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Duke: climate leader or climate problem

guest column

The news surrounding this egregious presidential election may have eclipsed some other important news that has happened this week involving our country, and indeed our campus. Just last Friday, the historic Paris Agreement entered into effect, the first comprehensive global agreement addressing climate change. 193 countries signed this agreement, including the United States, committing to limit carbon pollution and keep the global average temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius.

And another piece of news: today marks exactly six months since Duke University announced a proposal to build a natural gas power plant on Duke’s campus. Last Thursday night, a group of your fellow Duke students and Triangle area community members gathered for a forum to discuss the implications of this proposed natural gas plant, which has generated immense criticism across departments, student groups and the wider public. The forum was hosted by the Duke Climate Coalition, who have been actively mobilizing students, faculty and staff to resist this agreement between the university and Duke Energy to begin building such a facility in 2018.

As a Duke Divinity School student and an advocate for climate change action, this proposal gives me great concern. Not only does it reflect carelessly hasty decision-making on the part of the university, but it also demonstrates a refusal to acknowledge and fully consider the ecological and human health effects of such a decision. Most importantly, however, this decision is inconsistent with Duke’s stated values. If we want to be recognized as a “climate leader” and to maintain our commitment to become carbon neutral by 2024, we have to start cleaning up our act.

This is especially the case in light of the recent globally-mandated agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions. If the U.S. is to live up to the Paris Agreement, it would require an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050, as John Steelman, a Duke alum and representative from the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) stated at Thursday night’s forum. And Duke, our beloved institution, has a sizable role to play in this.

Believe it or not, Duke is one of North Carolina’s biggest polluters, as Terry Lansdell from Clean Air Carolina explained at the forum. A choice to install a natural gas plant that will operate for upwards of 35 years will only add to the level of pollution on our campus and in our community. Further, with its prestigious reputation, Duke stands as an important model for institutions of higher learning who are facing similar questions of how to sustain the energy needs of their campuses—especially since Duke Energy is actively seeking to export this type of power plant to other colleges and universities in North Carolina. Duke has an enormous opportunity to pioneer a turn towards renewable energy systems and a departure from fossil fuel dependence. Our campus, our country, indeed our world, demands this kind of leadership.

I speak for myself and many other Divinity School colleagues when I say that it grieves us to witness the institution of which we are a part making choices that harm rather than heal creation, a precious gift for which we are entrusted responsibility. The status quo, business-as-usual way of obtaining energy simply will not succeed in a century of urgent global ecological realities. It will fail us in the end, and in fact, it already has. The decision to walk away from this plan and to pursue alternative, more sustainable ways of ensuring our energy needs, is only one step in a series of actions that Duke must take if we are to live up to our title as a “climate leader."

Nina Voli is a second-year Divinity School student.

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