Teszler: Change is in the Air

It’s the responsibility of every Dartmouth student to push the institutions around them to cut emissions.

by Max Teszler | 9/7/21 4:10am

This column is featured in the 2021 Freshman special issue.

On Aug. 9, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest and long-awaited report on global climate change. The verdict? A “code red” for humanity, in the words of United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. The report described how a 1.1 degree Celsius increase in the global average temperature since the pre-industrial era has already contributed to more extreme weather — including intense heat waves and hurricanes — and warned that, barring aggressive efforts to immediately reduce global emissions, the consequences of warming will only become more severe. 

The policy implication is clear: If we want to avert existential disaster, we must reduce our greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible, and Dartmouth and its students should play a part in that mission. Reducing the College’s carbon footprint should be a defining mission for every student over the course of their time here. That will involve taking a critical look at how Dartmouth as an institution can decarbonize — as well as pressuring the administration to achieve ambitious emission reductions. 

We are in an all-hands-on-deck moment when it comes to climate change, with less than a decade to hit the crucial benchmark of halving global emissions, according to a 2018 U.N. report. The newest IPCC report prompted dire headlines about a hotter, deadlier global climate — but the science is also clear that it is not yet too late to avoid the very worst outcomes. The IPCC’s summary of the full 2021 report described with “high confidence” a “near-linear relationship” between cumulative CO2 emissions and total warming of the planet; that is, for every 1,000 gigatons of CO2 added to the atmosphere, the Earth’s surface warms by roughly 0.45 degrees Celsius, or 0.81 degrees Fahrenheit. Our current carbon emissions thus all steadily increase the global temperature as well as the frequency of storms, sea level rise and heat waves. But at the same time, every effort to reduce emissions can help halt these disturbing trends, preventing even worse outcomes. For instance, even at our current level of warming, 10-year droughts are 70% more frequent than the pre-industrial baseline — but such droughts will become four times more frequent if we let warming spiral to 4°C.

Of course, there are steps we all can take at the individual level to reduce overall emissions, including the oft-mentioned reducing meat consumption. Replacing your devices less frequently is also helpful to the planet:With so much energy going into the production of phones and computers, simply holding onto them for a few more months or years is a worthwhile endeavor. But while individual efforts like these are important, they are not nearly sufficient; if we want to make any real headway in addressing the climate crisis, we need change at the institutional level. 

To the Dartmouth students reading this, you are part of a number of groups on campus which generate a significant amount of greenhouse gases — with fossil fuels currently underpinning so much of modern life, it’s almost impossible not to be. For instance, I’m involved with the Dartmouth Outing Club. Arguably, the DOC’s most intense sources of carbon emissions is the First-Year Trips program — simply for its size — and our break trips, which travel to various locations around the country and sometimes internationally. FYT has already adopted an environmental focus, teaching students how to recycle and gifting Nalgenes. But as has become increasingly evident, air travel is an incredibly potent source of greenhouse gases, emitting carbon dioxide high into the atmosphere where it has an especially strong warming effect. We have taken steps like calculating the carbon footprint of our break trips and recognizing the impact of some particularly high-emissions trips. Given the latest evidence, however, recognition alone is not enough — it’s even more essential to take real steps to reduce emissions. The DOC can prioritize more local trips and institute a total carbon budget, while additionally supporting projects like reforestation to offset at least some portion of our travel-based emissions. 

Admittedly, some clubs have more ways than others to reduce their carbon footprint, but a complete analysis is still worthwhile. Some organizations might not have any single large source of carbon emissions, producing greenhouse gases in smaller and unavoidable ways like just using electricity. If you’re part of the Dartmouth Film Society, for instance, I can’t foresee any significant ways for you to change your emissions footprint. But there could be somewhere to start — even as simple as making sure snacks are low-carbon intensity.

That brings us to the most impactful organization of all — the College itself and its administration. The Sustainability Office, Sunrise and other groups have done tremendous work in ratcheting up pressure on Dartmouth to fulfill its own emissions goals. But we must make it clear that the College’s plans should go even further to decarbonize in light of the worsening scientific outlook. During Earth Week in April, Sunrise and other groups made strong and commendable efforts to hold Dartmouth accountable for its goals in the “Our Green Future” report, which outlines a path to reducing emissions by 80% by 2050. These goals aren’t terrible — they’re in line with prior targets to limit warming to two degrees Celsius or more — but Dartmouth can afford to go further. 

At even two degrees Celsius of warming, the consequences will be dire — when compared to the pre-warming baseline, the likelihood of 10-year floods is projected to increase more than twofold, heavy storms will become 1.7 times more likely and 50-year extreme temperature events a stunning 13.9 times more likely. The situation is dire enough, and the relationship between carbon emissions and global warming direct enough, to warrant every attempt to reduce the emissions of CO2 and other gases. In the words of the IPCC report, “every ton of CO2 emissions adds to global warming” — and so every institution must work as quickly as possible to reduce its emissions. Every fewer ton of carbon produced means less warming and less tragedy. At Dartmouth, the resources abound — for starters, our $6 billion endowment — to fully invest in rapidly decarbonizing the College.

Some may criticize any decarbonization effort as futile and argue that the responsibility to solve climate change instead lies with national governments or the corporations that have polluted so much in the first place. I largely agree with this sentiment — given the sheer scope of global emissions, any effort we undertake is only part of the solution, a supplement to the sweeping changes required in national policy. But the need for federal changes does not obviate the need for changes on the local level, especially when there is a strong local source of emissions. As of 2018, the average U.S. citizen produces 15 metric tons of carbon emissions per year, according to the World Bank. The carbon emissions of just Dartmouth’s campus itself work out to 10 tons per student per year, not including travel or the rest of the emissions generated by Dartmouth students when elsewhere. Every institution — especially those responsible for a high intensity of emissions — must quickly examine its practices over the coming decade if we hope to limit the drastic effects of climate change. 

In tackling the impending climate crisis, Dartmouth has the opportunity to actually lead on an issue, rather than merely react. It’s high time for every student and group on this campus to embrace a campaign to reduce emissions — one endorsed and backed by an administration that finally takes a clear view on the science. Look around you, in the clubs and groups you’re part of, and think about how you can reduce emissions there. As a school, let’s set actual bold targets — carbon neutrality by 2035, the same year General Motors will stop making internal combustion engine cars, could be a good starting point. This will require an ambitious changeover. We will likely need to switch over college fleets to electric vehicles, change utilities to renewable sources and cut down on the tremendous amount of waste that this campus produces. But it is possible; we have the technology. The question is if we also have the willingness to do so.

Max Teszler is the Vice President of the Dartmouth Outing Club.

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