The Challenge of Living Sustainably
In mid-May, NASA released data showing that the previous month
was the warmest April since humans have been keeping records.
Even more alarming, April’s average land and sea temperature came
in at about 1.15° Celsius above average pre-industrial April temperatures. To put that figure in perspective, at April’s
official signing of the much-touted COP21 climate accord, the
signatories noted the importance of keeping global warming to no more than 1.5° C by the year 2100. If we are already at 1.15° C, we don’t have a lot of wiggle room left.
In concrete terms, to hold global warming to less than 2° C, global CO2 emissions between now and the year 2100 must be no more than one metric ton per person per year. Achieving this is an extraordinary challenge. The problem is that for those of us in the Global North, it is our use of energy that allows us to enjoy a comfortable standard of living. The average resident of the United States is responsible for more than 16 tons of CO2 emissions per year. Just one single round trip flight from New York to California puts the equivalent of 2.2 metric tons of CO2 in the atmosphere—twice the global per capita sustainable annual emissions! We either need to find a way to decouple our standard of living from our use of energy, or accept a lower standard of living, or find a way to produce our energy without producing CO2, or do some of each. To achieve this will require committed effort from government at every level, from corporations and organizations of every stripe, and from each one of us as we go about our daily lives. It will require us to unflinchingly confront the consequences of our choices.
Recognizing the scope of this challenge, Williams College has chosen to make “Confronting Climate Change” an overarching theme for the next academic year. The CCC initiative, spearheaded by the Center for Environmental Studies and the Zilkha Center with generous support from the college, will begin even before our first-years arrive on campus: this summer we will send them The Sixth Extinction, by our own Elizabeth Kolbert, which will serve as the springboard for discussions during their first days on campus and then engage the full college community. We have scheduled events and speakers throughout the year to inform us and to inspire us to think deeply about what we can and should do about climate change, both at the institutional level and at the individual level, in order to move to a sustainable path. Confronting Climate Change will require us to think about what we really value, and why. It is likely to engender some uncomfortable conversations. It is likely to force us to consider some contentious choices.
I think it is going to be a really exciting year.
Chair, Environmental Studies
& Professor of Economics