Climate Conversations Bonus Episode: Considering College Through a Climate Lens

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In this special bonus episode of Climate Conversations, the team takes a climate approach to the question, where should my kids go to college?


Rajesh Kasturirangan

Curt Newton

Dave Damm-Luhr

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Rick Clemenzi's picture

Mario: "And as far as I know,

Mario: "And as far as I know, CO₂ don't drive temperatures more than the Sun, the clouds or many other natural weather aspects."  But Mario, virtually all scientists now agree there IS a significant relationship between CO2 level and Global Temperature!  And, I have personally repeated some of these correlation analyses between the 1900-present Temperature and CO2 level records, and while I could argue with some of the rate of change claims and shallowness of the datasets used by some, I do not see any reason at all to believe the broad scientific consensus on CO2 and Climate Change is wrong.  I really do not think your "as far as I know" basis for doubting the relationship is sufficient.  "Research" is the only valid basis for making scientific claims, and I think that is "definitional" and not just my opinion. 

Rick Shankman's picture

UMass Amherst again?... https

UMass Amherst again?...

The only way I'm going to agree to this global greening concept (returning the Earth's atmosphere to that of the Pliocene Epoch before humans existed), is if we commit to watering all crops with Brawndo ("The Thirst Mutilator"), because it's got what plants crave - it's got electrolytes.

Mario Fontes's picture

At those levels of CO₂ in the

At those levels of CO₂ in the air, your mental function would be severely impaired...

Rick, you are wrong. I've worked there for almost two months, but I knew poeple who worked there for years, without  any consequences. In classrooms, in winter, the CO₂ content could reach 2000 ppm inside without any consequences for the students or the teacher, a lot of studies shown this. And as far as I know, CO₂ don't drive temperatures more than the Sun, the clouds or many other natural weather aspects.

Rick Shankman's picture

"I've worked in greenhouses

"I've worked in greenhouses in Holland with 800-1,000 ppm of CO₂ on the inner atmosphere...."

At those levels of CO₂ in the air, your mental function would be severely impaired and the Earth's weather would be a nightmare scenario.

The issue is the global warming effect and the subsequent climate destabilization from increased CO₂ concentrations.

Mario Fontes's picture

Rick, we have 21% of O₂ on

Rick, we have 21% of O₂ on the atmosphere, and around 400 ppm (0,04%) of CO₂. I've worked in greenhouses in Holland with 800-1,000 ppm of CO₂ on the inner atmosphere, the plants grow and produce much more with the CO₂ fertilization. Have you heard about global greening?

Rick Shankman's picture

"...but I think there are

"...but I think there are many lessons we can pull that provide alternatives to our daily interactions with natural and built environment, that also put conversation and optimization (including reducing our carbon load) at the forefront."

Exactly!  Climate action diversion.  Putting your personal (meaningless on the global scale) "daily interactions" (reduction of carbon footprint) at the "forefront" of the discussion of climate change.  Diversion: 1, Atmosphere: 0.


@Curt - Thanks, I know it is

@Curt - Thanks, I know it is a small and likely insignificant contribution - something that might be perceived as a easy win or selfish feel good opportunity, but it still shifts my perspective on the situation.

To your question - yes, the conversation was much broader than air travel for our cohort. Among other topics, the course involved a site visit and case study at Arcosanti (about 90 North from Pheonix). A true gem of sustainable urban design. The thought Paolo Soleri put into this community was pretty surreal, and something even a bunch of naive college undergrads could appreciate. Granted this "lean alternative to hyper consumption" is a bit of a uptiopian pursuit, but I think there are many lessons we can pull that provide alternatives to our daily interactions with natural and built environment, that also put conversation and optimization (including reducing our carbon load) at the forefront. If you have not already, I'd invite you to catch out their website at some point. Pretty amazing design concept for urban planning.


Curt Newton's picture

@Trevor: Thanks for sharing

@Trevor: Thanks for sharing your story on ClimateX. It's important to recoginize that we all start where we are. Glad that your conversations recognized air travel is a big impact.  Did you hear people talk about choice of diet/minimizing food waste or living car-free through a carbon footprint lens?

