Williams College Approaching Climate Change From Multiple Angles

Sep 19, 2016

Williams College and its museum of art are studying climate change through a variety of ways this academic year. It comes after a call by alumni, students and staff for the college to fully divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies.

Williams College is embarking on a year of confronting climate change with a series of events, programs and community-based efforts to reduce energy and cut carbon emissions. Amy Johns is the director of the college’s Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives.

“Some of what the college is doing is purely operational,” Johns said. “We’re working on reducing the amount of energy that we use on campus through pretty standard energy conservation in our buildings and education of the campus community. We’re also working on renewable energy is a big way both on campus, installing solar panels, and we’re looking for utility-scale renewable energy possibilities in Berkshire County and New England more broadly.”

In July, the college announced that it was investing about $6 million to construct a 1.9-megawatt solar array on a capped landfill in Williamstown. Johns says Williams is also offering student engagement programs outside the classroom.

“We run a program during the academic year called ‘eco-advisers’ where students do a combination of learning about environmental issues, this year in particular we’re focusing on climate change, and then they also do projects related to those topics on campus. We are going to be having a group of students who are specifically working on our renewable projects because that’s a fantastic area for them to be thinking about future careers in the green sector.”

Johns says the Zilkha Center is also partnering with the Davis Center, the college’s social justice and activism hub, to look at how students can make real change on environmental issues. Inside the classroom, the college has recently added two majors: environmental policy and environmental science. Meanwhile, the Williams College Museum of Art is partnering with an organization called Ghana ThinkTank to explore how people view climate change. Sonnet Coggins is the museum’s associate director for academic and public engagement.

“It starts with a mobile unit that will move across the Williams campus and into the community to collect problems related to climate change,” Coggins said. “Then send those problems to think tanks in Indonesia and Morocco to generate solutions. They will send those solutions back and we will implement them with events and interventions in the community. In January, we’ll build an installation inside the museum.”

Williams’ efforts come after a push by alumni, students and staff calling for the college to completely divest its roughly $2.3 billion endowment from the top 200 fossil fuel companies. Citing the complexities and potential financial loss of rearranging how the endowment is invested, Williams decided not to divest, instead focusing on investment and activism. President Adam Falk addressed that decision in September 2015.

“Our feeling was that we have the resources, the opportunity and the responsibility to invest in a variety of ways; the campus and our educational mission,” Falk said. “For a college, given our mission, that was the most appropriate way for us to show the kind of leadership that we are eager to show.” 

With that 2015 announcement, Williams said it is investing up to $50 million over the next five years in efficient buildings, renewable energy projects and climate change education, aiming to achieve carbon neutrality by the end of 2020. Brian Burke, a 2002 Williams graduate and a professor of sustainable development at Appalachian State University, helps lead the divestment group. Intent on continuing to influence Williams through protests and other avenues, he says the college can both invest and divest.

“Share a broader message and take a broader stand where you’re saying we aren’t only going to limit our activities to what’s happening right here on campus or in the Berkshires, we’re going to make an effort to lead toward the de-carbonization of the economy.”

Still, Burke says the college's efforts are a good start. Williams is also hosting a series of public talks with the head of The Nature Conservancy, the founder of 350.org and other environmental experts throughout the academic year. Mike Evans, assistant director of the Zilkha Center, says the center operates a website that is a one-stop shop for all sustainability efforts on campus and beyond.

“On that website its information for student opportunities, thinking about sustainability off campus and after students graduate, but it’s also thinking about sustainability in terms of energy emissions, food and water, waste and recycling, and buildings and transportation,” Evans said. “So some of that website offers the 101 or intro on each of those areas and it talks about what the college is doing in each of those areas to make the college and region more sustainable.” 

Williams has also started offering retirees and employees a “low carbon” investment fund. Major donors can also choose to have their gift to the college’s endowment invested in a fossil fuel-free fund.