President Barack Obama gestures during a speech on climate change at Georgetown University on Tuesday, June 25, 2013, in Washington. Obama is proposing sweeping steps to limit heat-trapping pollution from coal-fired power plants and to boost renewable energy production on federal property.
President Obama outlined his major climate change policies Tuesday, causing speculation among college environmental activists about the impact the plan could have on the fossil fuel industry and their universities.
In a speech at Georgetown University, Obama announced measures that would restrict carbon pollution from power plants, create new renewable energy projects and ready the U.S. for the impacts of climate change.
Climate change awareness has grown across college campuses in recent years, said Sophie Harrison, 18, a Stanford University sophomore. More than 300 schools have created campaigns urging their administrations to divest their endowments from fossil-fuel industries, according to 350.org, an international environmental organization that supports divestment efforts.
Harrison, who is involved with Stanford’s divestment campaign, says campuses are becoming more aware that laws passed today will greatly affect the college-age generation and their children.
“We are most definitely going to be living in a world that is impacted by climate change,” she said. “When it starts to get really bad is when we are going to be entering the workforce.”
In Obama’s speech, the first major climate change address of his presidency, he vowed to bring new renewable energy projects to public lands, with enough power to fuel 6 million homes by 2020.
Harrison said she views universities as a home for the new climate change movement, which focuses on calling for reduced carbon emissions and in developing new sustainable energy.
At the University of Alabama, Parker McCrary, a third-year graduate student, is developing a green technology that can replace rocket fuel for his Ph.D. project.
McCrary, 24, said campuses provide the right academic environment needed to develop cheaper alternatives to oil and coal.
“The best thing that Obama can do is fund those research projects and fund the things that create new technology and excite people,” he said. “Innovation is the key.”
In a video appeal released last weekend to preview his Georgetown speech, Obama stressed he would need American scientists and engineers to help develop the fuels and energy needed to shy away from fossil fuels.
The coal and oil industries are propped up by the U.S. government with tax breaks and subsidies, which makes it hard for renewable energy industries to compete, McCrary said. Research by Oil Change International, an advocacy organization that works to facilitate clean energy, shows that for every $1 fossil-fuel industries invest in lobbying or Congressional campaigns, they receive $59 in subsidies.
“People talk about (being) green,” McCrary said. “But it’s only about one other type of green and that’s money.”
The divestment movement partly grew out of the idea that congressmen could not think rationally about climate change because they receive substantial funding from the coal and oil industry, said Brown University junior Marcel Bertsch-Gout, who works on the school’s divestment campaign.
With a Republican majority in the House, congressional action on climate change does not seem imminent. Bertsch-Gout, 21, said he would like to see the fossil-fuel special interest addressed in Congress, so it could rationally tackle climate change, but he does not think it’s likely.
“I wish we had a more stable form of reform that went through Congress,” he said. “For now, I’ll take anything, like executive action.”
Yet if Obama bypasses Congress via executive action, it removes any local and regional input on the issue, said American University junior Zoe Crain.
If new policy establishes regulations on carbon-emitters, it could disproportionately hurt states that rely on the coal industry, such as West Virginia and Kentucky.
Crain, 20, says she wants the policy to be worth the cost to the taxpayers, especially considering the current economic climate.
“One of the biggest concerns college students have is the job market,” she said. “It’s going to cut jobs and make jobs less available to kids coming out of college.”
Obama addressed economic concerns in his speech, maintaining that new regulations would spark growth and more efficient technology.
Still, Crain said in the college setting, she has seen a shift from some global-warming deniers to more students that want to tackle climate change. She noted it took a long time for Obama to address the issue.
“I’m happy to see that five years after his initial promise to address the climate, we are seeing some sort of action,” she said.
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