The Defining Issue of Our Time

While climate change is more of a reality and less of a hypothetical, there are still actions the College can take to lower its carbon footprint.

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Words: Susan McCarthy, Illustrations: Nora Aoyagi

The City of San Francisco recently shut down a portion of Market Street to private vehicles.
Imagine a world where Mills did something similar to make Richards Road greener. Bicycles
and shuttle buses could theoretically transport all students and staff onto campus. (Original photo by Phil Bond.)

The air itself was filled with threat as Mills held an environmental forum on climate change in December 2018. Smoke was drifting into the Bay Area from wildfires exacerbated by high winds and exceptionally dry weather conditions, but it didn’t take unhealthy air to tell the Mills community that climate change is a reality to be faced and fought. (See captions for more information about the forum.)

The College was already tackling climate justice, linking it with social justice. “The Mills mission is to really focus on climate justice issues and the role of women and people of color in the transition to what might be a new, more climate-friendly system,” Professor Kristina Faul says. Urgency is expressed by the administration, faculty, and students, the latter group having grown up worrying about climate change. “It was always there,” says Dalia Bender, a first-year public health and health equity major.

“Young people care about this. We’re going to have to live with this,” adds Caitlyn Marianacci, a graduate student in the School of Education.

Mills has employed a sustainability coordinator since 2007, which was also the year then- president Janet Holmgren signed the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) to pledge the College in pursuit of carbon neutrality (balancing carbon emissions with carbon removal). A Climate Action Plan (CAP) that Mills issued in 2010 set a goal of reducing those emissions by 15% by 2015, which was exceeded. The College is currently operating under a 2017 CAP that aims to reduce emissions by 40% by 2025.

Signs of Mills’ commitment to climate justice are all around. The campus already features electric car recharging stations, compostable and recyclable containers in the Tea Shop, and water-efficient showerheads and washing machines in residence halls. The College has upgraded some boilers as they become outdated, and is gradually replacing outdoor lighting with more efficient LED bulbs. But it’s becoming increasingly obvious that actions such as recycling and banning plastic straws aren’t enough to solve the problem: A 2018 United Nations study by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made it clear that the world has a long way to go. “We need more concrete plans, more ambition from more countries and more businesses,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres. “We need all financial institutions, public and private, to choose, once and for all, the green economy.” Mills is an institution that is determined to make that choice.

December 2018 Climate Change Forum: Mills faculty are supporting and, in some cases, researching climate action. In the sciences, geochemist Kristina Faul and biologist Sarah Swope have reached out to the community to discuss climate mechanisms. In the public policy realm, professors Sam Evans and Mark Henderson have taken part as well.

At the December 2018 Climate Change Forum, these four talked about their research and climate to an enthusiastic response. “Students said it was super helpful and super interesting,” says Swope. “They liked bringing people from different parts of the campus.”

“We were positively surprised by how many people registered,” Henderson says. “Some members of the public also came.”

Another forum is planned for April’s Earth Week. If the last one was about what faculty are up to, this one will be “more climate-focused, student interactive, and student-led. We want it to pull in more of the Mills community,” Evans says. “Students feel like this is one of the defining issues of our time.

The Moore Natural Sciences Building already incorporates a rainwater-collection system, so
what about adding one to an existing structure? One atop the Tea Shop and Rothwell Student
Center could possibly gather enough water to replenish the fountain in Adams Plaza. (Original photo by Allison Rost.)

Climate Action Plans

When Mills reduced emissions by 15% under the first CAP, it did so through equipment upgrades and behavior change campaigns (such as using cold water for laundry, holding “power down days,” and organizing carpools). Meeting the 2017 CAP goal—reducing emissions 40% by 2025—will be more challenging. Director of Construction, Compliance, and Sustainability Karen Fiene, who has been deeply involved in emissions reduction on the Mills campus, says, “The smaller, lower- hanging fruit has pretty much been picked.”

Natural gas is the largest contributor to Mills emissions, at 41%, so many efforts focus on funding projects such as insulating roofs. These projects will pay for themselves with lower heating costs—eventually. Buildings the CAP indicates would bring the biggest emissions and money savings include the Warren Olney, Orchard Meadow, Mary Morse, and Ethel Moore residence halls.

