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09-18-19-climate-week-sharon-lee
Simon Richter (middle), a core organizer of Climate Week, spoke at the 2019 lectures. Credit: Sharon Lee

A subcommittee of Penn's Faculty Senate is calling on the University to strengthen its climate change commitments, following recent international reports on the heightening climate crisis and the University's second annual Climate Week.

The Faculty Senate's Select Committee on the Institutional Response to the Climate Emergency released a resolution in September in an effort to raise more awareness of climate-related issues among faculty and University departments.

CIRCE, which has an advisory role for Penn administration, recommended in a four-pronged approach that the University implement solutions across investing, University practices and operations, expressions of climate commitments, and greater facilitation of individual climate actions. The resolution — which is still pending approval from the Senate Executive Committee — advises Penn to achieve its net-zero carbon goal two years ahead of 2042, and encourages reconsideration of the University's investments in fossil fuels.  

Faculty Senate chair William Braham, who is an architecture professor and Chair at the Weitzman School of Design said CIRCE has provided the majority of carbon accounting and energy efficiency accounting and tracking on campus for the past few years. Braham added that the committee has been “very directly involved in forming the carbon action plan for the main campus. 

“We didn't want to just get a resolution approved, we want to use the process of approving the resolution to get as many people to be aware of it, and also to comment on it,” Braham said, adding that most of CIRCE's recommendations are in some stage of implementation within the University.

Members of faculty have raised concerns and requests for clarifications about certain aspects of the resolution, Braham said, adding that an updated final resolution will be brought to the Senate Executive Committee in November. In the meantime, he said CIRCE wants to publicize their work so as to get people talking and to “move things along faster.”

CIRCE's resolution contrasts the administrative response from Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli last year, where he criticized Fossil Free Penn's unwillingness to address the climate crisis other than divestment

While the resolution acknowledged the University's progress on climate change action over time and saluted student leadership in climate emergency initiatives, it also pointed out the recent increase in climate disasters, and the need for more prominent action, per the reports set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Authority.

On top of accelerating the University-wide, net-zero carbon zero deadline, CIRCE called for a public and direct address on how to achieve net-zero carbon in the University's endowment, which the group found is Penn's biggest source of indirect carbon emissions.  

Penn announced in April 2021 that it will reduce its net greenhouse gas emissions from endowment investments to zero by 2050, with a commitment to achieve a 100% carbon-neutral campus by 2042.  

“We think that’s an incredibly important commitment and we also think it’s going to be very challenging," Braham said, adding that CIRCE has been in touch with the Penn Office of Investments to help achieve the goal.

CIRCE also wants the Climate and Sustainability Action Plan 3.0 to apply to The University of Pennsylvania Health System and Penn's real estate holdings, and hopes Penn can expand carbon reduction and climate resilience practices across the West Philadelphia community. The committee noted that the potential installation of solar panels and an electric vehicle fleet by 2025 may serve as key visual reminders of the climate emergency.   

The resolution called for a deeper vetting of the value of investments in fossil fuel extraction and processing companies. This includes screening against fossil fuel companies who actively deny the climate crisis and spread climate disinformation, and also hopes to offer faculty and staff lower carbon retirement funds.

Similar discussions about divestment were brought up by faculty members during the 1.5* Minute Climate Lectures event in late September. 

History professor Jared Farmer and Earth and Environmental Sciences senior lecturer Jane E. Dmochowski both gave lectures, titled "The Challenge of Long-Term Thinking" and "Climate Change: How Do We Measure Success?," respectively. Both supported different divestment strategies from the University's status quo and called for Penn to be more involved in combating the climate crisis.  

“As a university, instead of measuring success by our endowment, we should consider successfully divesting in the fossil fuel industry and standing for environmental justice in our community and around the world,” Dmochowski said in her 1.5* climate lecture.

Students at the University have also long supported bolder climate action, with student groups like the Student Sustainability Association at Penn and Fossil Free Penn urging for sooner net-zero deadlines and divestment from fossil fuels in the University's endowment.

Vyshnavi Kosigishroff, junior in the College and SSAP co-Chair, said they don’t think Penn is doing enough regarding climate change action. SSAP’s main request from Penn has been to divest its endowment from the fossil fuel industry, Kosigishroff said. 

“For Penn to be a real leader, as a global research institution, and as they say their mission is to nurture future global stewards, they have to cut ties with the fossil fuel industry.” Kosigishroff said, “Until that happens, Penn will not be doing enough.”

Kosigishroff said SSAP believes that an earlier deadline of 2030 is well within Penn’s reach as one of the wealthiest institutions in the country.

The resolution also seeks an expansion of course offerings related to climate change and an increase in climate-specific faculty positions, which various faculty members and students support.

"It’s shocking that students at a world-class university can graduate without taking a single course on the single most important issue facing the world," Farmer wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian. "As a long-time elite training ground for bankers, consultants, and corporate leaders, Penn bears a disproportionate share of responsibility for what climate modelers call ‘business as usual.’ The flip side of that? There’s tremendous opportunity to incorporate climate education into Penn’s culture of business.” 

Kosigishroff said SSAP is working to promote more climate course offerings at Penn, and that the group is urging the University to add a universal climate course for every student in each school.  

Consistent with the Climate and Sustainability Action Plan 3.0, CIRCE is also encouraging individual centers, departments, and schools at Penn to develop their own carbon action plans. 

Like other Penn community members, Farmer held the University to a high climate standard, saying “we should expect and demand that universities be ethical leaders in long-term thinking.”

“When the University celebrates its 300th birthday in 2040, we should be marking achievements, not goals. The Penn community can get to net-zero in at least three spheres: campus operations, the endowment, and retirement investments. That would be a triple achievement for the tricentennial,” Farmer wrote to the DP. 

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