Davidson College Combats Climate Change With Plan to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Sup (4'x9'; Acrylic paint and acrylic paint pen on canvas) by Chloe Pitkoff ’21

Sup (4'x9'; Acrylic paint and acrylic paint pen on canvas) by Chloe Pitkoff ’21

From January through March of 2020, Pitkoff was a member of the Sustainability Co-op, a group of 10 students who live together in a house on Main Street in Davidson with a commitment to sustainable living. Pitkoff’s painting was inspired by the house’s inhabitants, who engage in a series of rituals meant to foster community, including weekly house dinners.

Hurricane Ida upended lives from Louisiana and the Gulf Coast to the northeast. Violent Ida’s high winds, tornados and merciless rains toppled houses, trees and power lines, and flooded roads, homes and the New York City subway system. The death toll grows. Meanwhile, wildfires rage in California.

The United Nations recently issued a “red alert,” warning that climate change spurred by industrialization, fossil fuels and human behavior will lead to more weather-related disasters in our warming planet.

Raul Galvan, from Davidson College’s class of 2021, wrestles with what he can do. Tackling climate change on a large scale is overwhelming. You can’t fix the whole world at once, he said, but you can change your community.

At Davidson, he collaborated with other students, and college and town leaders on a new 2021 climate action plan to reduce the college’s greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent over the next five years. Strategies include contracting with renewable energy sources, pursuing more environmentally friendly travel options, and continuing the push for campus-wide sustainability.

“You have to start local,” said Galvan, who majored in environmental sciences, and as a Sustainability Scholar worked with the non-profit Sustain Charlotte. He now works as a Davidson Impact Fellow with the Catawba Lands Conservancy. “As an individual, you have a better chance of making a bigger impact when you find a way to take local action.” 

The 2021 plan continues the work started in 2010, when the college took a hard look at its energy use and started making changes. Since then, Davidson has expanded its building space but decreased its emissions by nearly 10 percent.

That’s been achieved through more energy efficient heating and cooling systems, lighting and the college community’s increased awareness of global warming. It’s a topic we can’t ignore, affecting everything from our health to the economy to our physical safety, said Yancey Fouché, the college’s director of sustainability.

“At Davidson, we are seeing disruptions and challenges from climate-related weather events. We have students whose families have been affected by wildfires, flooding and extreme heat,” Fouché said. “Severe drought and subsequent water rationing are a key driver for rising food costs. The more that the global community can curb the total amount of global warming, the better protected our campus will be from worsening and extreme versions of these and other climate impacts.”

Tackling Climate Change Through Policy

Pete Hansel always knew he wanted to combat climate change and started down that path as a Davidson chemistry major focused on atmospheric chemistry. After his 2009 graduation, he earned a master’s degree in environmental management from The Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University.

He has spent his career working for change from a federal policy angle. He served in the Council on Environmental Quality during President Barack Obama’s administration. The Obama team’s goal for the Paris Agreement of 2015 was to reduce emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, with a long-term aspiration for an 80 percent reduction by 2050. President Joe Biden strives to reach net zero emissions by 2050. In the shorter term, Biden’s plan calls for a 50 to 52 percent reduction by 2030.

(Former President Donald J. Trump, who cut environmental regulations, withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement his first year in office, but that didn’t go into effect until late 2020. Biden signed an executive order to rejoin the international pact on his inauguration day.)

Hansel said the changed goals reflect that the world has made less progress than hoped for, and factors in the higher ambition called for in the Paris Agreement: “Meaning we need to do more,” he said, “and we have a greater understanding of what we actually need to achieve by 2050 to curb climate change.

The evidence is mounting.

“For me personally, this year more than ever has demonstrated how we’re experiencing climate catastrophe,” Hansel said. “There’s a level of intensity—it seems like every day—that I don’t remember experiencing before, and it’s disheartening. But there’s also a reason for optimism because we do have in our grasp the ability to prevent even worse outcomes.”

Hansel, now consulting for non-profits on federal climate policy, studied Davidson’s current plan and found a lot to like.

“It hits all the right notes,” he said.

For starters, it works in five-year increments, which ensures accountability to achieve its goals.

“It’s harder to think about 10 years down the road or to mid-century,” he said. “You do have to have that long-term vision, but near-term targets are more actionable. As new technology and information emerges, you might realize that you can go at a faster pace.

“I applaud Davidson for revisiting this and leaning in to become a leader on these issues that are affecting our generation and generations to come.”

That Davidson now offers an established Environmental Studies major is also progress since his time there. He said it helps to have more people go into the field to find ways to reduce global warming in their homes, businesses and communities.

“When colleges like Davidson commit to these targets, it all adds up. There’s so much that needs to be done in figuring out how to solve this in the United States and the world,” he said. “You can think of it on a broader scale, but it comes down to very detailed decisions among many smaller entities. That’s the value of Davidson doing this. That knowledge bubbles up, and the lessons learned at Davidson can spread.”