Two newer buildings are stellar performers from an emissions standpoint: the 2007 Betty Irene Moore Natural Sciences Building (NSB) and the 2009 Lorry I. Lokey School of Business and Public Policy Building have both earned high LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) scores. The high scores were awarded for such things as reduction of light pollution, diversion of construction waste from landfills, use of regional and low-emitting materials and certified wood, and roofs that avoid attracting too much heat from the sun. The NSB also earned points for its “living roof” porch area. Of the NSB, Fiene says, “We wanted to get LEED silver or better, and we got platinum!” The Lokey building earned LEED gold. Reducing emissions is trickier with older structures. “People always say, ‘Solar,’” Fiene notes. But many of the College’s lovely old buildings feature sloping clay tile roofs, shaded by 100-foot trees, making solar roofs more difficult to implement. For both solar panels on newer buildings and solar hot-water heating, the CAP suggests seeking donations of systems from for-profit institutions, individuals, or groups of individuals who would receive a renewable energy tax credit. Some buildings that aren’t suitable for solar roofs could still accommodate partial solar hot-water systems, with the largest savings at Orchard Meadow, Olney, Ethel Moore, Mary Morse, and Founders Commons. Solar panels could be installed on CPM, GSB, Lucie Stern, and the F. W. Olin Library buildings, and a shade structure with solar panels could be put up at the Trefethen Aquatic Center.

At the 2018 climate forum, Assistant Professor of Biology Sarah Swope gave a talk on “How Will Endangered Plants Fare in a Rapidly Changing Climate?” An evolutionary ecologist, Swope studies three rare local plants—the Tiburon Mariposa Lily and two species of jewelflower—and how they adapt to changing conditions.

With other faculty and staff, she’s putting together another climate forum on April 23 for Earth Week. This one will be more interactive. “Students have very specific questions,” she says. “They want to understand the science of it: Why do warmer oceans lead to colder winters? Why are species going extinct, and why can’t they adapt? They also want to know about policy.”

Swope adds, “This second forum is really driven by students coming and asking questions. Most students are not going to take science classes. They have questions ranging from mechanistic ones about the effects of ocean acidification to what is our moral and spiritual obligation to other species.”

Of her study species, Swope is not optimistic about jewelflowers. “They have low genetic diversity, and they’re very sensitive to drought years,” she says. On the other hand, the Tiburon mariposa lily has the ability to go dormant in hard times: “I think it might be okay.”

After natural gas use, commuting is the biggest contributor to emissions at Mills, at 28%. Here is an area where behavior change can help. The CAP estimates that large percentages of the faculty and staff and off-campus student commute—“approximately 80,000 solo round trips per year.” Pieces of the solution being considered include compressed workweeks or telecommuting, promoting low- or zero-emission vehicles, car-shares, biking, improving the campus shuttle fleet, and advocating for better bus service.

Faculty use of air travel has been slowly declining, says Joanne Wong, the College’s sustainability coordinator. “It is challenging. Sometimes it’s the cost of doing business,” she says. Still, she has a suggestion: “Can you do a video chat for that particular talk or meeting?”

These kinds of personal choices play a big part in current emissions-cutting efforts. The 2017 CAP advises that Mills give high priority to low- and no cost measures such as community advocacy and behavior change, then to efficiency changes and renewable energy and fuel costs. “We look for opportunities that are very low risk to the campus. We look for grants. We’re looking at zero-interest loans in trying to achieve some of the energy efficiency goals,” Wong says.

However, the plan also itemizes many changes that Mills can’t afford to make. It would cost $326,000 to put solar panels on the roof of the Olin Library, which would pay for itself in 12 to 13 years. The library is eligible for an EBSCO Community Impact grant that would cover $100,000, but the rest would be up to the College. This is one of the cases where the CAP suggests looking for a donation from an entity that could make use of the renewable energy tax credit.

Sometimes, as Wong puts it, the sustainability team must say, “This is what we need to do to achieve infrastructure upgrades. But on the other hand, if we can’t fund that, then behavior change is the next recommendation.”

“The Economic Impacts of Wildfires” was Sam Evans’s topic at the 2018 climate forum. He’s an assistant professor of public policy. “I’ve spent the last year or so working on wildfires in California, and their economic dimensions,” he says. “How do wildfires affect property markets in California, one of our largest economic assets?”

