USC Center for Sustainability Solutions takes an interdisciplinary approach to climate change and environmental justice

The panel dissected climate policies and proposed their own recommendations for micro and macro solutions

The USC Center for Sustainability Solutions kicked off the semester on Wednesday with a live stream of the CNN Climate Crisis Town Hall, where the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates discussed their policies to address the effects of climate change.

The center’s director Professor Antonio Bento hosted the event at Doheny Library and moderated a panel discussion with USC faculty and students following the Town Hall to discuss the candidates’ plans and climate issues.

“At the Center for Sustainability Solutions, we aim to bring scholars from all over campus to develop a new paradigm to protect the environment, promote clean energy economic growth, and foster social justice,” Bento said.

The panel was comprised of faculty and students from a variety of disciplines and areas of expertise.

The faculty included Professor Gale Sinatra from the Rossier School of Education, who spoke about the psychology around policy communication and messaging, and Professor Julien Emile-Geay, a climatologist from The Dornsife School of Arts and Sciences.

The two students were Nathaniel Hyman, an undergraduate student in The Sol Price School of Public Policy and a member of the Environmental Student Assembly, and Molly Creighton, a Price graduate student who is working at the center and has a background in policy and economics.

“This event was meant to bring together different ideas to foster a community and mobilize a cross section of people from all departments,” Creighton said.

Bento began the discussion by asking the panelists to share their thoughts on each candidate’s policies. Hyman said he was inspired by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders because they are interested in environmental justice and altering the institutional structures that cause climate problems.

“They are trying to work within but also without the free market to solve a problem that was largely caused by the free market,” Hyman said. “Like carbon pricing, subsidizing the phase out of nonrenewables and switching to a clean economy.”

Bento then directed the conversation to Creighton, asking her take on the plans that could realistically be implemented in the first 100 days of a new administration.

“No-brainer, joining back into the Paris Climate Agreement,” said Creighton.

She also discussed a carbon tax to generate funds for the climate plans and lauded Senator Sanders’ plan of a guaranteed income for those whose jobs will be phased out through reduction of greenhouse gases and fracking.

Professor Emile-Geay expressed his appreciation for the candidates’ commitment to science.

“One thing I find encouraging is that all of the candidates have gotten the message that we cannot go above the 1.5 degree Celsius temperature rise,” Emile-Geay said. “We need to reduce emissions in half by 2030 and to zero by 2050. If we don’t, we will have very little wiggle room in the future.”

The numbers Emile-Geay referred to comes from a special report from The International Panel on Climate Change concerning the impacts of global warming of 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

Emile-Geay also applauded the candidates for taking the issue seriously and understanding the scale of the problems. He mentioned Senator Amy Klobuchar’s call to emulate the county’s World War II levels of mobilization for transitioning to a clean energy infrastructure.

“This shows that it has been done in the past and we can have this level of mobilization again. But for this, we need everyone to agree that there is a problem,” he said.

President Donald Trump himself has called climate change a hoax in the past and has rolled back several environmental laws and regulation since taking office in 2017.

After discussing the candidates set plans, Bento shifted the discussion to the effectiveness of the candidates’ framing climate issues and their arguments for urgent action.

“Some of the best things I heard tonight came from the audience members who posed the questions,” Professor Sinatra said.

Several audience members shared personal stories about the effects climate change will have on their health and the reality of being a climate refugee.

"[Personal stories] help people connect to how the problem is impacting people now. It’s not about polar bears or something in the future, it’s right now.”

Bento then asked the panelists to share their perspective on implementation and how the proposed plans would promote economic growth while paying attention to vulnerable communities. This topic brought up some debate over the “individual sacrifice” narrative.

“There was not a lot of focus on local issues,” Hyman said. “Forty percent of carbon emissions come from the transportation sector and a lot of that comes from the fact that development and housing is spread out in LA.”

Hyman said a shift to more clean public transportation would mitigate this issue, but many people would see this as an inconvenience.

“It will be an issue of individual sacrifice as ordinary people be willing to change the way they live,” he said. “Candidates dodged that question, and just told people to stop eating beef and switch to chicken."

Hyman noted that even if evidence shows that a majority of the country’s pollution comes from a handful of large corporations, individuals should still take action to reduce their carbon footprint.

“We are the ones who vote, we are the ones who consume beef and we have to change and accept it," he said.

Professors Emile-Geay and Sinatra pushed back a bit, arguing that candidates should reframe the discussion around personal changes and put it in perspective on the larger issues at hand.

“It’s not about individual sacrifice. If we don’t make voluntary efforts now, we will be sacrificing our planet,” Professor Emile-Geay said. “We are taking a bigger sacrifice by not doing anything. The lack of this message by candidates might hurt them in the future.”

“I definitely don't think we should be talking about individual sacrifice in terms of the type of straw you use,” Professor Sinatra said. “That's not going to solve this. And by putting the emphasis on that you make everyone feel guilty about their individual lives and that is not a mobilization for action. We need to talk about sacrifice in terms of reconstructing our system to create more public transit so that people can use it and it won't be a sacrifice anymore. I have an electric car and haven’t spent money on gas in five years. I don’t see that as a sacrifice, I’m saving money.”

Next, the panel talked about how candidates can appeal to rural Americans who work in the fossil fuel industry. Bento posed the question of how to transition workers off of fossil fuel jobs like coal mining and communicate to those who feel like they are losing their jobs that climate change is the enemy, not the plans for renewable energy.

“In 2016, Hillary Clinton said she was going to put coal miners out of work, which was not great messaging,” Professor Sinatra said. “You can’t tell people that are going to be put out of work with no hope. We need to transition people to other jobs, and they have to be comparable jobs with competitive salaries and health care benefits.”

Professor Emile-Geay explained that there is a paradox that arises in certain areas where coal miners actually love their jobs, despite the health and safety risks.

“What you do is who you are, that is the challenge,” Professor Sinatra said. “But there have always been shifting in careers and identities as technology changes.”

She later talked about how Senator Warren addressed a fisherman who was worried about keeping his job. “You have to bring these people into the conversation,” she said. “You have to acknowledge the concern and work with them. Focus on what you can do together in collaboration to adjust the industry so people can stay in or transition out.”

After hearing from the panelists, the audience engaged in an open exchange where they asked questions and shared their own thoughts on issues like fracking and how to best communicate the benefits of acting on climate change.

According to Bento, this type of open dialogue is what the Center for Sustainability Solution is all about. “We want to create a platform for people to come together, and there’s nothing better than a crisis to unite people.”

The center was established last spring and is currently in their soft launching. The formal launch comes this spring.

The center is dedicated to enhancing USC’s existing sustainability-related teaching, research and outreach with the goal of positioning USC as the preeminent partner for international agencies, non-governmental organizations and corporations to develop solutions to the most pressing urban environment challenges, according to the center’s website.

The leadership staff consists of USC faculty that represents a wide range of academic and professional departments to “reflect the interdisciplinary collaboration needed to solve complex sustainability issues,” according to Bento.

At the end of the discussion, Bento announced the center’s upcoming events to continue the dialogue with the community.

“The new administration has a great participatory governing style that is focused on engaging the USC community,” Bento said. “The is the first president to make sustainability a priority for the university.”

Bento also announced other plans to enhance faculty and student engagement with the center, including town halls, policy round tables, faculty lunches and a campus-wide art competition to create visual displays for the center.