Tulane’s Clashing Environmental Values

By: Olivia Stone

In 2014, Tulane’s student government put together an abatement plan aimed at reducing the university’s greenhouse gas emissions. That year, the goal was to decrease emissions 15% by the year 2020, mostly through energy efficiency initiatives. It’s now 2019 and Tulane’s emissions have been ticking upwards, calling for an even more drastic decrease in emissions, close to 50%, if we are to stay on target with our 2020 goal.

For Tulane to follow through with this promise would call for a significant shift in the university’s dedication to combating climate change. As a major research institution, Tulane sponsors numerous projects on sustainability and climate change. However, this performance of ostensive environmental stewardship disguises some major contradictions in University policy.

In addition to Tulane’s climbing greenhouse gas emissions, Tulane invests its endowment, worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually, into fossil fuels. This is problematic for so many reasons. Continued investment of fossil fuels is not morally consistent with Tulane’s “mission” and simultaneously disregards the urgency and severity of climate change issues, the leadership role that Tulane could take on through divestment, and the financial threat of the carbon bubble. (The term “carbon bubble” describes the vast amounts of capital invested in fossil fuels that will eventually be inaccessible as the world transitions into clean energy and away from fossil fuels.) The burst of the bubble is inevitable, and once it bursts, there will be up to trillions of dollars of global economic damage.

For Tulane, reinvesting in sustainable technologies could be more profitable than current investments, and would have an extremely small risk. If Tulane were to direct those investments into sustainable infrastructure in Louisiana, not only would it be a morally and financially sound decision, but it would place Tulane in a positive leadership role. Tulane has the opportunity to give back to and help ensure the future of the city of New Orleans and its surrounding areas.

Tulane profits off of an industry that drives climate change. However, the environment is not the only victim of the fossil fuel industry. Marginalized communities are taken advantage of and exposed to serious health risks by oil and gas companies, who snake their way in to low-income communities armed with false promises of jobs and education for residents. Cancer Alley, a strip running between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, home to over 100 petrochemical plants and oil refineries, is a prime example of this exploitation. This strip of the state was coined “Cancer Alley” in the mid-1980s when cancer rates in the area started to become more prevalent. Residents of Cancer Alley continue to have some of the highest rates of cancer in the country.

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As a strategy, divestment is primarily rooted in a moral perspective, but the act of divesting opens up opportunities to engage in conversation about a greener future. Diverting the schools endowment into clean energy or other green technologies is not only a political statement, but the intelligent thing to do if we’re thinking about the future of Tulane or our planet.

Tulane’s lack of climate action is morally irresponsible. As a major institution with great economic influence in New Orleans, what is the school’s responsibility to combating climate change? I asked Liz Davey, director of Tulane’s Office of Sustainability, her opinion. “I came into this work because of my belief that universities should be models for sustainable practices, and should be making more long term decisions that support the education of students.” I followed up by asking if she believed Tulane was upholding their responsibility, and if she thought Tulane’s priorities align with the school’s projected values. “We can’t just say Tulane as if it’s one ‘thing’. People need to speak up about environmental goals. People are surprised that Tulane does not have a stronger involvement in climate action considering the threat it imposes.” Throughout our conversation about sustainability on and off campus, the word that kept being brought up was “urgency.” There is a lack of urgency for climate action initiatives. Where is Tulane’s sense of motivation when the scientific evidence is there, stating that New Orleans as we know it will no longer exist in just several decades? Most of us don't feel that urgency because we know that in a short while we won’t be here anymore. We are not motivated because the majority of us are guests in this city. We stay here for four years, we go to the Boot, have brunch at Satsuma, and Uber to Whole Foods and then most of us go home. As students at Tulane we have the ability to influence Tulane’s actions and stimulate change with Tulane as our vessel. We are not acknowledging our individual responsibilities to this amazing city we are guests in, nor to our planet as a whole.

Climate change stories are making their way to the front pages of newspapers and magazines and it is critical that we are familiarizing ourselves with the real and urgent impacts of climate change and how we can take action against environmental injustices. There are a lot of people and organizations at Tulane working to make great strides in sustainability on and off campus. Climate Action Week is a perfect opportunity to start to engage with these people and to begin to take responsibility for your own education and awareness on sustainability and climate change. The need for educated students and teachers at Tulane who are ready and able to speak up about environmental concerns is the only way for the school to be held accountable for its contradictory values. Take on that responsibility and show up for the environment. Make Tulane sense the urgency we need to drive change. Pressure our university to do better.