Campus Climate Stories: Ways of Seeing the Climate Crisis at USC

In Spring 2023, USC Annenberg’s “Climate Stories” class explored different ways to see and narrate issues surrounding the climate crisis on campus.

A USC student biking across campus in the rain. (Michael Chow/USC).

This semester, our USC Annenberg class titled “Climate Stories” has been taking a tour of different ways to see and narrate issues surrounding the climate crisis.

We’ve looked at the emotions fueling climate anxiety and action, how scientists and journalists see the crisis and opportunities for change, how online platforms shape climate conversations, and what it might take to create a fossil fuel free Los Angeles. We’ve read, watched, listened to, and prototyped new, playful ways to tell climate stories –– everything from short-form documentaries, photo essays, zines, and speculative fiction screenplays to performance art installations, poetry, first-person memoir, and interactive technologies.

And we’ve been learning to see climate stories everywhere – including on the USC campus.

Here we want to share with you different ways to see climate stories on campus. These short stories, presented to you in different media and genres, are meant to be quick, bite-sized peeks into how the concepts of climate and sustainability appear at USC. Rather than being complete pictures or full accounts, these “story stubs” are short prompts and provocations intended to give you new ways to see and talk about the climate crisis.

Take a look at how we’ve been seeing campus from a climate lens, and add your own stories to Instagram under #campusClimateStories!


Michael Chow: “What if we surveyed campus climate feelings?”

Katherine Chen: “Plastic feels at home in your body”

Colin Maclay and Mike Ananny: How could biking at USC be better?

Nell Kerndt: “Sunny Southern California turns soggy: USC campus flooded by rain”

Lingaire Ofosuhene: “How might we imagine a different USC?”

What if we surveyed campus climate feelings?

by Michael Chow

Last September, I had my first real brush with climate anxiety. As I sat in the Annenberg Media Center trying to seek relief from one of the worst heat waves in Californian history, one of the journalists in the media center exclaimed that a rare hurricane warning was announced in Southern California. Sure enough, the heavens soon opened and dumped rain all over Los Angeles. That week, we saw both rain and heat records simultaneously broken in Southern California. I have been confronted with news of glaciers collapsing, polar bears suffering and oil rigs bursting, but watching the weather completely change in a blink of an eye was a uniquely disorientating feeling that I had never experienced firsthand until now.

But I didn’t know what to do with that feeling –– or where to go for guidance or who else might share the feeling or what could be done about it.

That experience helped me ask: how do USC students feel about climate change? Where can we go for help with those feelings? How might those feelings spur action?

So, I decided to offer a survey (coming soon!) to USC students, as a way to understand and act on campus feelings about climate change.

Here’s a quick peek at the questions:

A prototype of the climate feelings survey soon to be offered by USC Annenberg. (Michael Chow/USC).

Plastic feels at home in your body

by Katherine Chen

A graphic representing the plastics in our bodies. (Katherine Chen/USC).

I am everywhere, in your food, in your water, in your everyday life. I am plastic. Unlike you, my form of travel is unwanted. I go through your body when you take a sip from your drink at Dulce just before your 9:00 am class. I, too, enjoy making matcha lattes my personality. But you, a human being, force me to change my personality into an enemy of your body.

As I spend time in your body, I take notice of the black decorations on your lungs from all those years of breathing smoggy air. Black stripes were pretty on trend in the early 2000′s; perhaps it’s coming back as a fashion trend? The sun is beaming down and the sky is clear, yet you shiver and take short breaths as you struggle to walk from Dulce to Wallis Annenberg Hall, your heart beating intensely. On your way you make a stop at the USC Bookstore.

There you stare at your options of snacks, from granola bars to chocolate bars, from makeshift charcuterie boards to tiny cups of almonds and cheese, and then from gummy bears to random cups of cereal. I judge you silently as you take one extra look at the Lucky Charms cereal bowl and then settle on the Twix chocolate bars. Nevertheless, I always enjoy meeting more plastics like me. You put the chocolate bar in your newly purchased environmentally friendly backpack. They say it’s made out of 10% recycled plastic water bottles, it was a costly purchase; it’s alright though, they donate 0.25% of their revenue to save the Amazon forest.

You take a deep breath as you walk into Wallis Annenberg Hall as your senses pick up a new source of energy. Coffee. Ah, yes. We all enjoy a freshly brewed cup of Italian coffee made with beans that travel thousands of miles, coffee that you end up chugging as you attempt to increase your cortisol levels. I was disappointed that you ignored your chocolate bar, but was warmed as you made your way towards Cafe Annenberg and you ordered… a fruit cup! I am just as delighted as you are for making the executive decision for some natural earthly nutrition. Soon, my friends from the country of plastic cups and our sister country of plastic forks are about to have a party right in your body.

You scramble to shove fruits down your throat as you wait for the elevator up to the second floor. As you settle into your class that seems less than interesting, I network with my newfound friends. We talked about their journey: being born in a factory, traveling through the ocean, being in trucks, ships, planes, and arriving at the coffee shop. We may not need to breathe, but surely we create more carbon emissions through our travels every year than you do by taking short, ragged breaths (For reference, you create 839.5 pounds of carbon dioxide a year by breathing; we create 440 million metric tons by just going from one place to another).

My goodness, when I have finally settled into your warm body, you force me to leave. I travel through the toilet and end up at the ocean. It is beautiful here. Lots of creatures, plants, rocks, and other things I can’t name. There are much more like me here. The demographic must be intensely disproportionate! It’s okay, I value diversity. I’ve met a few others. Sodium hypochlorite, petroleum distillates, phenol and cresol, ammonia and formaldehyde, they’ve become my new best friends. I learnt that there are more of me in the oceans than fish! Isn’t that awesome? I love to live somewhere I feel accepted.

