Friday, Sept. 20, 2019 was a historic day. Hundreds of Emory students, faculty and community members gathered in a moral call to action on the climate crisis. The climate strike took place on a day when 4 million people in over 160 countries participated in youth-led climate strikes. This Fridays for Future movement was launched by Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old climate activist who has inspired millions of young people around the world to demand action from government officials. In a massive show of civic engagement, young people are demanding that our leaders listen to us and rapidly accelerate the process of global decarbonization. We must push our government to make the enormous changes to our energy grid, transportation sector, agricultural practices and industrial processes that are necessary to limit global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Insufficient emissions reduction will lead to a series of chain reactions and feedback loops that exacerbate crises of agriculture, drought, extreme weather, migration and species extinction.

The climate crisis is terrifying. What’s particularly devastating are the ways in which poor communities, communities of color and communities in the global South are disproportionately affected by climate change even when their actions have contributed the least to the crisis. Thinking about all of the work necessary to transform our society can leave one feeling helpless and demoralized. However, there is also a lot to be hopeful about.

You’ll often hear people talking about whether we can “solve” the climate crisis, as if it’s a jigsaw puzzle or a tough math problem that requires us to find a clear-cut solution. I don’t find that language particularly helpful. For starters, as Thunberg so poignantly said, “We already have all the facts and solutions. All we have to do is to wake up and change.” We already know how to develop technologies to enable a transition to a green economy. Just look at the drastic decrease in the cost of renewable electricity in the last few years and its enormous expansion. In the United States, utility-scale renewable energy is rapidly becoming cheaper than all non-renewable electricity sources. It is already the cheapest form of new electricity generation in most major economies.

Taking action at the scale of the problem requires us to use every tool in our arsenal as Emory students. Changing individual behavior will not be enough to prevent the worst effects of the climate crisis. We must focus our energy on demanding systemic action from leadership on the national, state, municipal and institutional levels. We must educate ourselves about Emory’s current performance and advocate for institutional improvements to its climate commitments. Recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change show that the world must cut emissions in half by 2030, and reach net-zero emissions by 2050. According to Emory’s Office of Sustainability Initiatives website, Emory is committed to a 50 percent reduction in total greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Although Emory certainly deserves praise for its wide-reaching sustainability efforts, the science is clear: we must reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Fifty percent is a notable commitment, but it simply does not go far enough.

Additionally, Emory is the largest employer in metro Atlanta; its institutional leadership and lobbying power can and should shape future climate policy in Atlanta and Georgia. But climate action will be a top institutional priority only if students are knowledgeable and engaged in the conversation. 

The Emory chapter of the Climate Reality Project was founded last spring to bring moral clarity to the forefront of climate discourse at Emory. As an organization, we welcome students of all backgrounds to join this movement for climate action. Just as we collaborated with several groups at the Emory University Climate Strike, we aim to collaborate with other campus organizations on many of the issues that intersect with the climate crisis, particularly those related to climate justice. Through student engagement and knowledge of Emory’s existing commitments, we want to urge the University to revise and improve its current climate goals. And our organization wants to place climate justice at the center of our mission. We strongly believe that Emory University has the potential to be a leader in climate action in the Southeast. Despite Emory’s exceptional commitments to sustainable practices in many areas, we believe much of its potential, particularly when it comes to renewable energy, has yet to be reached. 

The Emory Climate Strike on Sept. 20 was just the beginning. Supported by The Climate Reality Project, an international organization working “to catalyze a global solution to the climate crisis by making urgent action necessary,” our chapter is committed to working for institutional change that will make Emory a true leader in climate action.

That’s why the Emory Climate Strike was an event filled with hope. Yes, we are facing an enormous crisis. But we are also facing an incredible opportunity to secure a more sustainable future.

Addressing climate change is simply a matter of having the moral courage to take action and implement the solutions we already have. It’s a matter of committing ourselves to making this a just transition that prioritizes the needs of marginalized communities most deeply affected by the climate crisis. It’s a matter of offering job retraining programs for fossil fuel workers to ensure that no one is left behind in the new green economy. It’s a matter of respecting, honoring and learning from indigenous communities and the sacred relationship they have with the earth. Above all, it’s a matter of rethinking civic engagement and redefining what it means to be a member of the global community as we aim to rapidly transform the world economy.

Ben Levitt (22C) is from Toronto. He is the co-president of the Climate Reality Project: Emory.