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Climate action in college is everywhere

Climate change activism is as ubiquitous on college campuses as freshman seminars or football games, yet we overlook and under-analyze the way we go about activism.

The United Nations says that 89% of youth believe they can make a difference on climate change. Students at colleges and universities commit to making a positive impact on the planet and crafting a more promising future. Every college campus has dozens of students dedicated to recycling programs, environmental action groups, or chapters of prominent environmentalist organizations like the Sunrise Movement and In short, students care about climate change and want their voices heard.

There is, however, a stark disconnect between young people’s passion for helping the planet and their understanding of how to make effective change. Common outlets for sustainability on college campuses–recycling programs, on-campus thrift store drives, divestment from fossil fuels, etc.–are well-meaning but often ineffective projects for creating the institutional change necessary to curb carbon emissions.

Evaluating the best methods for change

There is strong empirical evidence telling us which individual solutions can have the most significant effect on curbing carbon output. Project Drawdown, a nonprofit group that assesses the effect of individual solutions on the climate, projects that the five most effective solutions to keep warming below 1.5°C are: Onshore Wind Turbines, Utility-Scale Solar Photovoltaics, Reduced Food Waste, Plant-Rich Diets, and Health and Education. At first glance, divesting from fossil fuels and advocacy for a Green New Deal–common initiatives of climate activists–seem to fit the goal of supporting these individual solutions.

But is supporting a project such as divestment or the Green New Deal which in turn supports the initiatives outlined by Project Drawdown really the best way to effectively create change?

What if, instead, climate activists focused on showing students the specific career paths they could go down that would help them find meaningful work in the renewable energy sector or in startups that are trying to reduce industrial food waste? What if climate activists showed how small individual changes, such as reducing red meat consumption, could have the largest impact of any individual behavior on carbon reduction?

Focus on clearer, simpler goals for climate action

While the Green New Deal or university divestment has the same end goals as focusing on career paths or effective individual changes, they bring along political baggage that weighs down the practical steps for creating change. Activists could spend years focusing on the Green New Deal even if it never gains enough political traction to curb our carbon emissions. Instead, activists should focus on smaller steps that guarantee a push towards carbon neutrality. If you and your friends had an idea for a company, would you spend your time telling everyone else why your company will be great and why they should believe in the idea, or would you build the company? 

In order to effectively curb climate change, we have to not only focus on which individual solutions will have the largest effect, but how we as individuals can have the largest effect on those solutions. While divestment and advocating for the Green New Deal align with these goals, they are not the most effective ways for individual students to create effective change.

Effective altruism at work

Let’s use the framework for effective altruism in a climate-activism context to help us understand what is the best way to create change. Effective altruism is an ethical framework that argues for being discerning and hyper-rational when making ethical decisions. Notably developed by Peter Singer and more recently William MacAskill, the term focuses on doing the most good with available resources.

A concrete example of effective altruism at work is the “80,000 Hours” project, founded by William MacAskill and Benjamin Todd. The project argues that because we spend around 80,000 hours at work during our lives, “if you want to have a positive impact with your life, your choice of career is probably your best opportunity”. If students focused their attention not on persuading endowment boards to divest from fossil fuels but on committing to a career in renewable energy, they could have a far more significant impact on the natural dissolution of the fossil fuel industry.

Effective altruism can also help point student activists towards solutions that are less obvious. According to Project Drawdown, the fifth most effective individual solution for reducing carbon emissions is improving the education rates of women. When education rates of women go up, they “have fewer and healthier children, and actively manage their reproductive health”, helping to curb population growth. Opposed to the ethically ambiguous and pragmatically impossible promises of anti-natalism, the education of women can help reduce population growth, lower carbon emissions, and improve the educational outcomes of billions of people. In contrast, Project Drawdown ranks recycling programs as the 48th most effective solution with a total CO2 reduction over 14 times less than the education of women.

Bottom line

So why do college students focus on divestment or recycling and not careers in renewable energy or the education of women?

Activism tends to focus on problems that are present-at-hand such as university endowments or common initiatives that have a streamlined pathway for success such as recycling programs. However, these initiatives suffer from being myopic and uncritical.

We all have a certain number of hours, amount of money, or attention span with which we can act upon. What we choose to use those resources for determines the impact we have on our communities. I urge those who are passionate about climate change and have the passion and energy to lead on college campuses to think more critically about how they use their valuable resources and how best to create change.

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