Upon my arrival at Brown, I was met with a call to climate action — as was every member of the class of 2027 who attended convocation. Professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences Kim Cobb, the director of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society and a member of the White House’s Intelligence Advisory Board, spoke passionately about the sense of urgency that our generation should act with while facing our climate inheritance. After hearing her powerful words, I was left wondering whether the average Brown student meaningfully engages in climate action at all.
We need to recognize our individual — in addition to institutional — obligations to work toward greater environmental stewardship. But this means more than just participating in sustainable practices; it means going into decarbonizing industries. This includes companies that are approaching economic growth through sustainable pathways and have imbued reducing societal carbon emissions into the company’s core goals — companies such as energy data company Arcadia, the emissions tracking platform Watershed and First Mode, a company focused on decarbonizing heavy industry. This may seem drastic, but so is the reality of anthropogenic climate change. If we can’t acknowledge this and commit more to reducing emissions, can we really say that these calls to climate action have been answered — let alone heard — by the Brown community?
So where do these individual obligations come from? Philosopher and economist John Broome argues that our moral obligations as individuals stem from how our current treatment of the climate will affect future generations; we owe it to them to reduce carbon emissions and slow climate change. Our personal contributions to climate change will impact the future in a way that, as human beings, we can’t extricate ourselves in the way institutions or corporations can. It is easier for institutions to ignore their moral responsibilities to future generations because the responsibility is dispersed across the entirety of the company. As an individual, your obligation to the environment falls solely on you. This makes you uniquely positioned to counteract the moral issues created by a warming globe.
Many may look to implement daily sustainable practices like recycling or installing solar panels as their way to take individual responsibility in addressing the climate crisis. While these actions are critical in reducing individual emissions, they can only get us so far in fostering societal sustainability. We must be committed to further action — choosing to work directly in decarbonizing industries is the next step. By committing your career to an industry that helps to reduce emissions, you’re giving yourself a chance to substantially affect environmental frameworks and promote collective change, in addition to any moves toward reducing your own carbon footprint. It is only by devoting our livelihoods to reshaping the larger systems that dictate our climate future that we can meaningfully shift unsustainable patterns and fulfill our moral responsibilities to future generations.
So, are Brown students already doing this? Some are, but not many. Statistics provided by the Center for Career Exploration say that only 1% of those who responded (71% of the total graduating class of 2021) went into “Environment/Sustainability.” Additionally, for the classes of 2017 through 2021, only 53 individuals (out of the 75-84% of students who reported each year) indicated they had plans to work in “Environment/Sustainability” within nine months of graduation. Brown’s institutional policies around climate change have room for improvement — and student groups who criticize Brown for its failure to take extreme climate action have seen growth in recent years. But if our own job outcomes are any indication, we are not consistent about prioritizing the environment in the pivotal decisions we make in our own lives. While some individuals may lack the financial stability to enter high-risk and sometimes low-paying environmental jobs, the vast majority of students at Brown do not. If we demand that Brown seriously work toward a sustainable future, we must hold ourselves accountable for doing the same.
One common argument against individual responsibility is articulated by philosopher Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. Citing a simple joyride he might take in his SUV as an example, Armstrong deems individual carbon emissions as inconsequential with respect to the overall climate catastrophe. Armstrong claims that his trip wouldn’t directly result in the suffering of a future individual — that blame lies with society as a whole. As a result, he argues that his action is morally permissible, and environmental obligations should be placed solely on governments.
In my eyes, Broome has the stronger argument and the more persuasive standard for environmental ethics. Based on his arguments, we hold an individual moral responsibility to reach net-zero carbon emissions, encompassing both the obligations to practice daily sustainability and to work in a decarbonizing industry. But even for those who reject the idea that we are responsible for keeping track of our individual emissions, the obligation to work in a decarbonizing industry is still compelling. If we truly want institutions to bear responsibility for resolving our environmental crisis, we must fortify them with our individual participation.
Decarbonizing industries can only remain viable if we support it. The industry is inherently committed to advancing sustainability — as individual members of society, we must help it fulfill its potential to create collective change. In this respect, we are still the true actors capable of contributing to widespread progress. With this in mind, even if an institution or industry drives impact (as argued by Armstrong), individuals are still responsible for populating these industries and harnessing them to foster action. Some may perceive going into a decarbonizing industry as just finding another institution (like Brown) to project climate obligations onto. Regardless, if you insist on denying individual culpability, you ought to at least support decarbonizing industries as the key collection of institutions that fight the climate crisis.
Professor Cobb’s call to action does not only apply to the minority that will choose to study environmental science — we must all live up to her articulated expectation: “As a Brown student, you are now part of a community that over many decades has continually redefined climate, environmental, sustainability and social justice leadership in higher education.” Our obligation to choose sustainable careers is one that we cannot and should not want to escape. To those who will soon depart Brown, lead by example as not just graduates of a sustainable university, but as a strong community of morally responsible agents fulfilling their obligations to future generations.
Paul Hudes ’27 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.