Photo Courtesy of Jaylan Jacobs (Emory Climate Analysis and Solutions Team)

Climate change is already having dire effects on all forms of life worldwide, and Georgia is no exception. 

Over the coming centuries, Georgians will continue to suffer greatly from the public health impacts associated with climate change, including extreme heat, natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods, air pollution and waterborne disease outbreaks. Climate change will also endanger Georgia’s coastal communities and exacerbate drought, which can cause irreparable consequences; historically, droughts have cost Georgia billions of dollars in crop losses alone.

Undeniably, these consequences of climate change are felt disproportionately by low-income residents and people of color, both worldwide and in Georgia. Black communities receive less governmental support in response to natural disasters and air pollution and are 75% more likely to live in “fence-line” communities near commercial polluters. In addition, low-income communities experience greater exposure to environmental hazards and are less resilient to such disasters. Given Emory University’s status as a predominately white institution and its history of oppression against Black, Indigenous and people of color, the University must accept responsibility and take bold action to protect these communities in Georgia from the most severe climate impacts.

Emory has already taken important steps by demonstrating a meaningful commitment to reduce its environmental impact. Through its admirable efforts in waste reduction and water conservation, Emory’s Office of Sustainability Initiatives is a sustainability leader in higher education. However, despite the University’s environmental initiatives, the urgency and catastrophic nature of the global climate emergency necessitate bolder commitments. 

During this year’s Climate Week (April 19-23), the Emory Climate Coalition is calling on Emory University to explicitly recognize climate change as a global emergency and take additional steps to more rapidly reduce emissions. We demand that Emory sign the Global Universities and Colleges Climate Letter and join the Climate Leadership Network (CLN), a nationwide system of higher education institutions whose presidents have formally committed to climate action. Such commitments would publicly signal Emory’s support for climate action among peer universities and inspire other institutions to follow suit. 

The letter was created with the objective of building momentum toward a decarbonized economy by the 26th Conference of Parties in November 2021. This meeting is critical because it will be the first time since the Paris Agreement where countries will set more ambitious goals for drastically reducing their emissions. Signatories of the letter commit to prioritizing action-oriented climate change research and education and reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 at the very latest. While Emory is dedicated to this emissions goal, most signatories have committed to net zero emissions long before then. Given its vast resources, innovative capacity and leadership among global universities, Emory must set a new target to reach net-zero emissions no later than 2030. 

The letter has been signed by 615 higher education institutions worldwide, including numerous University of California system schools and the University of Illinois system. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, a sustainability network of universities and colleges that Emory is a member of, has also signed the letter. These commitments from our peer institutions are a clear indicator that Emory must fully realize its identity of a sustainability leader by signing this letter and revitalizing its climate commitments. Without a rapid transition to renewable energy, even Emory’s current goals will be impossible — the University must pressure Georgia Power to switch to renewable energy sources. 

Furthermore, Emory should join one of the CLN’s three options for commitments: climate, carbon or resilience. These commitments vary slightly among the diverse range of institutions that have signed them, but all highlight a university’s climate leadership. Many of our peer universities, like Cornell University (N.Y.), the University of California at Berkeley and the Georgia Institute of Technology, have joined the carbon commitment, which involves submitting an annual evaluation of progress on a regularly updated Climate Action Plan. Our current Climate Action Plan has not been updated in a decade and lacks specificity about how Emory will achieve its net-zero target by 2050. 

While the plan does acknowledge initiatives such as Emory’s alternative transportation systems and LEED certification requirements, it lacks a set of specific, measurable and time-bound goals detailing its plans to achieve emissions reductions in each aspect of campus life and the role of individual community members in contributing to emission reduction goals. Joining the CLN will hold Emory accountable to refreshing its plan with clear, actionable steps and strategies for ensuring that every group on campus fulfills its role in cutting Emory’s emissions. Furthermore, CLN membership will allow the University to leverage additional pressure on its primary energy supplier, Georgia Power, to transition to renewable energy sources. The plan can be strengthened not only through greater specificity but also by explicitly integrating a social justice-oriented perspective on the climate crisis. Such a lens would demonstrate Emory’s understanding of the gravity of climate change and its ramifications for social justice concerns as a privileged leader in close proximity to at-risk communities. 

Joining other universities in this commitment would help Emory cement its status as a global leader by acknowledging the tremendous importance of bold action on climate change. As students, we admire and appreciate Emory’s climate efforts thus far and are proud to be part of an institution at the forefront of sustainability. Yet these efforts are not enough to meet the scale of the planetary emergency we are facing. Both our generation of young students and the surrounding communities in Georgia will face significant hardship if insufficient action on the climate crisis continues. 

As members of the Emory Climate Coalition, we urge the Emory administration to include our organizations and other social justice organizations and affinity groups in the conversation as it updates and improves its climate policies. Student voices are crucial for ensuring equity and accountability in climate work, because our generation will face the greatest consequences of the action — or inaction — we take now. We also implore our fellow Emory students to join us as we work alongside the administration to shape Emory’s climate policies and ensure our University remains a global leader in tackling one of the greatest challenges of our generation. 

Jack Miklaucic (23C) is from Charlotte, North Carolina. Clare McCarthy (23C) is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Ben Levitt (22C) is from Toronto, Canada.

The Emory Climate Coalition is made up of three student groups: the Emory Climate Organization (ECO), the Emory Climate Analysis and Solutions Team (ECAST), and Emory’s Campus Corps of the Climate Reality Project (ECRP). We seek to channel our three respective areas of climate expertise—education, research/skill-building, and activism—into a powerful network which will elevate and enrich climate conversations among the Emory student body, especially those pertaining to climate justice. We seek to serve as a resource for all members of the Emory community to learn about the injustices resulting from the climate crisis and to empower them to take action to help address this existential threat.

Individuals interested in participating in the Emory Climate Coalition’s Climate Week events can find more information on Instagram at @ecoatemory, @emoryecast and @climatereality_emory. To attend Emory’s first-ever virtual Climate Rally on the evening of Earth Day, please register here.

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Ben Levitt (he/him) (22C) is from Toronto, Canada. He is one of the co-founders and past president of The Emory Climate Reality Project where he works to promote greater climate action by the Emory administration. Levitt is also involved in the leadership of the Emory Climate Coalition and Volunteer Emory’s Social Justice Education Committee. In his free time, you can find Levitt playing guitar, hiking, or traveling Atlanta by MARTA.