Brown has a well-earned reputation for social justice advocacy. It’s with good reason that Fox News host Jesse Watters perennially prowls our campus for soundbites. But among the wide array of injustices that students at Brown protest, climate change lies surprisingly low on the list. It doesn’t have to — and shouldn’t — be this way.
Recent events might contradict this view — including the demonstration that members of Rhode Island Sunrise staged against Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez’s ’83 P’18 decision to oveturn the DNC’s ban on accepting fossil fuel money. But the fact remains that climate activism at Brown is under-prioritized. The University has effectively quelled divestment campaigns multiple times, and climate activism groups see relatively low engagement. Divestment campaigns at Harvard and Yale are both active and have many times more members, judging by Facebook stats, than Brown’s (which does not appear to be active this academic year).
Climate groups that I have visited in the past were lucky to see more than 10 people show up to meetings. There are environmental organizations within the University, such as the Climate Development Lab and the Institute at Brown for the Environment and Society, that do excellent work, but they do not have a prominent presence on campus outside of their niche. While I can’t speak to this semester in particular, I have often found the few events that IBES hosts each term under-attended by students outside of environmental concentrations. As such a student myself, I rarely hear about opportunities for climate activism or education at Brown unless I go looking for them.
Contrast this situation to that of Oxford University in the United Kingdom, where I am studying abroad this year. The student climate society hosts high-profile events and socials to connect and build a community around the issue. There are over 10 such events each trimester, and they are well-publicized and regularly reach capacity. Here, a large-scale and well-publicized fossil fuel divestment campaign puts constant pressure on the university administration. As a result, climate change has entered the host of subjects at the forefront of many students’ minds, and I’m sure that more than a few career trajectories have been changed. My experience here has convinced me that Brown can and should engage more deeply with climate change.
Granted, it can be especially difficult to motivate student action on climate change. Many of the problems that students care about carry such importance because they are pressing. Gender discrimination is happening now, sexual assault is happening now; each harms millions of people in the United States daily. Climate change often gets framed as a problem located squarely in the future. One can also get the impression that environmental activism is a hobby for the rich and privileged, who do not have to defend themselves from immediate injustices and so focus, perhaps even for show, on the climate instead. But anyone who cares about social justice should put climate change near the top of their list of concerns.
The reason for this is simple: Left alone, climate change will start to drastically exacerbate nearly every social injustice plaguing the United States and the world within the next few years. In many cases, it already has. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in October gave the world 12 years to prevent the worst effects associated with 2°C of warming or more. More immediate still is the threat from biodiversity loss, which has already destroyed insect populations that form integral parts of many ecosystems — including those upon which human societies desperately depend. Increasingly, people are realizing that climate change is a humanitarian emergency unfolding right now.
Among climate scientists and researchers, it is established fact that those who are already the worst off will suffer the most from climate change. This holds true both globally and within the United States. One oft-cited international example is Bangladesh. With most of its land located below sea level, and a population still striving for developed nation status, Bangladesh will face massive and deadly consequences due to rising sea levels and more violent weather well before wealthy countries will. Add to this the fact that Bangladesh historically has not seen many of the benefits of carbon-producing industry in the West, and you start to see why climate change carries potential for great social injustice — as many researchers have been arguing for years.
The situation within the United States looks much the same. The worst effects of climate change in the coming years will fall on our poorest and most disadvantaged communities, including indigenous peoples. Flooding along the southern coast already disproportionately affects low-income people. As such, absent radical change, global warming will massively increase inequality in our country — which means environmental activism is social activism.
Simultaneously, effectively fighting environmental decay and climate change will require independent social activism and progress on nearly all of the issues promoted so vigorously at Brown. Low-income and disadvantaged communities that already face the harms of climate change are still held down by institutional oppression. Movements like the one to end felony disenfranchisement in Florida will not only reduce current injustice; they will also empower people to take control of their local politics and protect themselves from future injustices.
Maybe the toughest thing about climate change is figuring out what we as individuals can do about it. At Brown, however, there are clear avenues for both immediate action and long-term engagement. Groups like SunriseRI, Climate Action League and others under the emPOWER umbrella can all use more members — so join them. Aside from campus and political activism, we also each have an incredibly powerful tool for social change in the form of our future careers. As students, we should educate ourselves about the problem now so that we can work to solve it once we leave university. Take advantage of Brown’s unique flexibility to take courses on sustainable development and the environment. No matter your concentration or passion, you can find ways apply it to climate change — the scale and complexity of the problem guarantee it.
Galen Hall ’20 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.