“The 2017 Sonoma fires got city folks thinking about climate change. It makes us understand how connected we are to our natural environment,” he says. It also points out equity issues. Of the 2018 fires, he notes, “We just got nailed by all that smoke for two weeks. I was able to take my family away, but we were lucky. Lower-income workers have to live with the health consequences. There’s an environmental justice component to that…. If we’re going to solve this problem we’re going to have to pay for it. Who pays? We can design policies that are more or less progressive or regressive.”

Evans adds that we have good tools for solving the problem. “The big challenge now is political: where we need to decarbonize; how to reduce emissions,” he says. “We need a big coalition of young folks who have got great ideas and great energy, together with people who have been working on this a long time and understand how to turn the gears of government.”

To optimize space, the future of gardening is vertical. The living garden on the roof of the
Lorry I. Lokey School of Business and Public Policy and other spaces like the Community Farm and Botanic Garden could be configured to accommodate more native plants and crops
for food. (Original photo by Dale Higgins.)

Higher Education Leadership Forum

In February 2019, Karen Fiene and Professor of Geochemistry and Environmental Geology Kristina Faul attended the Higher Education Climate Leadership Forum in Arizona. The higher education sector of the economy is significant—2.5% of US gross domestic product—so there’s a lot of room to make big changes.

At a session on smaller colleges, Fiene and Faul made a presentation on the link between social and environmental justice. “You can’t separate the two,” Fiene says. They argued that climate change disproportionately affects women and communities of color—and that higher education has an opportunity and a duty to ensure a just transition to a post-fossil fuel economy. “Universities have an ethical imperative to influence the outcomes of society,” they said in their talk. “We have a big impact because we create leaders and teachers.”

The forum was sponsored by investors and investment companies—ironic, given that many had previously claimed that green investments perform poorly. “Their whole shtick was to divest,” Fiene says, referring to the current movement for institutions to move investments away from funds that support fossil fuels. “I learned that green investments can perform as well.” Soon after the forum, “our own investment company came and did a presentation. It was very enlightening. They were already doing quite a bit. I was impressed,” Fiene says. “I think it’s gotten better even since then, because I was kind of on the warpath. Can we say we’re 100% divested? Not yet…. At some campuses they really have a hard time convincing the top brass. I’ve always felt lucky that we’ve had the belief, and the support, at Mills. But we’re scrambling for resources.”

Some schools have already gone “net zero” (the same as carbon neutral). One method by which schools such as the University of California system achieve this is through buying carbon credits—which takes money. “We do great for our size and our resources,” Fiene says.

Afterward, Faul and Fiene gave a presentation to Mills faculty and staff about their experience at the forum, focusing on how the College can lead in this field. “There was lots of really good, interesting, positive feedback,” Faul says. “There was great interest in how to ensure a just transition for marginalized groups, on whom the climate crisis will have the most impact—women and children and the poor.”

Mark Henderson, associate professor of public policy, researches environmental policy in the United States and China, focusing on urbanization and land use planning and on global climate change. At the 2018 climate forum, his talk was titled “Climate Change and Land Use Policy.”

“We clarified a lot of the science. On one side, they say it’s ‘simply a science problem.’ On the policy side we say it’s entirely a political problem. That’s where the change has to happen,” he says. “The costs and consequences are not evenly distributed among all humans.”

He believes students understand the basic situation with climate change. Some feel uncertain how they can act, “until they discover the social consequences of it.”

“We were positively surprised by how many people registered for the forum,” Henderson says. “Of course, classes were canceled because of smoke.” But the interest is deeper than that. He did nothing to spread the word about his latest class on environmental policy, yet it’s already over-subscribed. “So there’s interest there,” he says.

Henderson also sits on the Mills sustainability committee. “We have thought about how we manage the campus as far as climate goes. How can we absorb more carbon, and manage the landscape in a way that keeps things fire defensible?” he says.

Student Organizations

In general, students say they feel supported by Mills in pursuing climate justice goals. “They expect Mills to step up, and I think they know we’re doing the best we can,” Wong says.

“I see us doing a lot already,” says first-year student Bender, who praises Wong’s help. Bender is part of the Climate Task Force and involved with the Mills Sunrise Movement. But, she adds, “To what degree we’re seeing it as an emergency is debatable.”

Mills has been active in environmental issues. EarthCORPS is a campus organization where students “talk about anything sustainability-related,” says president Lena Liu ’20. She’s an environmental studies major whose thesis is on the roles that cities play in mitigating climate change. Recently, EarthCORPS toured the landfill local to the Mills campus, and a group project has involved recycling pill bottles. Liu ran an environmental club in high school, but it was at Mills where she started seeing the connection between environmental and social justice. “There was a People’s Climate March in April 2017—that’s where it sparked,” she says.

