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New UC president must prioritize addressing system’s climate change shortcomings

(Lily Lee/Daily Bruin)

By Elaine Chen

Feb. 25, 2020 9:43 p.m.

Despite the ever-growing presence of global warming, the University of California has only continued to bring the heat.

The current UC President, Janet Napolitano, announced last year she would be stepping down in August. Soon after, a special committee was formed to review potential candidates and recommend an appointment to the Board of Regents.

At a town hall hosted by UC Berkeley as part of the presidential search, Board of Regents Chair John Pérez said the board would consider climate change in their process of selecting a new president.

The decision came only after the UC San Diego Green New Deal sent a petition containing roughly 2,000 signatures from members across all UC campuses to the regents.

But despite the UC’s hesitant commitment to including climate change on the docket, the regents have yet to add the issue to the official selection criteria.

The UC hasn’t exactly been convincing in its attempts to portray itself as an entity that prioritizes mitigating its contributions to climate change – and its recent actions haven’t helped bolster its image. The regents shouldn’t be discussing the pressing issue of climate change in an apathetic manner, especially given their large platform and ability to influence universities beyond California. And stating that climate change will be considered in the selection of a new president isn’t anywhere near sufficient in proving that the UC is serious about asserting itself as a proponent against the climate crisis.

Looking back at the UC’s history of half-hearted sustainability goals and current lack of definitive action in regard to what was said at the town hall, it’s more likely that students are looking at another empty promise.

The UC has taken some action in recent years that initially seemed to demonstrate a dedication to reducing the carbon footprint across all 10 campuses. But with a looming deadline at the end of this year, the UC’s failure to meet its zero-waste goal is representative of an ambitious plan coupled with limited oversight.

But lofty goals don’t make up for bad execution.

Declaring the zero-waste goal through the UC Office of the President and then leaving the implementation to each individual UC campus has resulted in huge discrepancies when it comes to meeting the overall objective.

UC Irvine boasts an 83% diversion rate, close to the UC-wide goal of 90%, yet other campuses such as UCLA haven’t been as successful, with a 57% diversion rate.

Another deed that had the potential to cement the UC as a motivated actor against climate change was the UC’s divestment from fossil fuels. Rather than showing support for progressive climate initiatives, the UC chief investment officer wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed that the incentive for choosing to phase out fossil fuel companies came purely from a place of monetary risk. UCOP and the UC Board of Regents could not be reached in time for comment.

Alan Barreca, an associate professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, reaffirmed this sentiment in an emailed statement, in which he said that the announcement of choosing to divest from fossil fuels was more of a symbolic policy that does not directly reduce fossil fuels in isolation.

So much for being carbon neutral by 2025.

Regardless of whatever is incentivizing the UC, constituents must continue to emphasize the importance of nominating a candidate who is willing to make climate change a priority on his or her agenda.

“In general, climate change is an issue that’s not really talked about, but when you do hear about it, (you remember that) it affects everyone, so I think it is an issue that is on the rise for a reason,” said Olivia Lam, a first-year undeclared student.

Considering repeated calls for action from students, this should only serve as a greater incentive for UCOP to act. And for all the institutional-level changes students can’t make in their daily lives, the UC can.

Stephanie Pincetl, a professor-in-residence at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, said in an emailed statement the new UC President should make sustainability one of their core missions for internal operations.

Rather than simply declaring that climate change will be considered in the process of selecting a new UC president, concrete action and planning need to emerge from this sentiment – not to mention, adding climate change to the selection criteria.

And some UCLA faculty members have ideas on where the new president could start.

Barreca said that the new UC president will have the role of helping champion policies at the state level and emphasized a need to focus on restructuring the energy and transportation sectors. Pincetl listed potential measures that she would like to see implemented by the new president, such as mandating that all UC vehicles are electric and instituting composting for food venues.

Of course, it’s reasonable to cast doubt on whether the words and actions of the regents will line up when the time comes to select a new president. However, a larger spotlight on the issue of climate change may be just what students need to ensure that these issues get the proper attention they deserve.

Seeing that the UCSD Green New Deal was still able to prompt a reaction from the board, there is hope that applying more constituent pressure will force some material action from the UC.

But you know what they say about hope.

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Elaine Chen
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