Cornellians acting on climate change

Cornell is cutting energy use by 20%. Faculty are conducting federally funded climate change research. Students initiated reusable to-go meal containers. Alumni are contributing professionally and personally. Now more than ever, Cornellians are acting on climate change.

Message posted on the doors of Thomas Commons.
Message posted on the doors of Thomas Commons.

Last fall Cornell’s Delta Phi Rho Lecture featured Nobel prize-winning physicist and former U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu speaking on “Climate Change and Innovative Paths to a Sustainable Future.” Chu laid out the scientific basis for climate change and showcased its effects: melting glaciers, rising seas, more frequent heat waves, and stronger hurricanes.

Chu argued that no single solution exists to solve the problem of climate change, but instead it must be attacked from many angles simultaneously, from the production and storage of clean energy to the development of plant-based meat substitutes, to decreasing the growth of world population.

Students creating change

Cornell students are expressing their concerns.

Cali Pfleger ’20 worked through the college’s Sustainability Task Force and campus food service vendor Bon Appétit to provide reusable to-go containers for campus diners.

Cornell students held a climate strike, marching and chanting through campus and downtown Mount Vernon.
Cornell students held a climate strike, marching and chanting through campus and downtown Mount Vernon.

“I have taken classes that have provided me with the knowledge and power to implement the goals of environmentally conscious people here on campus,” Pfleger said. “I want to make a lasting impact here at Cornell and help guide a path for those who have the same goals as me.”

In the fall of 2019 students led by then-junior Erin Hosto and the Eco Club held a climate strike. They chanted and marched with posters from the Thomas Commons through downtown Mount Vernon and back to campus where local leaders gave speeches discussing climate change, what can be done to help, and why it’s important to act. In the spring signs showed up on campus to bring awareness to the issue. They said: Dear Earth, Get Well Soon!

Cornell’s mitigation and awareness efforts

Over the decades the college’s central heating plant that once served all of the main campus has evolved from coal-fire to fuel oil to natural gas, but its underground lines were prone to breaking and leaking. It has come offline completely through a bold $5.9 million infrastructure improvement plan that will result in a 20% energy reduction after the first year. The program, which will pay for itself over 18 years with no upfront costs for Cornell, includes installing widespread LED lighting, energy-efficient windows, and heating and cooling systems.

Other ways Cornell reduces energy consumption:
• Providing high-efficiency washing machines in all residence halls.
• Placing timers on showers to reduce water consumption.
• Providing natural mosquito control by establishing nesting sites for bats.
• Prioritizing plant-based proteins, sourcing food locally, and reducing food waste by our food service.

Faculty contributions

The late Professor Emeritus of Geology Herb Hendriks ’40 started one of the first environmental studies programs in the country at Cornell in 1975. For the past decade William Harmon Norton Professor of Geology and Chair of the environmental Studies Program Rhawn Denniston has researched climate change with Cornell students. They are currently part of a global research team that was awarded a $676,000 National Science Foundation climate change grant.

Professor Rhawn Denniston and Huong Quynh Anh Nguyen ’19 discussing a stalagmite
Professor Rhawn Denniston and Huong Quynh Anh Nguyen ’19

“Droughts and floods are likely to become more extreme in a warming world, and the area near the Mediterranean Sea appears to be a hotspot for climate change,” Denniston said. “By studying past climate variability in this region, we hope to better understand what climates may look like there in the future as our planet warms.”

Another longterm faculty-student research project involves studying how fire coral react to warmer oceans. Students of biology professors Craig Tepper and Barbara Christie-Pope collect the coral during courses in Belize and the Bahamas, and students on campus use DNA analysis to determine if specific algal symbionts provide coral with the ability to cope with thermal stress.

Alumni doing their part

David Wilkinson ’64 and his wife Susan of Tucson, Arizona, felt inspired to make changes because of teen climate activist Greta Thunberg.

“Because of her inspiring presence, Susan and I are weaning ourselves off paper towels and plastic containers. We’re moving to one car, less heating, less clothing and processed foods, and we are becoming more consciously aware of the interrelatedness of all creation, including every being on the face of the earth,” he wrote in a spring 2020 class news note.

Jim Schmidt ’70, five-term mayor of Crested Butte, Colorado, took action in 2019 with a goal to have zero emissions, powered by 100% renewable energy, by 2030. In a public meeting to introduce the plan, he explained why his small town was taking on the major endeavor: “The town feels we need to lead in this area,” he said. “If we don’t, who will?”

Due to the global pandemic and the town’s plunging sales tax proceeds, parts of the program have been curtailed but Schmidt says they installed three electric vehicle chargers and started the engineering for a solar farm with the hope they will have the money to construct it in the future.

Amelia Brandt Eller ’06 works with sustainability professionals at corporations to support their communication efforts on the climate crisis, environmental issues, and social justice issues. In her personal life she volunteers with, a climate action organization.

“Most recently I testified to the King County council in support of a moratorium on new fossil fuel development in our county, which includes Seattle’s large port,” Eller said. “We were ultimately successful. As a proud Cornell alumna, I’d love to see the college divest its endowment from fossil fuels.”

Look at that beautiful Earth

Nobel prize-winning physicist, former U.S. Energy Secretary, and Delta Phi Rho lecturer Steven Chu speaks in King Chapel on “Climate Change and Innovative Paths to a Sustainable Future.”
Nobel prize-winning physicist, former U.S. Energy Secretary, and Delta Phi Rho lecturer Steven Chu speaks in King Chapel on “Climate Change and Innovative Paths to a Sustainable Future.”

Last fall, Chu ended his talk in King Chapel by showing a photo of Earth taken from Apollo 8 in 1968.

“The astronaut said, ‘We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is we’ve discovered the Earth.’ It’s pictures like this that put us in the proper perspective,” Chu said. “People say we need space exploration because we can go to Mars after we’ve trashed this planet. No. Look at that beautiful Earth. It’s not too late, but it’s getting later and this is the only place we have to go.”

If you’re working in climate change mitigation or adaptation fields, tell us about it by sending an email with the subject line Dear Earth to