Disclaimer: This op-ed was written on Feb. 23, 2020, prior to the current COVID-19 crisis in America.

On Feb. 17, the Emory Board of Trustees approved the Presidential Selection Committee’s presidential prospectus, a document that never once mentioned the words “climate change” in its 20-page, detailed vision of the role of the next University president. 

While this document addresses many relevant issues and goals for the institution, student organizations were disappointed by the lack of discussion regarding the challenges and opportunities facing the next Emory president that stem from the climate crisis. The signatories of this op-ed, a group of student organizations, are calling on the Presidential Selection Committee to reevaluate its prospectus to center bold climate action as a priority in selecting the next University president. 

This omission is particularly disheartening given that student enthusiasm for climate action was articulated in online feedback forms and during presidential feedback forums hosted on campus in late January. These mediums were advertised as ways for students to voice their opinions and perspectives, which would be taken into consideration during the presidential search process. Emory students understand the dire warnings of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, which have associated “risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security and economic growth” with global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius or higher. 

The Board of Trustees may argue that climate action is an elusive goal unrelated to the primary responsibilities of Emory’s chief administrator. They may argue, as outlined in the presidential selection prospectus, that the new president should prioritize advancing the four pillars of the “One Emory” framework: “faculty excellence,” “academic community of choice,” “innovation through scholarship and creative expression,” and “Atlanta as a gateway to the world.” 

This framework, launched by President Sterk and former Provost Dwight McBride to ensure long-term excellence and innovation within the institution, aligns with students’ desire for greater climate action by the university. Emory strives to “become an innovative, 21st-century research leader in the humanities as well as natural and social sciences,” while “harness[ing] imagination and discovery to address 21st-century challenges.” What 21st-century challenge is more relevant and imminent than the global climate crisis?

Moreover, Emory’s desire to better engage and connect with Atlanta must include addressing the serious impacts climate change is already having and will continue to have in the Southeast. Climate impacts already manifesting in Atlanta include heat-related illness (due to higher average temperatures in highly populated areas, which is known as the urban heat island effect) and increased instances of asthma and allergies (due to rising pollen counts and higher temperatures). Additionally, as sea levels continue to rise, Georgia is at risk of losing important wetlands that protect inland areas, historic structures and coastal communities. As people move away from the coast, Atlanta will likely become a place of refuge for many. As Emory is a premier institution and the largest employer in metro Atlanta, the University should be cognizant of concerns regarding climate change in the city and the state in order to achieve its stated mission. With Emory’s aspiration to better engage with Atlanta in mind, our next president must make serious commitments to climate action. 

Climate action also offers enormous opportunity for Emory’s advancement. Failure to act on this issue risks Emory’s reputation as a sustainability leader in higher education. According to the University’s mission, Emory strives to “create, preserve, teach, and apply knowledge in the service of humanity.” Leading in efforts to combat this global crisis is a key way our institution can work to serve humanity. 

In addition, Emory’s engagement with Atlanta requires a recognition of the intersection between social justice and climate change and the disproportionate impacts on low-income and minority communities. Our institution’s vision of being a partner with the surrounding communities can be bolstered by our bold leadership in climate action.

For these reasons, climate action should remain an integral part of Emory’s strategic plan and a key priority for the new president.

The Presidential Selection Committee must uphold climate action as a priority when selecting the next University president. We recognize Emory’s reputation as a prominent leader and innovator among the world’s top universities. We admire the many successes of this institution and have deep faith in what it can achieve in the future. Achieving this vision requires a new University president who is proactive and bold in addressing climate change.

Signed: Emory Climate Analysis and Solutions Team, Emory Climate Organization, Refugee Revive, The Climate Reality Project: Emory University Chapter

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