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Gross '20.5, Shapiro '22, Hall '20: It’s time for University to cut ties with climate deniers

Brown is an outlier when it comes to mobilizing on climate change — but not always in a good way. While we have an ambitious plan to reduce our campus emissions, we lag behind other universities and institutions in many other matters that count. Our Corporation rejected divestment from coal in 2013, we host relatively few courses on the climate crisis and could commit far more resources to related research and most importantly, we all but ignore the climate crisis as a factor in our business and community relations. As members of Brown Climate Action Now, we know that Brown can do better. The University’s actions should reflect the concerns of its students, who overwhelmingly view the climate crisis as the most important current issue. It should work with its neighbors in Providence to help carry out the city’s Climate Justice Plan. However, to find long-term success in any of these endeavors, we need to start by cutting ties with climate deniers.

Brown depends critically on Providence’s public infrastructure, from its roads to its electric grid. These systems will have to be transformed in the coming decades as the city decarbonizes. Providence’s Climate Justice Plan acknowledges this fact, and demands that the coming changes benefit historically marginalized communities since they will bear the brunt of climate change impacts. Meanwhile, Brown has no publicized commitment to work alongside this plan.

The communities that will be most affected by climate change are some of the least well-connected to public resources. Without intervention, climate change threatens to worsen long-lasting divides in Providence, including but not limited to, racial, ethnic and institutional segregation, health inequalities, gaps in education and unequal employment. These social inequalities disproportionately expose frontline communities of color to the burdens of environmental hazards. As an integral institution in the city, Brown has the opportunity to simultaneously combat these inequalities while promoting a just post-carbon transition for Providence. Conversely, if we wall ourselves off and focus inwards, we will fail to address Brown’s full impact on the climate crisis.

Brown cannot claim to contribute to climate justice efforts if it ignores the welfare of the most vulnerable communities. As one of the largest employers in Rhode Island, Brown has real power to shape the state’s decarbonized future. We have not wielded that influence well in the past. For decades, Brown was powered by the Brayton Point coal power plant. Generations of Brown students and faculty benefited from this cheap source of electricity, even as its fumes caused over 28,000 asthma attacks annually. Yet, when the plant was shut down in 2017, hundreds of workers lost their jobs, and the city of Somerset lost a major source of revenue. As one of the major institutional purchasers of power from Brayton Point and a key player in Providence development, Brown could have done more to ensure a just transition for the workers at the plant. Instead, Brown has prospered while Rhode Island’s most vulnerable communities have suffered first from toxic industrial pollution and then a failure to transition fairly to a more sustainable energy source.

What does it mean for Brown to consider the community in its plans? Ceasing our dependence on fossil fuels will require a massive expansion of electricity, and that will require significant investment in grid infrastructure in Rhode Island. A large proportion of the costs are expected to fall on ratepayers, many of whom already struggle to pay utility bills. We believe Brown needs to consider the ways it can support Providence residents by taking on some of these costs, especially when it plans on undertaking massive infrastructural changes itself which may have financial implications for the surrounding community. For example, Brown’s proposed Sustainability Plan includes a timeline for switching our central heating plant to electricity, which will require the creation of significant new transmission lines. Will the costs of this change fall on ratepayers, or can this infrastructure benefit others on College Hill and beyond? Without knowing the specifics it is difficult to say, but codifying work with the community into our plans needs to be the next step of Brown’s engagement with the climate crisis.

Cutting University ties with climate deniers is a necessary condition for success on any serious climate plans. It will not be possible for Brown to meet bold long-term sustainability goals while it maintains relationships with companies and organizations working against progress. These consist of the networks of corporations, business groups and think tanks who have halted political progress on climate change for decades and systematically undermined public confidence in climate change research. Throughout history, many significant progressive changes have come from institutions and regions insulated against the direct influence (financial and social) of regressive forces. For example, abolition, civil rights and women’s suffrage all expanded outwards from what movement historians call “free spaces,” in which members could converse and collaborate unrestrained by the dominant and opposing social forces.

As Brown is an institution of higher education and research, one might think it would already steer clear of any connections with the organized forces of climate denial and obstruction. But avoiding these bad actors entirely is surprisingly difficult. For example, Brown still allows ExxonMobil, one of the most nefarious promoters of climate change disinformation, to recruit on campus, donate to our departments and advertise in our yearbook. Furthermore, through the Political Theory Project, we are the top beneficiary of Koch network money in the Ivy League — money which has also supported some of the worst climate denial efforts in the country. If Brown is to become a bold leader of combating climate change, it must sever ties to organizations that will hold us back.

The sustainability plan we have is a strong start and appears satisfying in its quantifiability. Yet the greatest impacts Brown can have are not the easily quantifiable ones. As an institution of learning, research and local influence, we need to reform our efforts in all three of those areas. We need to make room for ourselves to grow into this role by cutting ties to the climate deniers exerting pressure against progress. If we do this, we can more truthfully claim to “educate and prepare” students to meaningfully address the challenges of our time, and we set Brown up to be a leader in the coming decades.

Benjamin Gross ’20.5, Avi Shapiro ’22 and Galen Hall ’20 are members of Brown Climate Action Now. Hall is also a Herald staff columnist. They can be reached at, and



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