the gaps between their efforts and achievements. This reality is particularly true for the environmental justice movement, which is likely to determine the possibility of a habitable earth throughout the 21st century.
UConn’s ecologically problematic relationships to industries including fossil fuel energy production and military weapons manufacturers are predominant in UConn’s contributions to climate change behind our use of fossil fuels for electricity, which is also significant. Without such connections, various science, technology, engineering and math departments would lose support and UConn would not have the size, prestige and resources it enjoys today.
As such, while abandoning these relationships will be difficult for administrators, faculty and students who are consistently enriched by them, such divestment is necessary for a carbon-zero university and therefore necessary for a habitable future. The difficulty we have as a community accepting and acknowledging this is understandable, as we are being asked to work directly against our short-term interest— but it is a necessary goal all the same.
Connecticut State Representative Greg Haddad and State Senator Mae Flexer spoke at the rally in support of environmental action as well. However, in their roles as Connecticut lawmakers, they are beholden to the state’s status as a critical hub for arms and aerospace manufacturing. While they obviously cannot speak out regarding these issues, few other speakers commented on the intersection of environmental concerns with United States imperialism globally. This is UConn’s primary offense and should be the primary rallying point for the environmental movement.
UConn’s environmentalists should also reflect on a lack of action on key issues in spite of persistent advocacy. State lawmakers and UConn administrators alike are adamant that student advocacy is creating change, yet they consistently fail to incorporate student demands into policy. Although the administration may respond to this Nov. 4 rally with a stronger commitment to decarbonization, pending such a development, there is only an abstract commitment to “carbon-neutrality”— a completely greenwashed idea— which only exists in an email from the President of UConn, far away from impacting budgets and policy.
As we’ve previously noted, it is necessary to limit global warming to below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels to prevent catastrophic global suffering. A study released by the United Nations Oct. 27 2022, finds that the earth is on track to reach 3°C global warming by the end of the century.
The President’s Working Group on Sustainability (PWGSE) was inaugurated after historic environmental protests at UConn in 2019, in which thousands called for decarbonization and sustainability alongside the global Fridays for Future movement. In their 2021 report, the PWGSE found that decarbonization at UConn would have an incremental cost relative to a “normal maintenance plan” — in which fossil fuels are not phased out — of $1 billion to $1.5 billion over the course of 20 years, averaging $50 million to $75 million per year. The UConn annual budget at the Storrs and regional campuses is $1.7 billion, and the university operates using a capital budget for infrastructure expansion of $4.2 billion over 32 years.
Although the relationships we discuss above make the issue of decarbonization more complicated than plans outlined by the PWGSE, the picture is clear; in spite of consistent student demonstration the university has not seriously investigated opportunities to decarbonize. This is especially true as UConn continues to grow through the construction of more buildings, growing research production and industrial partnerships. The administration is not structurally compelled to incorporate student concerns.
If administrators consistently ignore protests, new strategies are necessary. Three years ago, a rally of thousands of students and community members for sustainability and decarbonization led to the administration’s creation of the PWGSE — a group which was not empowered to enact changes in policy, and has since been ignored by the administration. If a protest far larger than any since has been effectively co-opted and ignored, what does that say about student potential to impact change through such protests in the future?
Protests are one way to impact change. There are also sit-ins, tuition strikes, building student-labor power, organizing around university admissions and significantly more disruptive strategies than peacefully speaking at university-sanctioned events. The choice of where to proceed after existing strategies fail will fall to the students and community members committed enough to re-evaluate and self-criticize within the environmental movement at UConn.
Associate Opinion Editor Nell Srinath spoke at the Nov. 4 rally for a fossil free UConn.