“Trying to Fly an Airplane Sideways While It’s Already in Flight”: Planning for Carbon Neutrality Amidst a Pandemic

As the attention of the college has shifted towards ensuring a safe, healthy Covid plan and perfecting remote learning, the approach to the other daunting crisis on our doorstep has taken the backburner. When it comes to climate change, just last year the college passed one of the most comprehensive plans for carbon neutrality to date. And yet, the departure of former director of sustainability Laura Draucker in May — as well as the position’s continued vacancy —  and the upheaval brought by Covid-19 have left that plan and the future of sustainability at the college in question. 

In January 2019, the Board of Trustees made the historic decision to approve the Climate Action Plan (CAP), committing the college to carbon neutrality by 2030 through an energy system transformation, as well as learning opportunities to foster deeper sustainability and environmental mindsets beyond the energy systems.

Since its passage, the CAP has continued along its administrative planning routes, quietly and diligently. It is currently in its conceptual design phase, managed by the college’s design and construction department. In this stage, the designers layout how these changes will really look on the Amherst campus, according to its specific buildings and needs. A design engineer, MEP Engineering Associates, has partnered with the college in order to develop this design. Chief of Campus Operations, Jim Brassord, said he anticipates this phase is on track to conclude this fall, staying on par with the original timeline. But, not without challenges.

“COVID has complicated the design phase because MEP has not been able to spend as much time on campus as they might under different circumstances. Nevertheless, the work is proceeding in earnest and the overall design schedule has not been affected, ” Brassord said. 

The CAP sets an ambitious goal: carbon neutrality, a finite departure from any reliance on fossil fuels for heating or energy, by 2030. That goal requires a clear and quick drive to put everything in place over the next decade in order to reach, says Tom Davies, the director of design and construction in the facilities department. 

“Covid has taken focus away from that drive,” he said. “That’s still the goal, but just the simple basics of getting a meeting together [have become great challenges].”

“It’s like trying to fly an airplane sideways while it’s already in flight,” he added.

Not only have the logistics of coordinating a major campus-wide project been tossed up in the air, but so has planning with any sense of what to expect in the future. Specifically, Davies worries about the commitment the college will be ready to make monetarily to the CAP, as Covid planning and remote-learning accommodations have tightened the college budget

At each stage, the CAP holds an eight-figure price tag.“It’s big money,” Davies said, not one prepared that can fall in third or fourth place on anyone’s list of priorities. “Everyone will need to be behind this.” 

“Despite the impact of the pandemic, we continue to move forward with our work on all key priorities, including CAP. CAP will require multiple years of planning, design, and construction. We are in the planning stage, and this work remains on track,” said Kevin Weiman, chief financial and administrative officer. “That said, we will need to monitor the financial effects of Covid-19 on Amherst — how severe and long-lasting they might become. We will continuously assess whether they might require us to make some adjustments over time to CAP — timing, approach, scale and funding strategy — while remaining committed to all of its core aims, including the achievement of carbon neutrality by 2030.”   

All of this comes at an intersection where the college has lost one of the CAP’s greatest advocates and liaisons — Draucker, who left at the end of the 2020 academic year. With her departure and the continued vacancy of her role, the Office of Environmental Sustainability (OES), which she managed, has essentially dissolved as well.  Draucker’s now-empty role has yet to be filled because of the college’s hiring freeze. 

The OES manages the college’s sustainability in every aspect of campus life beyond academics and has sought ways to incorporate climate-conscious improvements into the daily workings of the college. Without Draucker, the responsibilities of the office now lie under the broad umbrella of the facilities department, under which the OES fell. Though departments like dining services, the Science Center and Book and Plow farm have taken on sustainability initiatives closely aligned with those of the OES, the absence of the office means there is no distinct entity dedicated specifically to ensuring the college’s daily operations are in line with its climate commitments, be they related to the CAP or not. 

“Losing Laura is a great loss to the college in general and certainly in this process,” said Davies, but he and Draucker both explained that her departure was well-timed once her main role, in designing the CAP and working with students to see it passed, had finished.

