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Credit: Gillian Diebold

In line with last year's slew of distressing news stories, the recent reports on 2017's record-high surface temperatures were not surprising. 

Nevertheless, the reports – and the temperatures — were devastating. In the United States alone the natural disasters associated with climate change, including hurricanes and wildfires, cost a record $306 billion in damages – making 2017 the costliest year ever. This should really provide a serious wake-up call for not only the White House, but also for our own Penn trustees. 

The national government continues to fail to rise to the challenge of supporting green initiatives. However, the Trump-appointed Director of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, is leading Washington on a crusade to revitalize the coal industry and to roll back decades of environmental legislation. Even here in Philadelphia, Penn continued to choose not to divest its endowment from fossil-fuel investments. 

While depressing, this shortsightedness does not mean that individuals cannot take action. Of course, we should continue to hold our trustees’ feet to the fire to divest an estimated $315 million, representing about 4 percent of Penn’s endowment, currently invested in fossil fuels. Following and supporting the group Fossil Free Penn is a great way to stay on top of this effort. But there are actually other significant ways here at Penn to help address climate change. 

Credit: Julio Sosa

Encouragingly, the University itself continues to take a lead on environmental issues in other ways, including “enhancing and leveraging existing efforts in campus sustainability, academics, and research regarding climate change and energy.” Per the website, Penn is, among other things, making strides to incorporate sustainability issues into curricular and non-curricular activities, to “design green” in campus buildings and landscapes, to conserve energy, to reduce emissions, to minimize solid waste, and to offer locally-produced foods at all Penn Dining halls.

This means there are ways for any one of us to get involved in environmental initiatives. Academically, terrific opportunities exist on both the undergraduate and graduate levels to build the skills necessary to pursue a career in sustainability. 

Undergrads may want to incorporate a course from or even pursue a minor within the Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership (IGEL), and grad students have a number of powerful options to study environmental risk management. IGEL is led by Wharton but is a Penn-wide initiative to promote “knowledge for business sustainability through world-class research, transformative teaching and constructive dialogue between top alumni, academic, corporate, government, and non-government organizations." As such, IGEL has become a “hub for business and sustainability, connecting and leveraging academic capital at Penn to help business leaders of today and tomorrow to create more sustainable industries."

Beyond academics, students in the Penn community can get involved in any number of environmental sustainability student groups on campus. Since 2010 the Student Sustainability Association at Penn (SSAP) has fostered “cohesion among environmentally-focused student groups, develop strategies for impacting campus sustainability, and create a unified student voice on green issues at Penn." 

If neither academic nor extracurricular group involvement is for you, individual actions including reducing solid waste provide some meaningful solutions. For instance, you can carry your own reusable shopping bag when buying multiple items or simply add small items to the rucksack or book bag you’re already carrying. 

You can remember to turn off the lights when you leave a room, consider turning down the heat or AC, and chose to walk, bike, or take public transport whenever you can. 

Rather than purchasing water in a plastic bottle, you can use your own refillable water bottle (such as the one you should have received from Penn Dining at move-in) at any of the numerous “water bottle refill stations” around campus. Or, if you must purchase pre-packaged water for your dorm room or in bulk for an event, consider buying Boxed Water which packages water in an "impermanent” box composed 75 percent of paper. 

As its founder points out, most of the box will decompose naturally, whereas “100 percent of a PET water bottle is going to be in a landfill for a thousand years." We can also encourage local restaurants to filter, chill, and bottle tap water in reusable glass bottles rather than selling bottled water that has traveled far.

It would of course be terrific if our leaders in Washington and at Penn made sustainability a priority, and we should continue to advocate for this. In the meantime, our individual actions can make a difference – especially when these actions are widespread and aggregated.

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