In 2013, the University of California (UC) system announced their goal to become carbon-neutral—net-zero carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions—by 2025. This deadline is only three years away and the UC system is nowhere close to achieving that goal. Students, faculty, and climate activists across the ten UC campuses are skeptical that the administration is doing everything possible to decrease emissions. Coming Clean: A Demand for a Fossil Free UC dives deep into the key issues of the UC’s Carbon Neutrality Initiative. Written and directed by UC San Diego graduates Carolina Montejo and Andre Salehian, the documentary highlights the interconnected nature of the environmental movement, social justice, labor, and climate action. Coming Clean invokes a great sense of urgency by offering a poignant look at the impacts of fossil fuel extraction on the environment and Californian communities. It makes clear that carbon neutrality is not enough to address the climate crisis: the UC system must go a step further to become fossil free.
The documentary opens with clips of the UC San Diego Climate March in September 2021, which protested the UC’s lack of action on climate change. Montejo’s voice-over highlights the powerful role of historical social movements—such as the fights for civil and LGBTQ+ rights—in creating change. She acknowledges the existence of “eco-anxiety” without dwelling on it. Rather than ignoring the difficulties of combating the climate crisis, the documentary recognizes them and promotes solutions. This has a grounding effect. Decarbonization, grassroots organizing, and other strategies are shown as realities instead of pipedreams. The narration explains that the documentary was made in “an act of resistance” to determine the scale of the UC’s role in perpetuating the climate crisis. A hue of defiance to the current system paints the entirety of Coming Clean. However, this refusal to accept the status quo is a large part of what creates its power.
The documentary is divided into four segments: Environmental Breakdown, Systemic Failure of the UC, Environmental Justice and Labor, and Regenerating the Future. Each features striking visuals, eye-opening charts and figures, and interviews with prominent UC professors, students, and staff. Coming Clean begins with a bang; it reveals that “the UC annually burns one million metric tons of CO2 through the operation of its ten on-campus heating, cooling, and electricity plants.” Powered by fracked methane—also known as natural gas—these cogeneration (cogen) plants provide the majority of the UC’s electricity. At UC San Diego alone, approximately 85% of the electricity comes from the on-campus cogen plant; this equates to approximately $10 million worth of fracked methane being burned each year. Strategically placed statistics make a strong case for electrification, “early-retirement of the methane-burning infrastructure on the UC campuses”.
Montejo and Salehian interviewed two UC Berkeley professors, Dan Kammen (Energy, Resources, Public Policy) and David M. Romps (Earth and Physical Sciences, Climate and Ecosystem Sciences), about the UC’s impact. It is news to few that greenhouse gas emissions have risen exponentially since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Romps reminds the audience that the effects of atmospheric CO2 are cumulative. It is laughable to expect the climate to revert to what it was before the Industrial Revolution even if we immediately stop emitting CO2. Rather, the harm is proportional to the total amount of carbon in the atmosphere—and it is permanent. Kammen offers a slightly more optimistic view. He shares that, especially in California, renewable energy is cheaper than burning fossil fuels. Even building and operating an entirely new renewable energy plant (such as a solar or wind farm) would be cheaper than continuing to operate the UC’s aging cogen plants. That said, he recognizes the practical obstacles in convincing the UC system to go beyond their current emission reduction plan and decarbonize entirely.
One of the largest complications? The UC’s dependence on carbon offsets, which are a major part of the UC Carbon Neutrality Initiative. With the help of a clever animation, Romps clearly explains how offsets work: Rather than directly decreasing their own emissions, the UC releases greenhouse gases by burning fossil fuels, and then pays for a slip of paper stating that somewhere, an equivalent amount of CO2 was not released into the atmosphere. This is how the UC can claim carbon neutrality while continuing to emit dangerous greenhouse gases. Neither Romps nor Kammen hesitate to condemn the practice as a scam that is “effectively a way to offload responsibility to others.” Frankly, carbon offsets use the same logic as paying someone else to go on a diet for you and then expecting to lose weight. Still, electrification is not just a thing of fantasy— because Coming Clean shows that Stanford University did it with great success.
