Trustees compose letter for Paris Climate Conference

Nov. 2, 2015, 12:15 a.m.

Last Wednesday, Oct. 28, the Board of Trustees published a letter addressed to France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, in anticipation of the Paris Climate Conference (COP21).

The letter, signed by Steven Denning, chair of the Board of Trustees, and President John Hennessy, outlines steps that Stanford has taken to improve campus sustainability.

“We write to urge the global leaders participating in COP21 to look to our world’s research universities for climate change,” Hennessy said in the letter.

Hennessy went on to present Stanford’s achievements in sustainable development, including the completion of a $485 million new energy system that will help Stanford reduce campus greenhouse gas emissions by 68 percent by the end of 2016.

According to the letter, these projects are part of Stanford’s Energy System Innovations (SESI), a program that has since introduced a new plan to provide Stanford with 53 percent of its electricity from solar sources. SESI solutions also include this year’s installation of a $485 million heat recovery system that will save $420 million over the course of the next 35 years.

Jeffrey Wachtel ‘79, senior assistant to President Hennessy, was able to provide insight regarding these initiatives. 

“There are a number of faculty working on these [SESI programs],” Wachtel said. “They are part of the Woods Institute and the Precourt Institute. Graduate students are also involved in these projects.”

According to Wachtel, the hardest part of implementing these SESI projects was constructing Stanford’s new heat recovery system.

“We had to lay 22 miles of pipeline underneath the campus while still operating the University,” Wachtel said. “Converting to any new system is difficult, but this was particularly difficult.”

Wachtel highlighted recent student activism, especially from Fossil Free Stanford, and its role in sustainable campus initiatives.

“The students have had a very significant and positive impact on our approach [to sustainability],” Wachtel said. “In fact, as a result of the constructive discussions we’ve had with them, I think that was key to us coming up with this letter that we have sent to the Paris Conference… The students have played a key role to getting us to where we’re at.”

Wachtel responded to recent activities led by Fossil Free Stanford and the pledge to engage in civil disobedience if Stanford does not completely divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies by the start of the Paris Climate Conference on Nov. 30.

“I understand that it’s not moving as fast as the group would like,” Wachtel said. “But on the pace of divestment, we’re just not going to see eye to eye… There’s too much work and analysis that has to be done between now and the end of November for us to meet their deadline.”

Wachtel explained that the Environmental Subcommittee of the Panel on Investment Responsibility may look to divest from tar sands companies in the future. The divestment proposal follows the success of a coal divestment initiative by the University spurred by Fossil Free Stanford a few years ago.

Student activists see divestment as a crucial part of Stanford’s commitment to sustainable measures.

“We will continue to fight for full divestment because only full divestment achieves the ethical goals and the practical goals that are necessary in this fight for a safe climate,” said Josh Lappen ’17, faculty liaison for Fossil Free Stanford. “Divestment is, at its core, about de-legitimizing an industry which is willfully destabilizing our climate system.”

Similarly, Sijo Smith ’18, administration liaison for Fossil Free Stanford, commented on the Board of Trustees’ letter to Laurent Fabius.

“We are disappointed that the administration thinks that listing its achievements in green energy and clean technology is the best way to stand up for the communities that are at the front lines of climate change,” Smith said.  

Wachtel, however, believes that Stanford’s focus should be using less energy from fossil fuels rather than targeting companies as a whole.

“It is more direct and more defensible to try to use less fossil fuels than to pick companies we don’t know the whole story about,” Wachtel said. “Part of the analysis has to be, ‘Are any of these companies contributing to the solution?’”

Wachtel also highlighted the importance of the water conservation efforts described in the letter.

“We’re just so worried about the water conservation,” Wachtel said. “It just doesn’t feel right to be having the fountains flowing when we’re still in such a severe, severe drought.”

“One of the things we’re going to look at is whether or not we can have the fountains running periodically, maybe once a month,” Wachtel added. “That would be a good compromise.”

The dialogue between administrators and students surrounding sustainability is ongoing.

“I think that if students feel strongly about an issue, we respect their right to protest and to pursue their passion,” maintained Wachtel on behalf of Stanford’s administration.

Contact Stefan Lacmanovic at stefanl ‘at’

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