Universities and Global Warming

Uni_kentuckyUniversity of
Kentucky activist calls for emissions reduction

By Erik Reece
Special to The Courier-Journal

For nearly half my life, I have taught writing at the University of
Kentucky. The work is demanding and rewarding, and I have never really
wanted any other job.

Like many Kentuckians, my allegiance to UK began with my
father’s love, and consequently my own, of UK basketball. But now I
feel a stronger allegiance to my students who struggle to express
themselves amidst the din of commercial noise, and I feel a stronger
need to enact the mission of a land grant university — to better the
lives of people around the state.

These days when I walk to school, I pass a huge mound of coal piled
beside the physical plant, out of most people’s sight. Sometimes I
teach in the building next to that coal-burning plant, and sometimes I
point out to my students — say on a nice day when they ask to hold
class outdoors — that the air outside that building routinely tests as
the worst in Lexington.

One doesn’t like to think that the inviting, bucolic campus one
sees in recruiting brochures is also the source of asthma, respiratory
infections, smog, lung disease and the imminent global climate crisis.
And I personally don’t like to think that the mound of coal next to the
physical plant was harvested by mountaintop removal, the brutal strip
mining method that is quickly decimating Eastern Kentucky. But both are

Walking around UK’s campus at night, one sees empty buildings
radiating light. In the office tower where I work, we are given
mandatory instruction not to turn off our computers, ever. Many
buildings, including most of the classroom buildings, have no recycling
bins. And these are simply the obvious examples of a costly and
ineffective energy policy.

Not radical enough

has been much talk of late about how left-wing radicals are taking over
public universities. But the truth is, we instructors and
administrators have not been nearly radical enough — that is to say,
not conservative enough — to educate our students and ourselves to
live and think in ways that will promote health and sustainability and
will stave off environmental catastrophes.

UK president Lee Todd has set for UK the laudable goal of becoming a Top 20 public university. According to a recent New York Times
article, the University of Florida has already achieved that status
through aggressive recruiting of students and faculty, along with
smaller class sizes. And I believe another indicator of Florida’s
success is the vision of its president, Bernie Machen, to be the most
environmentally efficient campus in the country by 2015.

Manchen has pledged to follow the Leadership in Energy and
Environmental Design standards for all new campus construction, to buy
the most efficient appliances on the market, and to supply 15 percent
of U of F’s electricity from renewable energy. This last move is
especially good news for Eastern Kentucky where, thanks to the
mountaintop removal practices of Tampa Energy (TECO), many valley
communities have had to endure mudslides, intense flooding, cracked
foundations and respiratory problems due to air that is filled with
coal dust.

Now Manchen has challenged other universities to sign by June a
document called the "Climate Commitment." The overall goal of the
"Climate Commitment" is for each school to achieve climate neutrality
— emit no greenhouse gasses — as soon as possible. It states: "We
believe colleges and universities must exercise leadership in their
communities and throughout society by modeling ways to minimize global
warming emissions, and by providing the knowledge and the educated
graduates to achieve climate neutrality."

Specifically, the "Climate Commitment" asks university
presidents to complete an inventory of all greenhouse gas emissions on
their campus, to develop and institutional action plant to become
climate neutral, and to initiate tangible steps such as buying Energy
Star appliances, following the U.S. Green Building Council’s codes for
campus construction and purchasing more renewable energy. Finally,
presidents are asked to make public periodical progress reports.

As a member of the UK community, I urge President Todd to sign
the "Climate Commitment," and as a Kentuckian, I urge all of the
state’s university presidents to do the same. A university with an
innovative plan to invest in alternative energies will encourage
first-class researchers to join its faculty, and it will create better
jobs and healthier lives throughout the state, especially in the

But I also urge Dr. Todd, Dr. James Ramsey at the University of
Louisville, and the other presidents to go one step further. The
burning of coal is only half of the problem in Kentucky. The ravages of
extraction are the other half. Therefore, it is a moral imperative that
UK, along with all state universities, refuse to buy coal that has been
mined by mountaintop removal.

With the unfortunate exceptions of a few high-placed
politicians, it is beyond doubt that the Earth is heating up
dramatically. The college presidents who drafted the "Climate
Commitment" are absolutely right that universities — especially
flagship and land-grant universities — must become models for social
change that addresses the climate crisis with boldness and vision.

Few social institutions bear as much responsibility to the
future as a university, and now our responsibility is to quickly
transform an unsustainable fossil-fuel economy into one that will
actually see us through the 21st Century and beyond. This requires more
than new technology; it requires knowledge that is grounded in wisdom,
humility, ethics and reverence. It requires, in short, a new way of
thinking and a new university.

Erik Reece is the author of Lost Mountain: A Year in the
Vanishing Wilderness. He is a writer-in-residence at the University of

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