Addressing Climate Change was originally posted in the May 2022 edition of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.
Alumni often ask me what the University is doing to address the climate crisis. Here is what I tell them. —C.L.E.
Climate change poses a daunting and unprecedented challenge to humanity. The scale, complexity, and tangled nature of the environmental problems can only be addressed through an interdisciplinary approach that harnesses knowledge across the disciplinary spectrum.
Princeton will have the most significant impact on the crisis through the scholarship we generate and the people we educate. Indeed, one of the most powerful things that we can do is create the conditions that allow the world’s most promising students and most accomplished faculty to do their best work.
That is the heart of our climate strategy.
It’s a strategy that is flourishing at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment and the High Meadows Environmental Institute, where Princeton faculty collaborate not only to push the frontiers of environmental science and engineering, but also to develop the policy solutions and cultural insights essential to meaningful change.
It’s bearing fruit through projects like the groundbreaking Net-Zero America study that has become a go-to roadmap for policymakers across the country.
It was on display in March at the White House, when President Biden’s top climate official acknowledged the global scientific leadership of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, which is working to make clean fusion energy a reality.
And it has allowed students to immerse themselves in environmental studies and research projects—formative college experiences that have, for example, prepared Pyne Prize winner Claire Wayner ’22 to pursue what she calls her “life’s work” of addressing climate change.
While the University’s greatest impact will be through our teaching and research, we have also committed to bold targets in our campus operations, including a goal to achieve net-zero campus-based carbon emissions on or before the University’s 300th anniversary in 2046. This is the second component of our climate strategy.
Some of this work will be on full display to those of you returning for Reunions. We have expanded solar arrays to provide 19 percent of campus energy needs, and are using sustainable materials and techniques to construct our new art museum, residential colleges, graduate student housing, and research facilities.
Much of the environmental magic won’t be quite so visible—as we retrofit underground campus infrastructure to liberate us from nonrenewable energy sources like natural gas. Among these improvements is the drilling of more than 1,000 geo-exchange bores that will allow us to store free and clean summer heat to warm our buildings in winter.
Finally, a year ago this month, the Trustees of Princeton University authorized the creation of a process to divest and dissociate from certain fossil fuel companies. The Board also committed to reducing the aggregate harmful climate impact of the entirety of the University’s endowment holdings and setting a target date by which to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the University’s portfolio. This is the third aspect of the University’s climate strategy.
Princeton has a strong general presumption against divestment. Our truth-seeking mission requires us to provide an open and unbiased forum for key issues of the day. We make exceptions only in rare circumstances defined by sustained campus consensus around a central University value. When we do make these exceptions, we don’t just divest—we also dissociate by severing other ties.
The climate crisis has created one of those rare exceptions. I am grateful to the experts, advocates, and activists who helped us reach this point, and to all who have engaged in thoughtful and exacting deliberations over the course of this academic year to determine how to implement the Board’s dissociation decision. I can confidently make two predictions about the results of their work.
The first is that Princeton’s approach to fossil fuel divestment and dissociation will stand up over the years as principled, intellectually honest, and firmly grounded in the values of the University.
But divestment, no matter how carefully designed, will not take a single molecule of carbon out of the atmosphere. When Princeton sells shares in a company, somebody else is buying those shares. The Board’s divestment and dissociation decisions enable us to adhere to our shared values. When it comes to true impact on the climate crisis, however, we must look to our research, our teaching, and our campus’s direct effect on the environment.
This leads to my second prediction, which is that when Princeton’s impact on the global climate crisis is measured years from now, the transformative impact of our faculty’s research and the intellectual and leadership contributions that our students and alumni make to the world will far outweigh the effects of any dissociation choices we might make.
And so let me end with a special thank you to all of you who are contributing your time and energy to address the climate change emergency. In doing so, you embody Princeton’s mission of service to country and humanity.