A recent United Nations report spelled out a dire future for humanity: without drastic preventative measures, the world will see severe effects of climate change become apparent by 2040, including food shortages, coastal flooding and damages approaching $54 trillion. To combat the dangerous consequences of climate change, which will affect North Carolina and NC State’s students for generations, the university must take aggressive action. While the university currently plans to be climate neutral by 2050, this alarming U.N. report demonstrates that dramatic institutional change must come well before then.
The world has already started to experience the effects of climate change. The average global temperature is already 1.8°F higher than pre-industrial levels, and sea level is rising at a rate of an inch per year.
Our home state should expect serious impact. In the next 27 years, more than 15,000 North Carolina homes (worth almost $4 billion and housing 23,000 people) are at risk of flooding due to sea level rise. Areas further inland are also at risk from assorted climate impacts, especially lower agricultural productivity — Wake County is expected to lose 3.1 percent of its GDP to climate change by 2100, while other counties like Robeson, in the southeast portion of the state, are expected to lose more than 10 percent of their GDP.
Apart from climate change effects, fossil fuels already harm vulnerable communities in our state. For instance, construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline will cut through Lumbee tribal lands in Robeson County, posing the risk of leaks and degradation of water supplies, as has occurred with the Keystone XL in North Dakota.
The first step NC State should take is to divest the portion of its $1.4 billion endowment which currently supports the fossil fuel industry and reinvest that money into environmentally and socially responsible organizations. While some might be skeptical of this approach — after all, the university certainly would not want to jeopardize the endowment’s growth — NC State has already experimented with socially responsible investing.
A $50 million donation from the Park Foundation was given to the university in 2013, with the stipulation that the money be invested in a “socially responsible fashion.” According to Bloomberg, that socially responsible gift is currently outperforming the school’s main endowment, with a return of 20 percent (vs. the main endowment’s 12 percent) through June 30, 2017. Withdrawing endowment funds from the fossil fuel industry would not only be a smart environmental move, but a savvy financial one as well.
Next, the university should move to phase out its natural gas infrastructure, including its on-campus steam plants. Fracked natural gas continues to be one of NC State’s main sources of both energy and greenhouse gases, and brings with it a variety of environmental concerns. Instead, the university should move quickly to expand existing renewable energy projects around campus and promote taking advantage of the rapidly falling price of solar energy to meet more of the university’s electricity needs.
As a public university, NC State has a responsibility to the public to make sure tax dollars and donations are being spent in a way that most benefits its students and the people of this state. However, we cannot evaluate this without a full picture of where the university invests its money.
If our scholarships and academic resources are being subsidized by an industry that will also cause severe ecological and economic damage a decade down the line, we have a right to know. The university should take steps to increase transparency regarding where endowment funds are invested, including specific industries and companies.
NC State has a close partnership with Duke Energy, the primary electric company in North Carolina. Duke Energy funds a number of scholarships, primarily in STEM and energy-related fields, and it has donated money to the university in the past.
Although the company incorporates some renewable sources of energy in its power mix, it continues to rely heavily on coal and gas power, much to the detriment of North Carolina’s waterways, which have experienced multiple coal ash spills over the past few years. Coal is also one of the worst fuels in terms of CO2 and other pollutants.
As a university, we should put our money where our mouth is and use our close relationship with Duke Energy to encourage it to transition to more sustainable energy sources. NC State should also promote cooperation between the company’s research projects and work taking place on campus, dedicating more minds and resources to developing more productive and efficient power systems.
NC State has the financial and human capital to make a difference in our community’s pursuit of a climate-conscious way of life, but it needs to actively put forth more focus and energy toward addressing the sustainability crisis that will haunt the globe for the next decade. The university has an obligation to its students and the people of North Carolina to plan for the future by taking steps now to fight climate change.
This unsigned editorial is the opinion of Technician’s editorial board and is the responsibility of the editor-in-chief.