Activist and Professor Adam Aron on what you can do now
BY LEORAH GAVIDOR
Adam Aron is a psychology professor at UC San Diego, and he is also a member of the UCSD Green New Deal Climate Justice and Action movement. One of the campaigns he was recently involved in with the group was to organize a petition to the Regents, the 10 Chancellors, and President Drake to ask the UC to “Get Off the Gas” on its campuses by making plans to run the campuses from grid electricity. The wider issue, says Aron, is that UC must change its goal from “carbon neutrality” to “fossil free.” While the University of California touts “carbon neutrality” as action on climate change, times have changed since that mission was set. Carbon neutrality relies on “dodgy accounting tricks” such as carbon offsets, while fossil free requires “genuinely reducing our own emissions,” Aron wrote in a recent UCSD Green New Deal update email. It’s imperative we start making plans now to shift UCSD and other campuses away from dependence on fossil fuels and onto renewable wind and solar sources. Under California state law, 60% of electricity will come from those sources by 2030. Organizers from the group presented their demands to Chancellor Khosla in a meeting on March 11, 2021.
“The lovely presentation was made to him by students, which he was very touched by,” Aron said. “I think he said it was one of the nicest meetings he'd ever been at because they were praising him for his significant leadership on COVID and Return to Learn, and saying, can you do something now for getting a fossil-free infrastructure?”
“So what we mean by that is we mean to get off the fossil fuel infrastructure. For example at UCSD, there's this huge plant on campus over by Gilman Drive that a lot of people don't know about, but you know you've got to kind of find it. You hear it if you're nearby. And we're burning loads of fracked methane, and we're generating about 200,000 tons a year of CO2. We're running a lot of the campus energy system off fossil fuel. Now to get off that system, which is what Stanford did, is a very expensive undertaking. I don't know what it would cost for UCSD, and it would take a few years. They'd have to dig a lot of stuff out and basically replace the fracked methane-burning infrastructure with devices that can really run the campus on electric input from the grid—heating and cooling and so forth—so those are large amounts of money. And that requires federal stimulus, or state bonds, or philanthropy, so we're not asking for that—that's for another day. We're asking for the first step which is to make plans.”
That first step will be aided by a UCSD-authorized expenditure of $250,000 to study electrification of our campus. It’s not exactly clear what those plans are for, said Aron, but he is encouraged by this news. It’s a win for UCSD Green New Deal activists.
In the meantime, organizers have also built a new website, https://electrifyuc.org/, to support students, staff, and faculty in pressuring UC chancellors to retire fracked-methane burning gas plants on every campus. The website details how UCSD happens to be one of the most polluting campuses in the UC system. Electrify UC says UC’s own scientists show that, for the world as a whole, existing and pledged fossil fuel infrastructure and business-as-usual activities commits us to 840 Gigatonnes (billion tonnes) of emissions, which far exceeds our remaining worldwide carbon budget of 300 Gigatonnes of CO2 by 2030 to keep heating to only 1.5 degrees Celsius. The site calls for UC to have “shovel ready” plans to take advantage of green building stimulus money that might come down the pipeline.
“It's not implausible that hundreds of billions of dollars will suddenly be available for green projects—such a thing did happen with the Obama stimulus by the way—and a lot of it wasn't spent apparently because institutions didn't have plans ready. So by shovel ready we mean position the campus to take advantage of things like that. There needs to be a blueprint—you have to put pipes under the campus to carry hot water, you have to create chillers—you need different kinds of equipment, different kinds of plug-ins to SDG&E. That kind of stuff needs to be specced out.”
Aron continued: “The move to electrification is not going to be sufficient to solve our climate predicament, but it is a necessary step, and we must get on with it. Any pathway to stopping global heating must pass through electrification. But it’s not sufficient because we are also going to need demand reduction—if we keep growing our economy then we’ll keep ripping up the planet, even if our electricity comes from wind and solar. At UCSD demand reduction means doing more with less, having a new vision for the campus that is not any more about expansionary growth. I’m ready, for example, to share my office going forward. I don’t need a whole office to myself. The pandemic has taught me that.”
“There’s also a concern often articulated - What about Lithium? It refers to the fact that electrification is going to rely heavily on rare earth metals. That’s true, and extractivism, referring to unjust corporate practices in the Global South has been the norm. But there are solutions to this - international law, good labor policy, better recycling. People should also not overlook that the fossil fuel status quo is highly damaging, highly toxic—air pollution alone kills about 8 milion people per year.”
The UCSD Academic Senate Climate Crisis Report posits that UC has the power and the talent—and the resources—to make this happen. We just need to create the will. The report, from July 2020, says:
Although UCSD is currently one of the biggest emitters (> 300,000 tonnes per year of C02) within the 10-campus UC system, it is also in a unique position to lead on this issue:
• It has a dynamic Chancellor who has shown remarkable success in targeted fund-raising.
• It hosts the Scripps Institution of Oceanography where many of the original insights into modern climate science were discovered and the contributions of its scientists are internationally recognized.
• It has unrivalled cross-disciplinary resources spanning engineering, climate sciences, social sciences, natural sciences, medicine and humanities: the climate crisis calls for transdisciplinary solutions.
• It is currently building on-campus housing to construct a city-like environment that can serve as a ‘living laboratory’ for doing decarbonization experiments.
• It has a health system capable of mitigating the predicted health crisis that will accompany eco-anxiety, emergent infectious diseases, population migrations and increased disparities.
Effective decarbonization and changes to teaching, research and health preparedness will require significant changes in campus culture. The task force took inspiration from UCSD’s success in its broad-based promotion of diversity, equity and inclusion, which also required a fundamental change in campus culture and an integration of leadership with other campus members. We suggest UCSD now put emissions reductions into the fabric of all operations.
“Because 30 years of international climate talks have not yielded anything binding, and because national climate policy by most governments is woeful, we must resort to local climate action. As members of the UC, we have the power to push one of the largest institutions in the world to do genuine emissions reductions. Our collective action on this will make us hopeful. And this local action will help usher in the behavioral and cultural change that creates the national political shift, and later, the global shift,” said Aron in his endorsement of the Electrify UC website.
What can you do now? Support collective action efforts at UCSD or in San Diego. There are several excellent groups focussed on emissions reductions. Meanwhile, email President Drake: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ask him to meet with representatives of the 2020 UC Energy Systems Petition representing 3,500 signers, and UC Unions of 50,000. Ask him to change UC’s Goal from Carbon Neutral to Fossil Free. He can do this.