I certainly cheered that UMass moved so quickly moved to divest - my son goes there.

And @Rick: Taking individual action is only diversionary if you let it be so. I know for me it's the opposite: that being conscious of my personal day to day climate behaviors is a foothold for my efforts to build collective pressure on the bigger political and business forces. It's been a basis to engage with state and local politics. Every day that I get by with no car commute, that my house electricity is 100% renewable, is a better day than it otherwise would be.


I’m new to the site, but I

I’m new to the site, but I appreciate the energy. This seems like a lively conversation - certainly where the action is!

I cannot weigh in as a climate expert, but I will weigh in on my experience making climate conscious decisions as a college student. Several years back as a college freshman, I participated in a course on sustainable architecture and urban ecology. This is where I was first exposed to the concept of carbon footprint. The professor tasked us with tracking our carbon footprint throughout the semester using an online tool, and to question some of our daily habits and their impact to the climate. This simple exercise forced me to think about the small and large personal changes I could make to reduce my own footprint. For example, opting out of a flight across country for Thanksgiving break. While this might be framed as personal greening behavior, I still believe the simple act of shifting perspective can provide a more balanced understanding of the impact of our own behaviors and actions.

Thanks for allowing me to weigh in with my perspective - look forward to discussions to come!

Rick Shankman's picture

Not looking for the last word

Not looking for the last word here Laura, but rather trying to make a point...

From a simple Google of the word action:


ac·tion   ˈakSH(ə)n/   noun

1. the fact or process of doing something, typically to achieve an aim.  "he vowed to take tougher action against persistent offenders"

synonyms:measures, steps, activity, movement, work, operation

"the need for local community action"

Laura Howells's picture

"An online community focused

"An online community focused on climate action"

Perhaps we view this statement a little differently, Rick. I see my part in ClimateX as being someone who helps to create the community, rather than enforcing the action that our users must engage in. After all, if we want to affect change, there needs first be an engaged community of climate activists, scientists etc. We need people from all walks of life with different experiences to add to the climate conversation. 

And we regularly ask members for questions for our podcast guests in the weekly newsletter, so please feel free to send some in the next time we have a featured guest coming up :)

Rick Shankman's picture

Laura, consider if you will

Laura, consider if you will the following...

The front page of ClimateX:

"An online community focused on climate action"

Further, at the end of the podcast, Dave asks to hear from people WHO HAVE ACTUALLY MADE the "climate neutrality" calculation in their decision to attend college or what college to attend.  That's not donning carbon spectacles for some purported purely philosophical discussion to "foster awareness" in the ongoing global climate catastrophe brought to us by corporations.  What it is though, is highly diversionary and another fixation on meaningless personal greening behavior; but in this case, rising to the admittedly level of the absurd.

"I try not to think of our podcasts as a way of coming up with the solutions to climate change..."

Okay, then consider this suggestion...

When you (ClimateX) interview the MIT Director of Sustainability (Julie Newman) in an episode entitled "Making MIT's Campus Sustainable," perhaps you should actually engage her in a discussion of MIT's lack of efforts in making MIT's campus sustainable, not the least of which is burning bunker fuel for 20 years and applying to MassDEP to build a fossil fuel-burning power plant to burn methane for the next 20 years to come (while "partnering" with the methane company (Eversource) to help distribute more methane to the Cambridge area around campus - so they can burn more methane too.  Your episode blurb did (deceivingly) state that a topic to be discussed would be "MIT's path to carbon neutrality."  What could be more hypocritical than a new campus-sited fossil fuel plant in partnership with a fossil fuel company that reportedly lobbies against solar?

In short Laura, more empty climate rhetoric and fluff podcasts with MIT administration officials isn't going to advance "climate action" or bode well for ClimateX credibility in the fight against global climate change.

As Aryt Alasti mentioned in my Climate Action MIT Style piece, MassDEP (this past May) just approved the power plant Application and next month is the scheduled Energy Ethics Conference.  The aforementioned podcast with Julie Newman was a perfect opportunity for ClimateX to address these issues, yet nothing happened.