Draucker expects that her role going forward would have been more of a liaison, reporting to the board or the student body on the CAP’s progress within facilities. She is now working as a senior manager at Ceres, a group that aims to make advances in sustainability and greenhouse gas reductions by putting pressure on corporate investors.

“During my time at Amherst, I was so inspired by the students I worked with and young people around the world advocating for strong, systemic change to address the climate emergency. When the opportunity was presented to work at Ceres and help push the largest companies to take ambitious climate action, I made the move in part because I felt I owed it to current and future students to have the biggest impact I can have in the fight against climate change,” she said. 

She also would have been responsible for filling in the academic and community engagement pieces of this early construction and facilities-based phase — essentially, the job of managing the overarching, pillar of the CAP that forges a connection between the technical aspects of the plan with the academic opportunities they represent and outlines a need for climate action beyond carbon neutrality. 

“That’s why I love Laura in that office,” said Jill Miller, the chair of environmental studies and professor of biology and environmental studies. “She can connect faculty with data from facilities.”

Yet, at least within the environmental studies department, a lot of the academic engagement needs to come from the individual faculty members opting in to use these resources, Miller said, whether it’s someone using campus energy data or geological samples from the drilling to create geothermal heating sites or even class engagement with the college farm. 

This piece presented the greatest challenge for Draucker, with limited faculty and student interest in these early planning stages. The CAP was designed with intentional outlines for academic partnerships, giving the plan some teeth to have priority within the college’s educational mission. But, Draucker believes that her departure may present an opportunity to reassess what this community engagement could look like. 

“Maybe it’s not connected to the curriculum. Maybe it’s relying on student activism and student-led work,” she said. 

“It’s a slippery slope: I think [we should be] connecting it to the educational mission because, on the one hand, that helps solidify something. On the other hand, shouldn’t we just be doing this work? Does it need to be connected to the educational mission? Or do we need faculty, students, the board and others to say ‘do this and we commit to doing it’?” she added. 

That slope has perhaps become most slippery with the major curveball of Covid. “I think the challenge is that things that aren’t connected to the educational mission get put to the side because we’re just trying to do whatever we can get done and everybody’s super overbooked, we have limited funding and so, if it’s choosing between funding a new academic position, a new professor and funding CAP, they’re going to pick the academic position,” Draucker said.

The way to overcome that and keep the CAP as a priority, Draucker says, is through student activism. 

“The whole reason — I think — I got hired was because there was internally a desire to have a sustainability office. But the reason why I was able to work on and pass the Climate Action Plan was because students actually advocated for divestment, which ended up turning into a call from the board to do a Climate Action Plan, and then students advocated for it to be finalized. And then the board did it. So I think that mechanism has to [stay],” she said. “If that mechanism kept moving, I think the CAP would keep moving.” 

“I would remind students that this CAP would not be happening if students had not demanded something from the trustees and demanded that the trustees commit to carbon neutrality. Students did that,” Davies added, about the power students have to see this through. 

It’s hard to do, however, when the plan is in this early design phase, where there are few entry points for students to have meaningful involvement. This essential component of the plan is one that needs to happen for the CAP to work, but it’s one much more distant from students’ everyday awarenesses because of its home in the facilities department. 

It’s challenging, but not impossible, Draucker says; students keeping tabs, asking questions and checking in at board meetings is crucial in this stage. “Otherwise, we’re relying on the administration to be proactive in that, and I think without my role, and even if I was still there in this current climate, it wouldn’t happen.” 

Former interns for the OES Rebecca Novick ’21 and Gabriel Echarte ’22 each underscored the need for transparency in this process and for consistent status updates from the administration and facilities department to the college community. 

“I think my main fear [without the OES] is visibility,” said Echarte. “I think it’s going to be a lot harder for  people to know who’s interested in sustainability and getting involved now that the OES isn’t there as a unifying body anymore.”

“At the same time, the OES bred complacency — that was always meant to be more of an umbrella to get faculty and students excited in sustainability. It’s going to be more work now to get people connected and get things done, but I think [the absence] can galvanize people to take things into their own hands,” he added.

Even without the hurdles that Covid has placed, the college lacks a lot of the institutional structures that keep a major plan like the CAP moving forward without key actors like student activists, who graduate every four years and have a full courseload’s worth of other responsibilities. 

