Nearly 200 people filtered in and out of Frost Library on Wednesday, Nov. 28 for “Student Voices from the Frontlines of Climate Change,” an event hosted by Students for Climate Action (SCA) and sponsored by the Association of Amherst Students (AAS). The event, which comprised of student speakers sharing how climate change has impacted their home communities, is part of a push for the Board of Trustees to pass the Climate Action Plan in January 2019.
SCA began as a subcommittee of the Direct Action Coordinating Committee (DACC) but recently became its own separate entity. SCA began organizing a campaign to pass the Climate Action Plan — a proposal for the college to transition to all renewable energy by 2035 — in Spring 2018.
President Biddy Martin, Chief of Student Affairs Hikaru Kozuma, Dean of Faculty Catherine Epstein, Director of Sustainability Laura Draucker and Chief of Amherst College Police John Carter all attended Wednesday’s event, which was intended to increase public attention to the Climate Action Plan campaign.
AAS President Silvia Sotolongo ’19 and Allison Tennant ’19, both of whom are members of SCA, opened the event on Wednesday by thanking the audience for coming out.
“When we’re faced with such an overwhelming crisis as climate change, it’s more important than ever to be here and come together building community,” Tennant said. “The latest UN intergovernmental panel on climate change report said that we have until 2030, which is only 12 years, to reduce our emissions by 50 percent if we want to avoid global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius … In addition, our natural gas fossil fuel infrastructure here at Amherst largely affects our lower-income, immigrant and people of color Massachusetts neighbors.”
“Amherst has the opportunity to take a step towards mitigating the contribution to climate change by adopting the Climate Action Plan and committing to carbon neutrality,” Tennant added. “By being here tonight, we show that climate change is an important issue to our campus.”
She then invited Chief of Campus Operations Jim Brassord to provide background on the Climate Action Plan, a “roadmap, a strategy — a technical strategy, financial strategy” created by a climate action task force comprised of students, faculty and staff after the Board of Trustees committed the college to carbon neutrality in 2015. A carbon neutral status means the college would have a net zero carbon footprint.
The task force concluded that the college would need to pivot to exclusive use of renewable energies use, deep energy conservation and “infrastructure transformation,” which would convert an “inherently dependent fossil fuel approach” to electric-based infrastructure, Brassord said. The plan developed out of the task force committed the college to achieving a carbon-neutral campus by 2035.
After Brassord spoke, 10 students took turns sharing personal accounts at the event.
Gabriel Echarte ’22 described the impact of rising tides in Miami, Florida. “Every single place in Miami is saturated with memories and meaning — it has become sacred for me,” he said. “In my time growing up there, I’ve watched as climate change has grown to slowly consume more and more the place I love, through seawater rise.”
Rising sea levels and the increased severity of storms were also evident effects of climate change on Stephanie Masotti’s ’22 hometown in Long Island, New York. When Hurricane Sandy hit the coast in 2012, “a large amount of infrastructure built without the assumption that these storms would frequently occur were destroyed,” she said.
At a nearby town, she said, “people were collecting food, clothes, toiletries and anything else people were willing to donate since many people lost everything. Some people even lost their lives. I remember feeling so fortunate to have only lost power.”
Past storms had never been so damaging, Masotti added.
Multiple students shared similar stories of severe damage caused by weather irregularities in their hometowns. Shivani Patel ’21 also talked about carbon emissions in her hometown of Bangalore, India, which have caused a “harmful, flowy froth” of foam to float up and spill over into surrounding areas.
“Bangalore … used to be known as the garden city, but that couldn’t be further from the truth today,” Patel said. “Multiple reports state that the city will be uninhabitable by 2020, which is part of why I came to college in the U.S.”
All of the students urged the college community to take immediate action to combat the perilous impacts of climate change.
“The impact, the consequences and the disaster effects are not into the future,” Daniyal Ahmad Khan ’22 said to applause from the audience. “They’re not going to happen by 2035; they’re not going to happen for the children to see — they’re happening and they’re happening right now.”
SCA intends to focus on education and funding for climate change problems, according to Tennant. Committee members, she said, think that the current timeline for the Climate Action Plan is “pretty conservative” and hope to push for greater change within a shorter range of time.
As of press time, SCA had collected about 600 signatures for its petition to the Board of Trustees as well as about 100 alumni emails after tabling at Homecoming. The group, Tennant said, will ask alums to write letters of support and request funding pledges directed specifically to the Climate Action Plan.
“There’s very broad support from students,” Tennant said. “The administration needs to recognize it’s a priority for our future.”
In a statement to The Student, Martin called the student speakers’ presentations “impressive and powerful in their combination of personal stories, analysis and calls to action.”
“I was very glad I could attend the event,” she added. “I hope it inspires more sharing of stories and more exchange about major challenges.”
Sotolongo also hopes to help make sustainability more institutionalized at the college.
“I got to hear snippets of people’s stories beforehand, so I knew what people were going to talk about, but hearing their actual, fleshed-out speeches and seeing photos and seeing people’s reactions was really powerful for me,” she said. She is exploring the possibility of a separate faculty committee dedicated to issues of sustainability and climate policy on campus.
Katie Siegel ’20, who attended the event, said she was excited that there was an opportunity to “come together as a community and address these problematic issues.”
“When I read about these things happening, it’s never really people who are that close to me or in my community,” she said about environmental disasters. “Hearing students talking about going home and having these issues — I really think it put it into perspective.” She hopes the Climate Action Plan will be passed and that it will create a ripple effect at other colleges.
SCA will present to the Board of Trustees in January, after which a vote will be made on whether or not to pass the Climate Action Plan.