The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report stating that by 2030, the world must reduce its carbon emissions from 2010 by 45% in order to prevent some of the worst consequences of climate change. 

The changing climate is projected to have far-reaching impacts on human health including, but not limited to food shortages, unhealthy drinking water, polluted air and increasing temperatures around the world. 

In a report modeling the future of food production, a projected 529,000 deaths by 2050 were attributed to climate-related food shortages alone. Additionally, a global climate model projected a 250% increase in annual heat-related deaths by 2050. 

According to the WHO, approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year will be caused by climate-related events such as malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress between 2030 and 2050.  A review of this study deemed 250,000 as an incredibly “conservative” estimate, and stated that the number of actual deaths will greatly surpass the projected value. 

As the head of the largest employer in the fifth largest economy in the world, the University of California plays an impactful role in mitigating and setting an example for innovative and expansive climate action goals to promote human health and wellbeing.  

To advocate for climate action across the University of California, the UC Green New Deal Coalition released a statement in response to the selection of a new UC president, Michael V. Drake.

“Given the failure of governments to address this problem, our view, at the University of California Green New Deal is that you have to act where you are and you have to work on the institutions of which you are a part and have influence,” said Cathy Gere, a professor of history of science at UC San Diego and member of the UC Green New Deal Coalition. “So we have been really trying to have a voice and exert our influence over the University of California.”

The statement, made in response to Drake’s selection, outlined the deficiencies of the current UC Carbon Neutrality Initiative, highlighted the timeliness of climate action, and detailed a set of three core climate demands for the new president to implement across the UC system. 

The demands included system-wide decarbonization of campus energy, verification of UC’s fossil-free investments, reduction of fossil-fuel influence on campus-related banking and research, and education of UC students about the crisis.

“Incoming UC President Drake will bear profound responsibilities to realize a vision of a just and equitable UC,” the statement said. 

In 2013, the University announced the Carbon Neutrality Initiative under former UC president Janet Napolitano. In 2019, all 10 UC chancellors and Napolitano signed a climate emergency declaration.  

The UC Carbon Neutrality Initiative calls for the emission of net zero greenhouse gases by 2025.

“Some of the solutions and strategies about responding to climate change that seemed like they would be adequate when Janet Napolitano drew up the Carbon Neutrality Initiative are no longer adequate,” Gere said. “This plan needs updating and it needs a much more committed focus to decarbonization.” 

The coalition has three primary goals: decarbonize, divest and teach. Decarbonization is the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions released into the atmosphere.

“A main winner of decarbonization is human health: switching to renewables-based electricity production could cut negative health impacts by up to 80%. This is mainly due to a reduction of air pollution from combusting fuels,” said Gunnar Luderer, leader of the Energy Systems Group at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. 

Carbon neutrality and decarbonization are two different strategies. Neutrality refers to balancing carbon emissions and carbon removal often through carbon offsetting, while decarbonization refers to reducing overall emissions. 

Carbon offsetting involves compensating for carbon emissions by funding other carbon-saving activities elsewhere. 

The UC will focus its efforts on carbon neutrality, as opposed to decarbonization, under the current initiative and relies on carbon offsetting to achieve its goal. 

Adam Aron, professor of psychology at UC San Diego and member of the UC Green New Deal Coalition, said offsetting raises many moral and ethical questions because it often involves wealthier nations producing a high volume of carbon emissions and paying lower-income countries to offset these emissions through planting trees or other offsetting measures.

“At best, [carbon offsets] don’t result in any emissions going down, they just result in cancelling out, and we have to drive emissions down,” Gere said. “This is why we are taking the opportunity of a new president who isn’t invested in the particulars of the last administration to rethink the strategy for decarbonization.”

The coalition’s second goal is divestment. Divestment refers to adopting fossil-free finance across the campus system. In May 2020, the University of California Board of Regents Investments Committee announced that it has completely divested from fossil fuels, affecting around $125 billion worth of assets. 

The coalition is calling for transparency in investments to verify the University’s “fossil-free” claim, commitment to never re-invest in fossil fuels, and investment in companies and utilization of banks that do not finance the fossil fuel industry, Aron said.

The coalition’s third goal is to integrate the climate crisis and climate justice into the curricula across all 10 campuses. 

“It is our duty as college professors to prepare students not just for careers but to prepare them to be citizens in a democratic society,” said Andrew Szasz, professor of environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz and member of the UC Green New Deal Coalition. “That involves teaching about the challenges that they will face individually and collectively.”

Szasz said climate change can be taught across all disciplines including the health sciences, physical sciences, life sciences, social sciences and the arts. 

Integrating climate issues into the curricula could involve adding more courses at each campus, adding additional minors, mandating a climate course for incoming students or weaving climate topics into existing courses, Gere said.  

“We think that every student at the University should get some grasp of this issue.” Gere said. “It is undergraduate students whose lives are going to be the most impacted by climate change. It’s just about equipping students for the future — the future of increased climate destabilization. We’re demanding that we get serious about teaching climate change.”

Addressing the climate crisis would mean avoiding temperature-related deaths and illnesses, illnesses caused by poor air quality, deaths due to extreme natural disasters, conditions caused by vector-borne and water-borne diseases, malnutrition due to food shortages, and numerous mental health consequences. 

“It’s an all hands on deck situation,” Gere said. “We can’t go on as we are and just shuffle off the problem. The news is grave. The situation is urgent. It’s an emergency.”

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