‘From every single possible direction’: Environmental steps over the decade

‘From every single possible direction’: Environmental steps over the decade

Read in The Daily Tar Heel 12/9/19

Allie Omens loves to hate waste. 

Now a senior at UNC, Omens co-founded Carolina Thrift, won the 2019 Three Zeros Environmental Initiative Leadership Award and became president of Epsilon Eta, the coed environmental honors fraternity on campus. 

She is a student at a time when climate concerns are a large part of the public discussion. 

“If you look around, people are dealing with waste all the time,” she said. “It’s wrapping your food. It’s throwing away your toothbrush every month. Waste is all around us.”

But fear and disaster-centered attitudes, Omens said, are not productive in addressing environmental issues. She said she prefers innovative and positive strategies for change.

Students and faculty alike have adopted an environmental focus. Jason West, a professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, said he hopes students leave his classroom with an understanding of current environmental problems and an appreciation for past successful solutions. 

Through his research, he’s found that climate change, endangered species and air pollution as the most pressing environmental topics to public health. 

“Climate change is a human issue, an economic issue, a health issue,” he said. “It will be the most important challenge this generation of students will face in their lifetime.”

Climate change, he said, has taken an especially central role in the environmental conversation in the past decade. 

The 2010s opened with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and comes to a close as the United States officially begins proceedings to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement. 

“There is a senior class of people who don’t want to leave the University without either accomplishing what we want to accomplish, or filling in the lower classes about how to get this done,” Omens said, noting the growing importance of environmentally aware campus policies.

She said she hopes that UNC leaders will allow students to be part of decision making. 

“We want it to be a partnership instead of a battleground,” Omens said.

Students have been frustrated by the University’s reliance on coal and the lack of a clear plan of action from the Three Zeros program. 

“Students are watching UNC, and want to see more tangible action,” senior environmental studies major Olivia Corriere said. “I do not have time for apathy when climate change is accelerating.”

The Coal Free 2020 initiative was created under former Chancellor Holden Thorp with the intention of fully ending the University’s use of coal for energy. By 2012, administrators abandoned the plan. A decision at a January 2016 Board of Trustees meeting said the University would instead aim toward neutral greenhouse gas emissions, part of the current Three Zeros program.  

The impending effects of climate change, she said, present an opportunity for students to be part of change — even at the University level with waste management and sustainable plant-based diets. 

The University has been active in the climate conversation for a long time, Omens said. The first environmental conference at a college campus — the Threshold Conference — was at UNC in 1989. 

Both 30 years ago and today, Omens said, it has been students pushing back against climate change. The power behind the movement is the same today, she said, if not stronger. 

“We live in a hard time, but I think it’s important for us to work together, form partnerships,” Omens said. “We are all dealing with really hard issues. Issues of climate change, issues of educational attainment, racism, sexism. All of these things are very dark, but we are all people.”

She said taking steps to improve the health of the environment must be a community effort. 

“Not to be too kumbaya, but supporting each other as humans and as a species of the Earth, the ‘treat others the way that you want to be treated’ mentality goes a long way,” she said.

On a global level, figures like Greta Thunberg, West said, have been extremely effective in recruiting the attention of young people on environmental issues. Her Fridays for Future school protests against climate change have been replicated in 226 countries. 

Corriere said she attended the Sept. 20 Fridays For Future strike at the Peace and Justice Plaza in Chapel Hill, and has been leading climate strikes on Fridays on the steps of South Building ever since.

She said the message of the climate strikes is directed to UNC — specifically the Three Zeros program. The strikes, Corriere said, call for the release of a comprehensive Three Zeros plan. She said she hopes the events are accessible and welcoming to all students.

“The rise of youth activism is something that’s really exciting to me,” said Owen Ryerson, a sophomore and member of the Student Environmental Action Coalition. 

He said youth activism around issues like climate change has increased civic engagement for young people. Students voices hold a lot of weight on campus, he said, as they are the ones paying tuition. 

“Ten years ago, Fridays for Future would have seemed impossible,” he said. 

Omens said she thinks Thunberg’s profile is due in part to her social media presence. But she said it’s not enough for people to simply engage with the environmental movement on Twitter or Instagram.

“You could argue that people like to share and make it feel like they’re actually making a difference when really all they’re doing is the press of a button and continuing to eat beef,” she said. “It’s a little bit self-satisfying. Greta’s whole message is the people. We act the way that we want everyone else to act, which is more sustainably.”

Still, Omens said she is seeing progress. She said pursuing renewable energy sources could be a major step in bipartisan climate agreements. Renewable energy sources might be cost-heavy initially, she said, but they are better for the economy in the long-term. 

A strategy of appealing to legislators’ economic concerns might be the best way to get environmentally positive policies passed, she said.  

Corriere said a major step in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions is to clean up the electric grid with renewable energy sources.

Solar and wind power are no longer as cost prohibitive as they were 10 years ago, West said. Environment aside, he said, renewable energy now makes economic sense. 

On the East Coast, the average cost of solar power was reduced by more than half from 2011 to 2015. 

Ryerson said that such progress should be approached with humility. Those most affected by the climate crisis are minorities and people in marginalized communities, he said. 

Combating climate change and environmental issues, Omens said, demands a public willingness to continue the fight in diverse ways.

“You need the people protesting,” she said. “You need the people making the economic argument. It’s all of these that come together. We need everything. We need stuff like what Greta’s doing, stuff like what Olivia’s doing. It’s so so crucial.”

“It’s crucial to come at it from every single possible direction,” she said.

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