Stanford Green Debate Continues

Stanford’s sustainable programs rank among the best nationally in terms of energy use and recycling. They emphasize living ecologically and preserving the environment – the ‘green’ ideals that have permeated our culture since kindergarten teachers told us to save the rainforest.

But is it possible to reconcile present economic woes with the fight for the environment? Molly Oshun, the president of Students for a Sustainable Stanford, shared her vision for an ecologically conscious Stanford. She praised the directives the university has undertaken to reduce its environmental impact.

“We are lucky to operate in collaboration with a fairly progressive administration, and an innovative Office of Sustainability and Energy Management,” she said.

On a national level, however, Oshun believes that climate change prevention requires more significant action. She advocates a comprehensive national climate change bill that would enact a cap and trade system.  Cap and trade applies a carbon dioxide tax to incentivize better energy efficiency.

However, Hoover fellow Laura Huggins, also the director of publications at the Property and Environment Research Center, noted that “as we have seen recently in Congress…such policies often go nowhere.” University of Colorado Professor Roger Pielke Jr. calls this failure the “iron law of climate policy” and has emphasized that “the public has limits to how much it will pay for certain environmental objectives.”

To Oshun, any successful national energy bill would include provisions for government investment in ‘green’ jobs and alternative energy. “We must invest our national resources in training a ‘green collar’ workforce, supporting and inspiring technical and social innovation, and, perhaps most importantly, in fostering an attitude of empathic inclusion,” said Oshun.

While new technological advances might ease climate problems, Oshun noted that “our climate crisis cannot be addressed by technology alone—a broader cultural shift is required.” In her mind, the United States must “re-evaluate [its] current patterns of consumption” to better fit environmental sustainability.

However, Huggins suggested that forcing a climate policy down the throats of the American public is doomed to fail. “As research by PERC [the Property and Environmental Research Center] senior fellow Daniel K. Benjamin has found, most compulsory recycling programs actually waste more resources than they save,” she said. “The result is a net loss for the environment. But where market forces are able to provide information to individuals about when recycling is necessary and effective, real environmental-friendly recycling takes place.”

Stanford offers optional recycling programs, but some of their other green initiatives give no option to students, like their green building initiatives (although students are not the chief financiers of these projects either).

The university also offers its students many opportunities to manage eco-friendly projects on campus. The Office of Sustainability and Energy Management gives interns the option of working with building managers to enhance their structure’s green profile.

Many green efforts on campus, such as certain green buildings like Y2E2, have already received praise and awards. The new Knight Management Center won the Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal’s Green Project of the Year. The building is also in the process of qualifying for the LEED Platinum environmental certification.

Huggins, however, raised more concerns about these top-down approaches to environmental policy. “How do we know we are picking the right green technology?” she said, “And why isn’t someone already doing it if it’s the right pick? Government bureaucrats aren’t thought of as innovators, and have a poor history of picking worthwhile technologies.”

As an example, she mentioned President Jimmy Carter’s approval of $100 million for solar research. “Technological change is like evolution—incremental and sometimes unexpected. Predicting what will succeed and what will be a dead end is difficult, so policy decisions that steer research along a certain path could actually do more harm than good.”

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