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Willful Ignorance? Not at Colgate

By Sustainability Office on January 19, 2015

Update: January 19, 2015

It’s official.  Despite the polar vortex in the United States, 2014 was the hottest year on record. As temperatures and emissions continue to rise, dialogue continues about whether or not to build the Keystone XL pipeline which would open up a new frontier of dirty energy.


Update: March 19, 2014

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), America’s premier scientific society, warned the world is at growing risk of “abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes” because of a warming climate.  As a scientific body, the AAAS rarely intervenes on policy issues.  However, in their new report, What We Know, they stated, “We consider it our responsibility as professionals to ensure, to the best of our ability, that people understand what we know: human-caused climate change is happening, we face risks of abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes, and responding now will lower the risks and costs of taking action.

Click here to get the facts from AAAS.


Originally published on March 3, 2014

Last month, Pew Research Center released its latest poll results of American viewpoints on climate change. The results are worrying.  According to the poll, 67% of Americans believe that there is solid evidence of global warming while only 44% believe that human activities are responsible. On the contrary, 97% of climate scientists agree that global warming over the past century is due primarily to human activities. Clearly, the public is far behind the science on this issue.

Consensus Gap

Understanding climate change is not only about climate modeling and predicting the future. It is also about historic data and recent trends. Since the 1970s, the rate of global warming has tripled. The 2000s were warmer than the 1990s and the 1990s were warmer than the 1980s. Moreover, nine of the top ten warmest years on record have occurred since the year 2000. And 2013 was the 37th year in a row with above average global temperatures.

But what about this winter? Polar vortex became part of our vernacular and below freezing temperatures have been common and sustained. But if you look across the country and the globe, the warming trend has continued. At the same time we were experiencing -15 degree temperatures in central New York, regions in Alaska were recording temperatures above 60 degrees. That is unheard of. Also, California has been in a record drought, the Northwest has experienced above average temperatures, Sochi hosted one of the warmest Winter Olympics on record, Australia experienced temperatures over 120 degrees, and the U.K. suffered through unprecedented flooding. In fact, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies just reported that January 2014 was the 3rd warmest January on record going back to 1880.

This warming trend has not been benign. Over the past three years, 80% of U.S. counties have been severely impacted by weather-related events and the burden to U.S. taxpayers is taking its toll. Superstorm Sandy, for example, cost us over $60 billion. In 2013, there were over 41 weather events that cost $1 billion or more in damage. That is an all-time high breaking the record from 2010. The National Flood Insurance Program is currently $25 billion in debt (it is a $30 billion program) and on the brink of insolvency. The Crop Insurance Program is generally a $3-$4 billion per year program. However, in 2013, tax payers shelled out over $11 billion.  This was due in large part to severe droughts in the mid-West which also drove up corn and food prices across the country. Despite all of this, the American public remains complacent on climate change. Out of 20 public policy issues tested in the Pew poll, climate change ranked 19th in the order of importance among Americans.

Until the American public catches up with the science, we may lack the resolve to adequately address climate change. We need to get past climate denial and start aggressively working to reduce carbon emissions. At the same time, we also need to adapt to climate change that has already been locked into the system due to past emissions.

Here at Colgate, we are taking action on climate change. Since 2009, we have reduced our emissions by over 20% and our recently approved Campus Master Plan recommends significant climate-adaptation strategies to overcome flooding and changing weather patterns. These actions will better prepare us to thrive in a changing world.


  • Cole said:

    I have learned through the grapevine that Colgate purchased more land in order to “reduce” its carbon emissions by 20%, but has not actively sought out to reduce the carbon footprint that it has. Someone please enlighten me about this matter, because I’m hearing otherwise, and that Colgate is trying to glamorize its institution (as all do) to attract conscientious students to its campus.

    • Sustainability Office said:

      Thank you for taking the time to comment and for giving us a chance to clarify any misconceptions. Colgate has actively reduced our carbon footprint by 20 percent thanks to over 25 on-campus projects/initiatives that have been implemented since 2009. These projects range from LEED certified green buildings, to heating plant upgrades, to a solar energy installation, to low-cost high-return efficiency projects, to behavior change programs. See http://www.colgate.edu/green for more details. These projects have reduced our energy and resource use while cutting over $500,000 off our annual operating budget.

      Colgate has not purchased any additional land as part of our plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2019. However, we are investing in carbon offsets in Patagonia, Chile. This reforestation project is helping to restore over 430 acres of severely degraded habitat with native tree species. It is important to note that the Patagonia offset project is in addition to the 20 percent reduction off our campus carbon footprint.

      Finally, the criticisms you are hearing have some merit. It is true that there are members of the Colgate community who support green initiatives in order to attract recognition and the ever-growing population of prospective students who are sustainability-minded. To that we say, great! Let there be more environmentally-conscious students who continue to drive sustainability at Colgate and beyond. The problem happens when we claim we are going green when we really are not. This is not the case at Colgate. Our investments in on-campus sustainability projects have resulted in real carbon, energy, and resource reductions while also building resiliency and cutting our annual operating costs. This is one reason why Colgate received the national 2011 Climate Leadership Award from Second Nature. We still have a long way to go, but we are excited about the journey and continued progress.

  • Carla said:

    If you are interested in knowing why much of the public is skeptical about climate change or slow to embrace it, consider the huge mistake that was made in allying it to liberal and left-wing causes. This created the perception that “buying into” climate change was a political, partisan decision. This is the fault of those who tried to use climate change, a legitimate concern, to push their own political agendas and interests. That campaign failed, and now as a result our nation is behind where it should be on this issue.
    It should be a lesson for all of us in the future to separate important issues from political opportunism.

    • Sustainability Office said:

      Hi, Carla,
      Yes, agreed. The issue has certainly become a partisan one. However, I am not sure I agree with your analysis of the cause-and-effect of the political divide. Was it a conscious effort on the left to turn this into a political issue? Or, was it the market-based cap-and-trade solutions or carbon taxes proposed by many economists, policy analysts, and climate/energy think tanks that caused the divide? Of course, these perceived big government solutions ire many on the right. Probably a little of both. No matter what the cause-and-effect, we agree, climate change solutions have unfortunately become a political issue as the Pew Poll so clearly highlights.

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