USC must become a sustainable campus

Lisa Kam | Daily Trojan

Lisa Kam | Daily Trojan

More often than not, the informed citizen cares little for the percentage jargon that accompanies the emission standards discussion — 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, 27 percent of 2005 levels by 2025 — it can all be very difficult to process. Interests lies more generally: People want to know if enough is being done to combat climate change, and if ultimately the larger human race will survive. The answer is typically not encouraging. Global emission commitments aggregated across the board are certainly not enough in the global climate change discourse; if all the nations that signed on to the COP 21 agreement at the Paris Climate Summit meet their targets, which is unlikely, there will still be approximately 2 degrees Celsius of warming. In context, science has been stating for many years than any warming past 2 degrees would be catastrophic. The next question then begs, what, if anything, can be done to combat this very wicked problem.

This past week, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger returned to Sacramento to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of AB 32, a bill that requires the state of California to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to reflect 1990 emission levels by 2020. When it was passed in 2006, AB 32 was the first program in the country to take a comprehensive, long-term approach in addressing climate change. Today, it remains the most aggressive emission reduction goal ever to be passed by any state or nation. It is significant to note that Schwarzenegger is a Republican, and one of the few Republican politicians to have ever supported any climate bill. As politics turn more partisan, the existential threat of climate change steadily becomes disconnected from its science and shrouded in scripted, empty party slogans. Schwarzenegger’s spearheading of this bill is an example of a small step in moving away from fluffy, presumptuous words and toward the understanding that climate action is the joint responsibility of both United States political parties. USC should do the same.

The California drought, a direct reflection of climate change, is the most apparent issue facing California and the city of Los Angeles. Because of its urban nature, Los Angeles residents, and especially USC students, often do not recognize the severe impact that the drought has on other parts of the state. In September, residents of Catalina Island had to cut their freshwater consumption by 50 percent, a staggering statistic that USC students would have extreme difficulty adjusting to if the same were mandated by the city of Los Angeles.

With that information and the understanding that environmental problems are complex, without clear solutions and often severely lacking in funding and attention, USC can and should in no way call itself a green campus. USC physically looks green — explicitly because it is not. The campus boasts 31 fountains, which each naturally lose about 1,000 gallons of water per month that could be used for drinking, landscaping and agricultural work, among other things. USC is home to an enormous non-native plant population that consumes a disproportionately high amount of water compared to native plant species (most notably, the palm tree, which in actuality originates from tropical and subtropical regions of the world and is ill-fitted for the dry desert climate of Southern California). Finally, and most significantly, USC lacks even the most meager efforts at solar energy, which is ironic for a well-resourced, progressive university located in a consistently sunny part of the world.

While there is a scattered assortment of environmental projects, mostly pushed by students, faculty and the understaffed Sustainability Office, there is nothing substantial enough to make a real dent in USC’s heavy water consumption or its 55,000 ton yearly CO2 production. Action is being taken to reduce water consumption but not with the immediacy that the drought demands.

Students have a number of steps that they can take to live their personal lives more sustainably, but economic structures that exist within the United States and at the University make it virtually impossible to be truly sustainable. Large scale, top-down change is needed to make real progress, and that starts with the University’s administration and with the larger state of California.