Coming Clean also highlights the social impacts of the UC’s fossil fuel usage. The documentary recognizes that, although the UC campuses do not directly suffer the negative impacts of burning fossil fuels, this does not mean that there aren’t any. Rather, Salehian’s voiceover explains that the communities surrounding extraction sites bear the burden of harm. California has an extremely large fossil fuel industry; in 2020, the state produced 144 million barrels of crude oil. This comes with a price. Montejo and Salehian spoke with Andrés Soto, Richmond Organizer at Communities for a Better Environment, about his experiences living near the Chevron Richmond plant, the second-largest greenhouse gas emitting refinery in California. Soto shows that the current extractivist model raises environmental justice issues. Communities of color and the industrial working class disproportionately suffer from negative health impacts associated with fossil fuel processing. He is “of the firm belief that the University of California, as one of the major institutions in the state of California...need[s] to radically change their understanding, their use, their investment in the energy system. We [the communities neighboring the refineries] are living and suffering under that system.”
UC Berkeley student Ana Medel reminds the audience that equitably moving towards a renewable energy system will be difficult because many depend on the fossil fuel industry for their livelihood. As such, Coming Clean recognizes this and postulates that considering the needs of oil and gas workers is crucial when promoting a just transition to a green economy. Medel believes that this means “being able to provide jobs and good wages...especially to those [working jobs] that are directly harming them and their health and providing jobs within clean energy industries.” Yet, how to motivate the labor industry? The documentary suggests the solution is organizing labor unions into a cohesive, policy-driving unit.
To get the labor perspective on how to move “away from the extractive economies that are destroying our planet,” Montejo and Salehian interviewed members of the University Professional and Technical Employees Union (UPTE). UC Davis plant pathologist Brianna McGuire shares that far fewer clean energy workers are unionized compared to their fossil-fueled counterparts. As a result, there is a drastic wage difference between them; McGuire argues that by increasing unionization rates in clean energy sectors, wages and workplace protections will rise. Renewable energy workers will have more collective bargaining power that makes shifting to green jobs more appealing. Coming Clean also cites a report by Dr. Robert Pollin, an economist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, which outlines a feasible pathway to transition California from a fossil-fuel economy to a regenerative one. Pollin’s research found that, by spending $138 billion per year between 2021-2030—approximately 4% of California’s GDP—the state could create one million green jobs and equitably transition 3,200 workers every year. McGuire firmly believes that “we cannot afford to not spend this money” because the impacts of climate change get more intense and more expensive every year.
As UC San Diego UPTE member Brooke Donner says, “they have a lot to do to walk the walk to match their talk.” Coming Clean addresses the difficulty of going out on a limb and pushing for climate action, which Romps admits can feel lonely at times. However, he reminds the audience that there are so many other people fighting worldwide for the same end goal of a green future. The documentary’s stance on the issue is clear: the UC has an immense moral and intellectual responsibility to act on climate change. What the UC does has an impact outside of the 10-campus system. As a leader in global education and one of the largest employers in California, the UC is highly visible and has an enormous amount of sway. Plus, the UC system was created to help improve the world through research and public education. As decarbonization of the UC will lessen negative effects on the environment and communities neighboring fossil fuel sites, the impact will be larger than just the ten campuses. A fossil free UC will improve the lives of a substantial portion of California’s population.
In the context of higher education, the role of students is paramount to achieving decarbonization. Alex Andriatis, a Ph.D. candidate at Scripps Institute of Oceanography, brings to light the fact that because they pay tuition and choose to attend the UC instead of other universities, “students are very hard to retaliate against for their activism, unlike staff and untenured faculty.” Effectively, they can speak freely about what they don’t like about the university’s actions, and the university has a responsibility to listen to them. In relation to their power, “students have a very big capacity to effect change.” By bookending its narrative with shots from the UC San Diego Climate March, the documentary subtly but meaningfully expresses the valuable role of students in the fight for a fossil free UC.
The strength of the climate movement lies in its ability to demand change in local institutions from the ground up. Unlike the UC, it garners its power not from commodities and fossil fuels, but from its collective nature and wisdom of past social movements. Coming Clean: A Demand for a Fossil Free UC concludes on a lighter and more hopeful note than it started. It illuminates how “our eco-anxiety and social-political angst” can be catalyzed into “tools to demand accountability from the extractive industries that have put our planet in a state of collapse.” Carolina Montejo and Andre Salehian’s documentary skillfully addresses the shortcomings of the UC system regarding climate action without creating a doom-and-gloom narrative. In doing so, it leaves the viewer with hope and an irresistible urge to demand a fossil free UC.
Coming Clean was written and directed by UC San Diego Green New Deal members Carolina Montejo and Andre Salehian and produced by Adam Aron. Want to know more? Watch Coming Clean here or visit Electrify UC.