Community members discuss advocacy and carbon pricing at Safe Climate PA conference

On Saturday, Oct. 7, Swarthmore students and administrators attended a Safe Climate PA conference in Harrisburg. The conference serves as “an opportunity to learn about carbon pricing policies and how to effectively engage with elected officials, the media, and our campus communities to advocate for climate solutions,” according to its website.

Director of Sustainability Aurora Winslade, sustainability program manager Melissa Tier, Nathan Graf ’16, a climate action senior fellow in the office of sustainability, and Aaron Metheney ’18 helped organize the conference.

Twelve Swarthmore students attended, as well as students and representatives from many universities in Pennsylvania, including Temple, Dickinson, Franklin & Marshall, and Villanova.

The conference began with an opening address delivered by Winslade, who discussed the potential of carbon pricing and the importance of student voices on climate issues. It also included  workshops on meeting with elected officials, media engagement, campus engagement and endorsements, local government endorsements, carbon pricing policy, and storytelling around issues of climate change.

Graf facilitated the carbon pricing policy workshop and presented on climate change and carbon pricing, while Metheney facilitated the local government endorsements workshop.

Carbon pricing, which can take various forms, is a tax on carbon pollution to encourage polluters to reduce their emissions. Graf described it as the most feasible way to keep the world from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius from its current temperature, at which, according to many climate scientists, the negative effects of climate change would become irreversible.

Ideally, according to Graf, a carbon tax would make it unprofitable to burn more than the 565 gigatons of carbon necessary to stay under that limit, raising the price of fossil fuels to more than the price of renewable energy sources. Because the fee would be assessed when carbon enters the economy, however, the cost would be passed on to consumers and could have a disproportionate effect on low-income people. A possible solution could be using the revenue from the price to create a universal basic income, which would offset the costs, although there are many other possible uses of the revenue.

“It is an unfortunate reality that while a price on carbon makes for very good policy, it won’t happen when few people know or care about it,” said Graf. “The need to change that is a central driver for Safe Climate PA.”

The college already has an internal carbon pricing program, which involves a 1.25 percent charge on each department’s budget. The money goes to the college’s Carbon Change Fund, which invests in profitable, energy-efficient businesses and organizations and funds other work relating to climate change and education. Nick DiMaio ’19, a president’s sustainability research fellow, will work this year to educate the community about carbon pricing, and community members have also worked to support carbon pricing beyond the college.

Metheney got President Smith’s signature on a carbon pricing petition this spring, and President Smith wrote an open letter in the “Philadelphia Inquirer” on Aug. 8 in support of carbon pricing. Smith has also reached out to other campus presidents to encourage them to sign. Metheney is also working to get the Borough of Swarthmore to institute carbon pricing.

Two interns in the office of sustainability, Lamia-Emilie Makkar ’21 and Nusaybah Estes ’21, also helped organize the event. Makkar researched the political background of the districts from which conference attendees came and the environmental stances of their elected officials — hoping to gain insight on priorities for each district — and created resource sheets for the conference workshops. Estes organized communications prior to the conference, introduced workshops, filmed the event, and helped with logistics. Makkar will continue developing educational resources and working on implementation of action plans developed at the conference, while Estes will continue networking.

“It was great to see so many [people] share energy and excitement about paving a future for the larger use of carbon charges and look forward to the actions the different groups will be taking,” Makkar said in an email.

Estes was similarly excited about implementing students’ action plans and emphasized the diverse set of perspectives speakers brought to the conference.

“I think the speakers were incredibly knowledgeable in their fields and brought interesting views on climate change to the table,” Estes said in an email.

She pointed to the speeches of Jerry Taylor, Jacqui Patterson, and Peterson Tuscano. Taylor, a conservative commentator who was originally skeptical about the effects of climate change, discussed how he changed his views and how to make a case for carbon pricing that appeals to conservatives.

Patterson, the director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program, talked about the disproportionate impact of climate change on communities of color and poor communities, both through the proximity of toxic facilities and susceptibility to natural disasters, and advocated an aggressive approach to carbon pricing to make it more equitable.

Tuscano, a comic storyteller, who has worked on LGBTQ issues, social justice, and faith, discussed in a humorous speech how he became aware of climate change, how we can engage non-environmentalists like himself in climate action by appealing to their interests and identities, and how climate change is homophobic. The video footage Estes took of their speeches and other parts of the event can be found on Safe Climate PA’s Facebook page.

Jeremy Seitz-Brown ’18 represented Swarthmore’s Sunrise hub at the conference. He shared information about Sunrise’s mission to mobilize people and pressure elected officials about climate action.

“I was really excited by the chance to learn more about what other Swarthmore students and other students across the state were doing,” he said.

Seitz-Brown took away two major things around climate change and advocacy work.

“We need more cooperation in Swarthmore, and more cooperation beyond Swarthmore,” he said.

This involves more engagement with other schools and more student education about the college’s carbon pricing initiatives. He also wants to encourage Sunrise to work with other groups on campus.

“I think we’re all doing very necessary work, whether it’s on campus policy or student organizing,” Seitz-Brown said. “I’ll be working to [help] Sunrise support the sustainability fellows and other students.”

Graf echoed the need to work with people both inside and outside of the Swarthmore community.

“To get strong climate policy in the US, it’s vital to engage grassroots and mid-level people and organizations, which is very much the goal of Safe Climate PA, and much of the other carbon pricing work we’re doing on campus,” they said.

Graf intends to reconvene the Swarthmore delegation to Safe Climate PA the week after fall break to build on the work of the conference.

”Some great ideas were brought up in the session about ways that Swarthmore students could continue this work,” they said.

The office of sustainability interns, the conference attendees, and others will work to implement those ideas and educate the community over the coming year.

Reuben Gelley-Newman

Reuben Gelley Newman '21 is a prospective Honors English major and is also involved in music on campus.

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