One area where Draucker sees room to build in an institutional structure to hold the college accountable on climate action over the long term is through a sustainability committee, a noticeable absence at Amherst. “I do think that if we looked to our peers, we would see that we were an outlier.” Middlebury is home to several sustainability committees; Williams has the Zilkha center and a Center for Environmental Studies; Bowdoin’s director of sustainability is supported by a sustainability outreach coordinator and a ten-person sustainability committee

She expressed the problems of committees and how they can often just create more work and meetings for people, with few outcomes, but at the same time “the lack of it does create a hole for not having an avenue with which to, build student interest or to just let faculty know [where things stand].” 

Similarly, the Association of Amherst Students fills a role that could be crucial for organizing students to advocate across sectors of the campus. Briefly, the body created a CAP Task Force last year, but it’s also faded out. 

Student activists believe that some sort of inter-sectional, cross-campus collaboration is essential for ensuring that the college’s plan meets the intersectionality required to address the climate crisis. 

“All of the race relation upheaval that has happened sort of shifted the lens a little bit from how to address climate in general to how do we address climate change for all humans, in addition to the non-human world. Racial justice and environmental justice are inextricably linked. The environmental crisis we’re facing is because of systemic racism that is inherent in our society,” Novick said.“The thought process of why racism is a thing — the thought process of superiority — is the reason that climate change is happening. The same with capitalism, colonialism — all the ‘-isms’ that have created the current world are based on this idea of ‘I’m better than you’. It’s wild you can boil all the problems into one source, and we need to address them this way.”

“The past six months? Oh my god, it’s always looming, but the past six months make climate change so much more present,” said Echarte. “We’re witnessing this. We’ve been seeing that if we don’t get serious about sustainability, things are going to devolve quickly, and we’re in the devolution phase. We’re seeing that in the wildfires in California, [in the fact that] the whole West Coast doesn’t have breathable air, in larger storm surges and in new terrible natural disasters everyday — we’re seeing it. It makes me more serious and more energized to get out there. It’s a wake up call, and we’ve had plenty of wake up calls in the last four years, but it means there’s more for us to do. ”

With Draucker’s departure, there comes an opportunity to re-imagine how the college wants to address these challenges that lie ahead. 

For Miller, “there is a need for someone in this position,” someone able to do the liaison work between facilities and faculty. 

But perhaps it doesn’t need to be filled with a direct replacement, Dracuker said, especially as departments beyond her own are internalizing initiatives her office once led. Perhaps, students would feel the need for someone in a more student-facing role to work as a supporter in organizing efforts — similar to some of the roles resource centers have — she suggested. 

 “I think there should be some sort of Laura replacement at the earliest possible time. Whether that’s a part-time situation or a full-time role, someone to organize students through the lens of the CAP would be really important,” Novick said. “Yes, we can take it upon ourselves as students, but then we’re going to graduate, and students have too high of a turnover to take on a project like this on their own because it is such a long term project that requires sustained activism and long-term involvement. ” 

“I do think there needs to be some leadership,” she added.

Miller also brainstormed ways that students, faculty and staff will all need to collaborate a lot more closely to make these sustainability goals a reality, especially without Draucker acting as the lynchpin connecting all these entities, like intra-departmental initiatives, student clubs and faculty projects. “There are all these orgs, but they’re doing things in isolation,” she said.

You know [the school] could wait,” Draucker said. “They could wait for 10 years or 50 years, but eventually they’re going to realize that they can’t run a natural gas plant on the campus cost-effectively — because there are carbon taxes, and there are cheaper renewables. [So by then] it makes complete sense that we make this shift, right? I think what we’re asking them to do [now] is make the shift earlier, because not only is it going to have more benefit than waiting, but it’s Amherst College showing that we are taking that proactive step.”

“I think that the shift will happen. It’s just whether or not we want to push them and they want to feel motivated to be pushed to do it quicker. And I think in general colleges have been doing it quicker,” she said. 

“Just to be clear, this has to happen at some point,” said Davies. 

So, in this moment of upheaval, why not do it now?  

Please Note: Olivia Gieger worked in the Office of Environmental Sustainability and advocated for the Climate Action Plan.