Opinion: University must consider all environmental implications of its actions

With fossil fuel investment and ongoing construction, can AU claim to be a beacon of environmental progress?

Opinion: University must consider all environmental implications of its actions
Lauren Patetta is a staff columnist for The Eagle

I have a lot of questions, predominantly about carbon neutrality and sustainability at American University. While I undoubtedly see environmental progress being made and forefronted at the University, I also see stagnation and even regression in other areas. 

Last year, President Sylvia Burwell announced that the school had achieved its goal of carbon neutrality two years ahead of schedule. This was a huge milestone for the University, as it became the first in the United States to have achieved this. Our Office of Sustainability also tracks sustainability progress in areas like dining, waste and transportation. We have a number of LEED-certified buildings, and a main goal of construction is to increase efficiency. 

At the same time, the University continues to be invested in fossil fuels. According to Fossil Free American University, a campus activist organization dedicated to promoting fossil free divestment, the University has nearly $19 million invested in the fossil fuel industry — the industry that’s largely responsible for carbon pollution. Certain professors require us to print lengthy readings and papers on a regular basis rather than just use technology. Campus construction, which feels endless at this point, has undoubtedly created extra pollution. I can’t help but wonder how the construction has impacted the arboretum and other wildlife. 

Even if we are carbon neutral in every sense of the word, it’s not the be-all and end-all of campus sustainability. It doesn’t absolve us of other actions that are having an environmental impact. How can a school that claims to be so environmentally-focused continue to support an industry that is decidedly not? Investing in fossil fuels runs counter to AU’s entire mission of sustainability, because fossil fuels are a source of the problems that AU is trying to combat. 

I understand that divesting is likely a difficult process, and I can’t pretend to have a deep understanding of the University’s financial decision-making. I don’t know why we are invested in fossil fuels, but I know that those fossil fuels are responsible for things like melting ice caps, global warming and ocean acidification. I know that they are a driver behind the increasing number of climate refugees. If the University truly wants to embody environmental sustainability, it needs to divest from this industry. 

Additionally, I doubt that construction has had a positive impact on campus wildlife. American loves to mention the fact that our campus is a certified arboretum, but it seems that no steps are being taken to ensure its protection during construction. I also wonder if anything is being done to offset the impact of construction pollution on the environment. The noise and debris caused by the amount of projects across all of campus certainly impacts the environment around campus in some way. 

Essentially, the University should celebrate its successes while simultaneously acknowledging and working to fix its faults. It can’t solely focus on the good things it has accomplished, not when there are problems that its students are actively working to highlight. 

Being one of the first American colleges to be carbon neutral is a big deal; I don’t want to diminish that. The Office of Sustainability also seems to be doing important work and research, but while it looks good, it’s important that the University recognizes its other actions are also having an environmental impact as well. It’s not enough just to look good by posting carbon neutrality signs on the buses. We need to do good, too. 

Lauren Patetta is a junior in the School of Communication and an assistant editor for the opinion section.

lpatetta@theeagleonline.com

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