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Undergrads cite climate change as most pressing issue

Students reference political landscape, scientific findings as factors behind urgency

Contributing Writer
Thursday, October 24, 2019

Almost 40 percent of Brown undergraduates agree that issues relating to the environment and climate change are the most important facing this country today, according to The Herald’s fall 2019 undergraduate poll.

No other answer garnered more than 16 percent of undergraduates’ support — the second and third most common answers were current government leadership and the gap between the rich and poor, which came in at 15.9 percent and 10.9 percent, respectively.

Interviews with students across class years revealed that the urgency to tackle climate change stems from a number of sources, such as the current political landscape and recent scientific findings.

“I do think that climate change is the biggest problem facing the world and this country,” said Hannah Bashkow ’23. “This is due to government officials resisting to fix this problem, which is causing younger people to get more worked up about it.”

Just a year ago, Sunrise, a youth-based environmental activist group, established itself on campus and in Providence. The group has since been active in both national and city movements, sitting in at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office in February and supporting the creation of a Rhode Island Green New Deal in March.

Gabriel Civita Ramirez ’21, the communications leader for Sunrise Brown, saw the release of the October 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report as an incentive for action.

“(The report) said we have 12 years to curb carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases, so we don’t increase the planet’s temperature by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius,” Ramirez said. “Even with the IPCC report giving a ‘deadline,’ it seems … like climate change is almost an invisible problem. However, we are already feeling its effects and have to take preventative steps before it gets worse.”

This poll result comes about eight months after New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey introduced a resolution for a Green New Deal, which proposes environmental and economic reform to minimize the effects of climate change and completely eliminate carbon emissions in the U.S. by 2030. The resolution was blocked by the Senate in March.

Zoe Mermelstein ’21, president of the Brown Democrats, echoed the need to act quickly. She said she found the poll result unsurprising, largely because of the issue’s salience to college students.

“Climate change is a pressing issue, especially since we, the young people, don’t have that much time to turn it around but are the ones stuck with its repercussions,” Mermelstein said. Taking action to support a local and national Green New Deal has emerged as a top issue within the Brown Dems, though they are in the process of officially determining their priorities for this year, she added.

The Democratic primaries also offer more attention to the issue and engage the general public, Mermelstein said, since so many candidates are talking about it. Candidate Jay Inslee, who dropped out in August, focused his campaign on addressing climate change, and most top presidential candidates publicly support a Green New Deal.

Of the poll participants who listed their top issue as climate change, about 30 percent said they would vote for Elizabeth Warren, a Green New Deal signatory, in the Democratic primary. Warren was overall the most popular choice for poll participants, as well.

But other students said they could not prioritize climate change or environmental concerns over other issues in the country, which they felt were of equal or greater importance.

“(Climate change) is an important issue, but other issues like gun control are maybe even more important right now because they seem more urgent and pressing,” said Jocelyn Chu ’23.

Gun control was only slightly less important to Brown students than the income gap between rich and poor, with the issues receiving 10.1 percent and 10.9 percent of undergraduates’ support, respectively.

For the Brown Progressive Action Committee, climate change is a large priority, but does not dominate the group’s agenda, according to Jenna Israel ’21, chair of BPAC. The committee is not an issue-based organization, but rather partners with and supports other issue-specific groups. Alongside its plans to work with Sunrise, BPAC is currently working with organizations that advocate for gun control, healthcare and voter rights — issues that BPAC sees as equally important as climate change.

Michael Gianatasio ’21 agreed that climate change cannot necessarily be prioritized over other issues, but recognized the need to address it.

“Climate change is important, but so is gun control, the socioeconomic gap in our country and also the fact that our current government leaders are doing nothing to help with any of these problems,” Gianatasio said. “But I do think climate change is really important since it is so detrimental to everything.”

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