The Return of the Regents: The Climate Activists Strike Back
BY DANIEL SJOHOLM AND PHOEBE SKOK
photos in article from Martin Hawks
It was a clear fall morning at UC San Diego and tensions were building before the UC Regents meeting. Throngs of people gathered with one goal in mind: to push the Regents towards creating a fossil-free UC. Brought together by the Green New Deal at UC San Diego, students, staff, and faculty from across campus united to make their voices heard.
From September 20-22, 2022, the Regents—the UC system’s governing body that establishes academic and financial policies—met at UC San Diego’s Price Center for the first time since 2019. On September 21, a mighty group of grassroots organizers lay in wait, banners and microphones in hand, ready to greet the board members and demand they heed the UC-wide call for climate action.
The Regents alone control the purse strings of the UC system’s $21.1 billion endowment and oversee its approximately 200,000 employees. Critically, the future of the UC’s energy sources falls in their domain. The ten campuses collectively emit around one million tons of carbon dioxide annually between heating, cooling, and transportation. The Regents’ only plan to address this gross environmental devastation is to steer the university towards carbon neutrality by 2025 through the use of carbon offsets.
Simply being carbon neutral is not enough, especially not when it’s achieved through the false promises of carbon offsetting. Carbon offsets, in which a polluter pays to make up for already-emitted greenhouse gasses, are essentially a scam. By participating in the carbon market, the UC system offloads responsibility and garners positive press in one fell swoop. Then, they can continue business as usual and pull the wool over their own eyes to avoid seeing the need for fundamental change on environmental issues. Offsets look good on paper and lend the university credibility in its so-called commitment to climate action.
The demonstrators, however, were ready to foil the plot. They came prepared with speakers, protest songs, and banners that called upon the UC system to be a “leader for a clean and just future.” The support was there—in June 2022, faculty from across the ten campuses came out in droves. A whopping 85% of the voting faculty were in favor of a plan that would slash fossil fuel combustion by 95% before 2035.
All that was left to do? Make the Regents see the light.
“[The UC Regents] could have a goal to decrease or eliminate carbon emissions by a certain date, but they have no such goal and no plans to make that kind of goal,” explained Varykina Thackray, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences and active member of the Green New Deal coalition. “We’re asking them to stop talking about the climate research that UC San Diego has contributed to over the last 50 years and take action to reduce our own campus greenhouse gas emissions.”
Progress, though slow and unsteady, seems to be on the horizon. At this week’s Regents meeting, waves of Green New Deal members attended the open sessions, filling the seats with black and green. By the end, eight members gave public comments and many more submitted written comments. Students called for the UC to “create actionable milestones for emissions cuts” instead of buying offsets. Professors explained how “the university is an arsonist of the biosphere” and demanded that money be spent on decreasing emissions rather than merely adapting to the looming threat of climate breakdown.
Within hours of the conclusion of the rally, President Drake announced that his second priority for this year was that the UC be a leader on climate change. Then, in this year’s presidential priorities plan, Drake introduced plans to “pursue fossil-free operations across the UC system,” though they lacked specific mentions of funding.
This is no doubt encouraging news. That said, no concrete plan for how to decrease the UC’s contribution to climate change has been released thus far. Despite the seemingly encouraging news on decarbonization coming out of this week’s meetings, environmental activists across the UC system suspect that the Regents may be a snake in the grass to climate action. The Green New Deal and other organizers are ready to keep pushing the Regents to leave the dinosaurs dead and buried.
Their optimism is not misplaced. Since its founding in 2019, UC San Diego’s Green New Deal coalition has had several notable successes at bringing climate action to campus. In 2020, they teamed up with UC unions, who represent 50,000 workers, to gather over 3,500 signatures in support of clean energy plans for the UC system. They built upon their past successes to chase out Chase Bank—a major polluter that contributed $51.3 billion to fossil fuel industries in 2021—from the Price Center at UC San Diego. A local credit union now stands in its place.
“Local action is at the heart of most historical change,” said fourth-year student Brenna O’Brien in the rally’s opening remarks. O’Brien explained that while the impacts of climate activism may not be immediately apparent, the hard work will eventually pay off and bear fruit for the generations to come.
“Progress begins with institutions listening and responding to grassroots collective action.”