By Max Schulz
The term "College Green" has a whole new meaning these days. No longer does it refer to the tree-lined verdant lawn at the heart of the classic college campus. It now reflects an environmental faddishness sweeping academia with a fervor exceeding even that for deconstructionism or take-back-the-night events.
The big buzzword on campus is "sustainability." Virtually every self-respecting institution of higher learning has an office of campus sustainability. What sustainability means, however, is often somewhat vague. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill pledges to advance "the triple bottom line of ecological integrity, economic prosperity and social equity." Michigan State promotes "a sustainable community that provides for the social and economic needs of its current and future members without compromising the health of our biosphere." Brandeis hits closest to home. Its sustainability initiative aims "to reduce the university's environmental impact."
The top-tier schools are all in on the act. Harvard's Green Campus Initiative has more than 20 full-time employees and claims to save the university $6 million a year. Yale's sustainability initiative commits the school to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions 10 percent below what they were in 1990 by the year 2020. Stanford, which gets high marks from green groups for its efforts, offers several sustainability groups for students, along with an organic garden for the campus community. Even the lousiest schools are greening. At Portland State University in Oregon, an athletic field is laid with artificial turf made from ground-up sneakers, and one of its buildings boasts the biggest "ecoroof" in the city.
There's nothing wrong with concern for the environment, of course, but is the sustainability movement on college campuses a sign of genuine regard for nature? The evidence suggests that the green movement on college campuses is being spearheaded by the same professional environmental organizations, peddling a distinctly left-wing political agenda, that have helped poison and distort energy and environmental policies in the United States for the last four decades.
Take the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC). Under this program, more than 500 top collegiate presidents and chancellors have pledged the resources of their institutions to fight global warming. It also is the impetus for establishing sustainability offices on many campuses.
The ACUPCC mission statement declares, "Reversing global warming is the defining challenge of the 21st century." But is it really? What about fighting global poverty? AIDS? Or bringing electricity to the one billion people on earth, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, who have never flipped a light switch?
The idea that climate change is the world's greatest problem is unarguable in the fevered swamps of the left. But it doesn't carry so much weight in other quarters. The Copenhagen Consensus, for instance, brought together many of the world's leading economists, including several Nobel laureates, to assess the world's most pressing problems and to list the best opportunities for addressing them. It considered challenges that varied from terrorism to air pollution to malnutrition to global warming (along with several others).
Asked the best ways to improve global welfare, these experts came up with a list of solutions based on the scope of the challenges, costs, and benefits. Their rankings are instructive, and should give pause to those shouting loudest about the need to counter global warming before--as we're so often told---it's "too late." Addressing global warming through developing low-carbon energy technologies was 14th, less critical than things like providing vitamins and medicine for children, treating malaria, and expanding trade.
The science is settled in Al Gore's view, and in declaring global warming Public Enemy Number One, the nation's college presidents seem to agree. But is that the role of the university?
Not according to former Education Secretary William Bennett. "It's interesting that the university theoretically dedicated to the marketplace of ideas has been bulldozed into shutting down the marketplace on the environmental debate, saying that this question is already settled," he says. "'We're All of One Mind Here,' shouldn't be the motto on the university seal."
Perhaps it's not surprising that top college officials are being bulldozed. The ACUPCC is the handiwork of several environmental groups that are active in the nation's political debates over energy and environmental issues. One is ecoAmerica, whose board includes executives from the Sierra Club and Environmental Defense, as well as activist/actress Darryl Hannah. It also includes David Fenton, whose PR firm has had a hand in virtually every environmental alarmism scare over the past several decades (including the notorious Alar apple scare in 1989). Another group behind ACUPCC is the Boston-based Second Nature, Inc., founded by a small group of individuals including John and Theresa Heinz Kerry.
In the rankings-obsessed environment that owes so much to U.S. News & World Report, it is also unsurprising that a number of organizations rank colleges and universities on their green efforts, and that schools are jumping through hoops to get high scores. The most respected ranking is the College Sustainability Report Card issued by the Sustainable Endowments Institute. The Institute is a project of the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, in partnership with Ted Turner's United Nations Foundation and an environmental organization---Energy Action---that is itself something of a clearinghouse for groups like the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative and Greenpeace.
Other organizations, including the Sierra Club, World Wildlife Fund, and even MTV, similarly give out rankings and awards to for collegiate greenness. Not to be outdone, too, is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which ranks the nation's institutions of higher learning on a green scale as part of its Green Power Partnership program. It credits colleges that buy green power derived from renewables like wind, solar, and biomass. According to one high-ranking Bush Administration official who served at EPA, the program's definition of "green power" suggests it is more interested in scoring points with the environmental lobby than with genuinely promoting green energy. "Know what's not eligible? Nuclear power, which couldn't be cleaner." The former official, who asked not to be identified, adds, "We went to the program people over and over and tried to get nuclear added. They just laughed and dismissed it out of hand."
There are few areas of debate more in need of free inquiry than issues of energy and the environment, particularly when it comes to climate change. Those topics need to be debated with an eye to the costs and benefits of a variety of competing plans of action. The university would seem to be the ideal forum for these debates. Increasingly, though, with professional environmental advocacy organizations implementing their dogma on campus, it appears the College Green is the wrong place for anyone to go looking to engage in genuine academic discussion.
Max Schulz is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.