Last semester, Aaron Metheny ’18 visited the office of President Valerie Smith to ask her to consider pledging Swarthmore’s support to a campaign to put a price on carbon.
“I said, ‘Sure, I’m happy to do it,’” Smith recalls in a video for the Put a Price on It campaign. “He was stunned. I think he thought it would be a long battle with me to try to get Swarthmore to sign on, but I said 'No, I’m in.’”
The campaign has a simple credo: “If we make carbon pollution expensive, we’ll get less of it,” resulting in less climate change. Among its creators is David Gelber ’63, a former member of the Board of Managers and producer of Years of Living Dangerously, an Emmy-winning documentary series that premiered in 2014 and aired its second season this past fall.
“I think climate change now is where civil rights was in 1957,” says Gelber, who spent many years as a producer at 60 Minutes, in a recent Bulletin profile. “Other than nuclear war, I can’t think of anything out there that’s more potentially disastrous than human interference with the climate.”
Put a Price on It lauds the small steps — solar panels, LED lights, hybrid cars, eating less meat — that people and organizations are taking to help the earth. But it zeroes in on a carbon price as the key solution.
Swarthmore’s pledge of support to the campaign follows the Board’s approval last year of a $300,000 carbon charge, which affects the budget of each department on campus to make the full cost of emitting carbon visible. A faculty-led working group proposed the charge.
“The funds generated by this charge will support institutional sustainability initiatives such as renewable energy installations,” wrote Smith and Board Chair Tom Spock ’78 in a recent letter to the College community. “This will reduce our energy consumption and carbon emissions, ultimately minimizing our impact on the environment.”
“This is a strategy that could make the difference we’re all looking for,” agrees Director of Sustainability Aurora Winslade, who sought endorsements from other schools for the idea. “There is bipartisan support for this. It would have the effect of keeping fossil fuels in the ground. That’s the one thing I think all climate activists can agree on.”
Smith went beyond pledging the support of Swarthmore by co-signing a letter to more than 100 university and college presidents earlier this year, asking them to join the campaign by the end of the month. As of now, 19 schools have done so, joining an array of supporters from the worlds of politics, business, and entertainment, as #PutaPriceonIt surges in popularity online. It is hoped that sharing those endorsements with political leaders will help make an impact on state or national policy. For this initiative, Swarthmore is a finalist for the 2017 International Sustainable Campus Network Sustainable Campus Excellence Award.
“The little work I’m doing here as a student can be translated many times over in a coalition that can bring about large-scale change,” says Metheny, an economics major from Thurmont, Md. “Which is really inspiring.”
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