Penn students, faculty, schools, and centers led the University's second annual Climate Week this month, championing an approach of intersectionality to raising climate awareness and action.
This year's Climate Week hosted virtual and in-person events from Sept. 20 to Sept. 24. The programming was primarily sponsored by Penn's Office of the Provost and organized by the University's Sustainability Office; the Environmental Innovations Initiative; the Faculty Senate; the Student Sustainability Association at Penn, which is an umbrella group consisting of 12 undergraduate constituent groups; and Climate Leaders at Penn, which is a University-supported fellowship program for graduate students.
Sustainability Director Nina Morris said a significant part of Climate Week programming was virtual to ensure that it reached beyond the University and created a ripple effect throughout the Philadelphia community and in higher education as a whole. Morris emphasized the need to build a sense of urgency around the climate crisis within Penn's student and faculty body, and outlined the importance of taking action at an individual and global scale.
“Penn can be a leader in all those spaces and really utilize the resources and intellectual abilities to meet the needs of the climate crisis," Morris said.
In April, Penn announced it will reduce its net greenhouse gas emissions within its endowment by 2050. The University's Climate and Sustainability Action Plan 3.0, released in 2019, also set goals to reach net-zero emissions on campus by 2042 and a 40% reduction in buildings' carbon emissions by 2024.
Penn has not committed to fully divesting from fossil fuels — leading to continued calls for divestment from student activists in groups such as Fossil Free Penn, especially as peer institutions, like Harvard University and Cornell University, have recently committed to gradual divestment. In April, all eight Ivy League student body presidents signed a joint resolution authored by SSAP calling for each school to fully divest from fossil fuels.
This year’s Keynote event approached climate justice through a feminist lens, in a dialogue with Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine Wilkinson, who are co-editors of "All We Can Save," an anthology that consists of writings by 60 female climate pioneers. The event was moderated by College sophomore Xiye Bastida, a climate activist and contributor to "All We Can Save."
Deans from Penn's four undergraduate schools and other programs committed to doing their part in climate education, and they spoke about how the climate emergency interacts with each of their respective disciplines in various panels and lectures during the week. Many faculty members who attended the event echoed the importance of supporting students through research and collaboration in order to find solutions to the climate crisis.
College senior Vyshnavi Kosigishroff, who serves as co-chair of SSAP and co-chair of Climate Week, said the Deans' roundtable allowed students to connect with administrators and faculty members, who ultimately control what students learn in their course curricula.
“We wanted [the deans] to talk about their visions for changing Penn and their schools to align with the urgency of the climate crisis,” Kosigishroff said.
Kosigishroff gave a lecture titled "Making Choices in a Warming World," during which she called on students to demand more from each other in terms of their professional plans and consider the impact their careers may have on perpetuating climate change. She saw the week as a “launchpad for people who want to get involved, but who haven’t found an avenue to do that yet.”
During the week, faculty and students from Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine also hosted three virtual events, which discussed the intersection of climate change, medicine, and public health. J. Larry Jameson, dean of the Medical School, was among others who gave a 1.5* Minute Climate Lecture about the climate crisis.
Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships also hosted events on environmental justice, discussing the prevalence of environmental racism in West Philadelphia, and the likelihood that global climate change will prove to be another roadblock ahead for underserved communities.
Germanic Languages and Literatures professor Simon Richter, who is a core organizer of the Climate Week at Penn Planning Team, said Climate Week was an opportunity to showcase how many institutions at Penn and elsewhere are engaged in climate and tangential work and remind the community that anyone can find their place within the climate movement.
Richter estimated that about 100 students and faculty gathered outside College Hall to listen to eight professors and leaders speak on climate action at the 1.5* Minute Climate Lectures event on Sept. 22. College Dean Paul Sniegowski introduced the speakers, which included professors, researchers, and postdoctoral students, who delivered short speeches on topics ranging from climate as an anti-poverty policy, to demanding a green new deal for K-12 schools.
Two years ago, Richter originated the concept of 1.5* Minute Climate Lectures, based on the School of Arts and Sciences' 60-Second Lecture series. The impetus, he said, was that “it's very hard to stay below 1.5, whether you're talking minutes or degrees Celsius.”
1.5 degrees Celsius is considered the maximum average temperature above pre-industrial levels that humans can sustain before facing serious consequences of global climate change, but that threshold is likely to be passed within the next couple of decades, according to a groundbreaking report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published this summer.
Still, Richter encouraged members of the Penn community to consider the future consequences of climate change, such as ongoing wild fires and hurricanes. He said many people have refrained from becoming involved in, and educating themselves on, the fight against climate change because people are afraid of it.
"It's scary to confront something like that, and to think about it, because once you start getting into the science, and into the politics, and into the economics, it can be kind of daunting,” he said.
He said the primary reason for Climate Week's success this year was its interdisciplinary and decentralized model, which he believes reached a wider audience this year, since participating schools, departments, centers, and students were responsible for putting together their own discourse on climate action.
Kosigishroff walked away from the week feeling optimistic about Penn's commitment to improving climate change.
“This is the first time administrators are responding and receptive to what we're asking for," she said. "It's a really good time for students who care about the world in any capacity to get involved with the climate space."