How could biking at USC be better?

by Colin Maclay and Mike Ananny

While Los Angeles weather and the USC campus can feel like they’re made for biking, the reality doesn’t match the promise. The freedom to escape traffic and the joy of zipping around at just the right speed to appreciate the world sound very appealing, all while supporting USC’s commitment to carbon neutrality. Our experience, though, is more complicated.

From pedaling around campus and navigating all the rules about where you can and can’t cycle to creatively connecting to bike racks and keeping seats dry, biking is a way of life at USC. But how could it be better, what could change, and how might we reimagine biking at USC?

During one of our many rain storms this semester, we took a walk around campus looking for the “infrastructure” that supports biking at USC. We tried to experience campus as cyclists do and ask how stories of campus cycling are also stories of campus climate.

We took dozens of photos and made countless observations, but we offer here three ways to see campus climate through cycling –– as mobility, security, and maintenance. And we invite you to answer the question: what’s your biking experience like at USC, and how do you think it could be better?

Bike lanes in campus blocked by vehicles and people. (Colin Maclay and Mike Ananny/USC).

Mobility: Staying in my Lane, if I can find it!

Whether it’s walking, biking, skateboarding, scooting, or wheeling on campus, there’s no shortage of ways that people get around. But we saw Department of Public Safety cars parked in bike lanes, facilities trucks blocking cycle paths, students fighting with cars for bike lane access, and walkers and scooters straying into the paths that are marked as just for bikes.

Without protected and respected paths, cycling at USC can be stressful, dangerous, and not an appealing option.

How could moving around campus on a bike be different? What could change today, and what larger vision of campus mobility could we work toward?

Bike racks, while available, are not well-designed on the USC campus. (Colin Maclay and Mike Ananny/USC).
Bike racks, while available, are not well-designed on the USC campus. (Colin Maclay and Mike Ananny/USC).

Security: Hacking bike rack life

People try so many creative ways to “hack” campus bike racks, showing that securing your bike at USC is hard work!

Some struggle with bike racks that are not designed to lock the front tire to the frame; others have to lock bikes to fences because there are no racks. Several other issues exist, from fighting with scooters to abandoned bike frames and dead locks for rack space –– it can be hard to walk away from your bike and feel like it’s safe. We counted at least 4 types of bike racks around campus –– which come with no instructions –– and countless plastic bags that try to keep seats dry.

How could “rack life” improve? What could be changed today about securing your bike at USC, and what bigger changes could come if we better valued the campus cycling experience?

Few resources exist on the USC campus to fix bikes. (Colin Maclay and Mike Ananny/USC).

Maintenance: Sustaining bikes & bike life

At some point, all cyclists get a flat tire, a bent wheel, or a broken seat. Bike maintenance and repair is a fact of life for a biker. Yet we saw only one dilapidated and poorly marked bike repair station, a mobility hub that happened to be closed when we visited. Other than that, there was an enterprising local fixer offering bike repairs from their truck.

So little resources for so many bikes. While these are all well-intentioned and good steps to a better campus bike life, how could bike maintenance and repair at USC be better? Do you know where to go to fix your bike? Can you afford to get it fixed? And if not, do you know how to do it yourself?

What could change, what could be better, and what is an ambitious vision of campus bike maintenance that could keep people rolling along as well as encourage new cyclists to give it a try?

Sunny Southern California turns soggy: USC campus flooded by rains

by Nell Kerndt

Photographs of the USC campus during the rains. (Nell Kerndt/USC).

Our region’s nickname ‘sunny Southern California’ is not quite living up to expectations this year. This season, LA has already recorded more rain days than Seattle, making it the wettest winter in 18 years. This rain has brought with it visions of a flooded and awfully sleepy campus.

I never noticed that most campus rain gutters let out onto concrete, instead of drains, on the ground or some rainwater capture and storage area. Soon, campus was dotted with not-so-tiny lakes, and skateboarding to class became impossible.

The USC campus is beautifully curated to appease the eye but the infrastructure is simply not designed for the rain, especially not the kind of rain we have been experiencing this year. When rains happen, gutters clog, planters flood, and students hibernate.

So where is all the water on campus going? With the heavy paving in South Central, it is becoming increasingly difficult for rainwater to infiltrate soil and recharge our groundwater. And so, stormwater runs off into our oceans –– picking up debris, litter, road chemicals and more on its way –– and causes harmful pollution to our sea.

Even though LA is still in extreme drought, only a fifth of this extraordinary rain will be captured. Intense storm seasons like the one we witnessed this season are only expected to get worse and more common. So maybe with these increasing weather events, it is time USC rethinks its drainage infrastructure. Our climate is changing and so must our priorities.

To take a look at more photos of our city in the rain, click here!

How might we imagine a different USC?

by Lingaire Ofosuhene

How might people on USC’s campus imagine a Los Angeles outside of the realms of reality? How might people perceive and envision a city beyond its current form? I want to encourage people to use their creativity and imagination to explore the endless possibilities of what Los Angeles could be, to push the boundaries of the possible and open entirely new futures that we could work together to realize.

Using some photos of nature from the Huntington Gardens, I present contrasts between the city’s artificial and natural environments. I want to challenge people to preserve natural habitats in urban spaces and highlight the benefits of incorporating nature into our daily lives. By encouraging people to think beyond the constraints of reality, we can inspire new ideas and approaches to designing and developing urban environments that are sustainable and are inspired by nature. Take a look at this video and ask yourself – what could LA and USC be like if we challenged our imaginations?