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In the past year, two major universities, Columbia and Stanford, have announced the creation of new schools dedicated to solving the climate crisis. It’s time for Penn to do the same. (Right) HarshLight // CC BY 2.0

Credit: Kylie Cooper

If the past year wasn’t already a rollercoaster, Mother Nature seemed to have an agenda of her own: issuing a clarion call for Americans not to forget about climate change. California burned, Texas flooded, Louisiana sank, and Alaska melted

Despite the continued climate atrocities, there is cause for hope. In the past year, two major universities, Columbia and Stanford, have announced the creation of new schools dedicated to solving the climate crisis. It’s time for Penn to do the same. 

To get one straw man out of the way, Penn’s effort to become carbon neutral is commendable. It is also wholly separate from creating a new climate school. At this point, vowing to become net-zero is the bare minimum for a large organization. Penn must think bigger and be more ambitious than that. 

To clarify, universities such as Columbia and Stanford have not created climate schools because they lack climate innovation and public policy research. In fact, they, like Penn, are very much at the forefront of these fields, from carbon capture to precision agriculture

Columbia and Stanford are creating these schools because they recognize the practical reality of the climate crisis: As much as anyone might wish it would go away, it won’t. It’s only getting worse, and time is running out. These universities understand that with their talent and resources, they have an obligation to step up and accelerate research and development in scientific and policy disciplines to address the climate crisis. 

How could Penn create a climate school? First, consult with Columbia and Stanford — no need to reinvent the wheel. As Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger noted, its new school will draw on faculty, departments, and research centers from across engineering, medicine, and the arts and humanities. He also stated that Columbia — and I would also wager, Penn — would not be starting from scratch; rather, the university is building on existing progress to combat the climate crisis.   

Second, Penn should consider our areas of strength. Basic science departments with direct relevance to climate — like chemical and biomolecular engineering, materials science and engineering, chemistry, earth and environmental science, physics, and biology — should be involved as collaborative efforts in understanding the nature of climate change. Wharton’s Business, Climate, and Environment Lab’s involvement could send a message that climate change is inextricably linked to market forces, and that solutions to it have to involve corporate entities. With their existing emphasis on climate and sustainability, the Water Center, Kleinman Center, and other existing similar institutes seem like natural partnerships, and student environmental and entrepreneurial groups should be consulted as well for interest levels. The deans and leadership of Penn’s many schools must partner to make this a reality. 

Third, Penn should form an orderly process to navigate this issue. For example, at Stanford, “throughout the fall and winter, a 30-member faculty Blueprint Advisory Committee (BAC), which includes faculty from all seven schools and five policy institutes, has been meeting to design the new school’s structure, education programs, themed initiatives and engagement activities.” 

Columbia created a task force “to explore what more the University should be doing with respect to climate change.” Columbia’s president wrote in his announcement: “In addition, concretely, would our efforts be significantly enhanced by the creation of a school devoted to these matters? The answer of the Task Force to that question was yes, as is mine, and as was the unanimous vote of the University Trustees at our recent June [2020] meeting.” It is hard to imagine a stronger mandate than that. 

Penn must not let itself get bogged down in university bureaucracy. We can’t let excessive bickering, politicking, or just plain feet-dragging slow us down. We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good — Penn must recognize that a new school will evolve and improve as mistakes are made, but doing nothing can no longer be an option.   

To be clear, Penn’s administration deserves praise for putting us on the path to zero carbon. That doesn’t change the fact that, fundamentally, this is a leadership issue. If other large universities can do this, so can Penn. We must not look at climate as a huge burden. Rather, as Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry says, the climate crisis is the greatest economic opportunity the world has known since the Industrial Revolution. Why should Penn miss out when we could be the clear leader? This is a chance to distinguish ourselves too in service of a greater good.  

In addition to Kerry, Nobel laureates and other experts published a “call for action” to tackle the climate crisis in April this year. They included policy, mission-driven innovation, education, information technology, finance and business, scientific collaboration, and knowledge as key areas for action. Penn leads in all of them.

To be completely clear-eyed, creating a new school or centralized institute would be a daunting challenge. Yet we should be fortunate that two similar, large research universities have started this journey — it’s proof that it’s a sensible idea. Penn should now follow their lead and do the same.

NEIL KAPOOR is a rising Engineering and Wharton sophomore studying computer science and finance from Palo Alto, Calif. His email is neilkap@wharton.upenn.edu.

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