In the academic vein, Faul’s students have done research projects on water quality, carbon cycling, and metal cycling (due to old mining residues) in Lake Aliso and Leona Creek. In a reparative vein, students on campus take part in Creek Care Fridays or volunteer on the 2.5-acre Mills Community Farm—which also offers credit to those who enroll in the Campus Farm Practicum. Last year, Wong co-led a trip called “Bay Area Spring Break 2019: Environment, Food, and Justice in Action,” which focused on local environmental and social issues that intersect with or are climate issues. The students who participated are working on a bridge event to share what they learned with the Mills community.

“They’re definitely interested in action,” Faul says of students. “What I need to give them—what I can contribute—is my knowledge of how earth systems work so they can take that knowledge into the future as they make decisions.”

Some Mills students are involved in the Sunrise Movement, which grad student Marianacci describes as a national organization of young people working to stop climate change and creating jobs in the process. Having attended Sunrise events in the Bay Area, she realized that many Mills students couldn’t attend because they don’t have cars, so she began looking into starting a Sunrise “hub” at Mills. “They don’t get too much into the science stuff, because it makes people feel it’s not accessible to them,” Marianacci says. Indeed, she adds, “For a while, on the issue of climate change, I felt like I couldn’t be useful because I didn’t understand greenhouse gases… parts per million… carbon cycles… When I found out it was also a social justice issue, that’s when I got interested.”

Marianacci says that Sunrise is trying to be different from other environmental organizations. “It’s not just about ‘nature,’ as we think about the pristine landscapes. It’s about urban environments, like the Chevron refinery in Richmond,” she says. “For me, what’s at the core of climate justice is understanding that we’re part of the environment.”

“It was a really good event,” says Kristina Faul of the 2018 forum. “The four of us at Mills working on climate change issues hadn’t really gotten together and talked about it together before. That was good.” Faul, professor of geochemistry and environmental geology, presented “Ocean Dynamics and Climate Change.”

Faul, who also describes herself as “a deep-sea paleo-oceanographer,” talked about the ancient history of climate changes and what it tells us about climate today. “I looked at the Miocene [Epoch] changes,” she says. “We don’t know how oceans might respond to climate change. The Miocene was warmer than today, but not a particularly warm period of the whole Cenozoic. We were looking at whether micronutrients from a volcano could help fertilize the oceans and then draw down CO2, and release oxygen to the atmosphere.” In this process, more plankton grow in fertilized oceans. Their bodies eventually fall to the sea floor and get buried, thus taking CO2 out of the system.

She also clarified the non-intuitive concept of “positive” feedback loops, as when plants in a warming climate actually take up less CO2, worsening the situation. “People were very interested. There was a lot of interaction,” she says. “People asked a lot of questions—students and community members.”

Coco Gutman, a second-year public policy major, also links environmental and social justice. “Many people see all the social issues as connected, and then environmental issues are over there,” she says. “That’s harmful, because it allows environmental issues to be pushed to the side.”

In 2019, the Climate Task Force (newly formed by Wong and students) and the Sunrise Movement held a Climate Anxiety Support Circle, and they plan another for 2020. These are for members of the Mills community to talk about their worries about climate, and their role in action. “It was addressing the fact that there are a lot of people struggling,” Gutman says. One issue was strikes or marches as forms of political action: One student voiced that they didn’t want to strike, so the circle brainstormed ways they could use their skills to do climate justice work without hitting the streets. “Climate change is really overwhelming. It’s really scary. People have expressed that they’re really nervous about it. They kind of go into denial mode,” Gutman says. “We wanted to acknowledge that, and work with them, so they can connect with the environmental movement through their passions.” She adds of her hard-working classmates, “People may not have space in their lives to take action on climate change, but that doesn’t mean they’re not going to be affected by it.”

“The Sunrise Movement looks a lot at the Civil Rights movement for inspiration and guidance,” Marianacci adds. “This is a moral issue. We need to take risks.”

Mills hears that, and recognizes that younger generations have a lot more at stake. It was a quote from the 17-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg that took center stage in the 2019 Mills holiday card: “You must do the impossible because giving up can never be an option.”