I suggest a new lens for ClimateX to view the problem with... a lens focused on industrial polluters and climate rhetoric hypocrisy.

Laura Howells's picture

'There is no "climate action"

'There is no "climate action" in mental gymnastics regarding college-bound students foregoing higher education in consideration of lowering their figurative carbon debt to society.'

True - but perhaps where there is an element of climate action is in helping people think about climate change in an accessible way that speaks to them, or in encouraging others to take up the mantle of climate action.

I try not to think of our podcast as a way of coming up with the solutions to climate change, but as a way of fostering interest in people ranging from those with very minimal understanding of climate change but want to start thinkning about these ideas, all the way to people like you, Rick, who have a wealth of knowledge and expertise in the area. 

Rick Shankman's picture



I'm never quite sure how you will work your thoughts on demonetization into a conversation, but I commend you on this one... most creative!

As for your position on "carbon accounting" (a cleverly crafted scam concept based upon a notion of "pay-to-pollute"), no amount of individual carbon footprint reduction (in aggregate) will come close to having a tangible impact on the global climate crisis next to corporate/industrial pollution.  There is no "climate action" in mental gymnastics regarding college-bound students foregoing higher education in consideration of lowering their figurative carbon debt to society.

Oh, and all that money isn't owed to Betelgeuse, it's owed to Beelzebub.

Rajesh Kasturirangan's picture

Think about it this way -

Think about it this way - imagine a world in which money wasn't being tracked and the world was about to end because we weren't keeping account of the money we were spending. Let's also assume that the main reason it was about to end is because every transaction increased the amount we owed a vengeful alien from Betelgeuse.

Of course, the big ticket items are houses and health care and we should all be paying attention to those budget items, but in order to illustrate the ubiquity of the problem I might host a podcast that asked "would you continue eating candy knowing that a ten tentacled monster is counting all the wrappers?" 

The idea is not that we can address climate change by changing how we go to college, but to show that carbon based accounting might lead to surprising life choices in situations where it otherwise might go unnoticed. 

Rick Shankman's picture

Hi Laura,

Hi Laura,

I know both you and Syvanna will forgive me if I fail to see the merit, or "climate action," in the proposed mental exercise you say was suggested (yet strangely unmentioned) in the podcast.

As the MassDEP has already approved MIT's Application to spend millions of dollars building a power plant that will burn fossil fuels on campus for at least the next 20 years, I suggest there are more pressing issues to be discussed by ClimateX.

Laura Howells's picture

Hi Rick! I totally see where

Hi Rick! I totally see where you're coming from - but no, we're not suggesting that students shouldn't go to college. Like Syvanna said, we're just taking a climate approach to a question that usually wouldn't be thought of from that perspective; we're not saying that college decisions should be made based on the climate implications, rather, it's interesting to consider these different implications. 

And I think it's also worth adding that the suggestions and comments we make are more representative of either our own ideas or an attempt to see all sides of the scenario, rather than being representative of the MIT view. 


Rick, I hear how absurd it

Rick, I hear how absurd it could sound to base such an important decision off of something that might not measure to even a drop in the bucket with regard to climate change. That being said, the episode seemed to be more about considering a new lens on a common question, and how drastically different our life choices might be when we refocus our perspective. Looking at issues through a new lens is a fascinating practice, and one I think everyone can do a bit more as we seek to prevent devasting changes to our earth. While the example here might be a bit extreme, it's interesting to think about the implications of our choices. It'd be hard to really effectively examine the impact of our choices without looking at them through this lens. 

Rick Shankman's picture

Did I actually hear you guys

Did I actually hear you guys correctly?

Did you really collectively suggest that students consider NOT ATTENDING COLLEGE AT ALL in an effort to reduce their individual carbon footprint?

Then, did I hear you follow-up with "maybe they do online college" so they don't have to drive, fly or take a train home for holidays and breaks?  Exactly how do students perform lab experiments or engage in research from home?

Are you serious?

Has this diversionary individual greening advocacy gone that far now?  This, from ClimateX at MIT, a scientific Institute dedicated to scientific (et manus - hands-on) education and research?