by Guest Authors
This blog post is Part Three in our series on the geopolitics of sustainability, the theme of this quarter’s Roble Hard Earth Talks. Ben Franta, JD-PhD student in law and history, presented on the fossil fuel industry’s early knowledge of climate change and their deliberate efforts to mislead the public about its existence and effects brought many issues for discussion. You can read more about Franta’s research here.
Students were particularly interested in questions of culpability – who is to blame, and how should they be punished? When we think about the full costs of climate change, the damage is so large that it’s effectively infinite. Should the fossil fuel industry bear the full, infinite liability of climate change for their fraud on the public? If we answer yes, does that imply that we assume that if the public had known – i.e., if the industry had been forthcoming about the science – then the public would have acted aggressively to avert climate change and its consequences?
Answers to these questions are difficult to settle, not least because they require us to construct an alternate reality in which the fossil fuel industry had not deceived the public. Students disagreed about how the public would have responded to the science in this alternate reality; some thought the public would recognize the impending dangers and act aggressively, while others thought we would be in more or less the same situation because even now, when people know the science, we are still not acting as aggressively as we could (or should). We agreed, however, that the climate denial phenomenon would not be nearly so strong if the industry had been forthcoming with the science. Students also recognized that fossil fuels are not the only contributors to climate change, and that consumer decisions about the use of fossil fuels and other contributing factors are important to consider. Individuals bear responsibility for the consequences of their actions – especially when they are conscious of those consequences before they act. We discussed this in regard to both individual members of the public and decisionmakers in the fossil fuel industry. We agreed that a person’s knowledge and intent are important in determining how blameworthy they are.
We also discussed the structure of Ben’s presentation. Who was its intended audience, and was it persuasive? How would fossil fuel industry apologists respond? Is it possible that they could marshal an effective rebuttal of the allegations of fraud? Although Ben presented a damning case against them by juxtaposing the industry’s public statements with their internal scientific reports, it is at least possible that he chose the most compelling documents to show us. In a courtroom, such as where Ben plans to present his research, opposing counsel will be sure to rebut the notion as forcefully as they can. In the public square, however, people are less able to identify evidence as potentially problematic because of its source.
by Guest Authors*
This blog post is part 2 in our series about the Geopolitics of Sustainability, based on the Roble Living Laboratory for Sustainability at Stanford's Hard Earth Talks. For more info about ROLLSS visit their website or attend the upcoming Hard Talk on Wednesday November 7th from 7-7:50 pm, which will focus on US-Mexico Border Politics and sustainability.
We have a tendency to look at companies as monolithic machines, devoid of personality and coldly calculating their moves like a computer. They exist solely to maximize profit and outlast the competition, or at least that’s how we like to portray them. However, such a view can simplify a corporation down to a shell of what it really is, obscuring the nuance behind corporate decision making and creating undue cynicism of what we can pressure companies to do. Hajin Kim, a doctoral candidate at Stanford, recently gave a talk at Roble outlining how we might move towards a more holistic view of company decision making that takes into account the reputational risk to and personal beliefs of the people running a company. The first assumption we need to move past is the view that companies are an entity distinct from people.
Ultimately, corporations are composed of people; all of their decisions are a function of the executives, shareholders, and employees that make it up. Any representative model of a corporation that views it solely as a profit maximization machine is a limiting construct that either ignores the influence and behavior of the individuals within it, or wrongly assumes that such behavior can be condensed into that of rational actors optimizing for corporate gain. The expenditure of both social and reputational capital, either personal or collective, can factor into decisions with the same weight as monetary concerns. Executives can also factor in their own personal and political beliefs when making decisions that affect a company’s bottom line. One recent example was Colin Kaepernick’s ad campaign for Nike; while it was admittedly a shrewd and effective marketing ploy that capitalized on the public’s recognition and empathy for Kaepernick’s protest, it also created lasting reputational harm for Nike amongst the conservative political segment. While it’s likely the reputational gain amongst liberals was seen as being worth the alienation of conservatives, it also reflects an executive body comfortable with taking a decidedly liberal stance publicly. Profit maximization models of corporate governance might have recommended other marketing strategies, due to perceived risks in alienating one political group in order to make possibly temporary gains with another. Despite their flaws, such simplified profit maximization models are often the default when representing corporations in either economic literature or policy discussions.
While there are limits to eliminating the influence of people on corporations, the opposite model of corporate personhood can be equally problematic. Corporate personhood, wherein corporations are treated, and therefore given some of the same legal rights, as individual people is just as if not more of a simplification of actual company dynamics. We’ve seen the debate around corporate personhood flare up before, most notably during the Occupy Wall Street protests. The crux of the argument is that, because corporations have much more money and influence than individuals usually have, and because the incentives motivate them to seek profit at the expense of anything else, regulators should scrutinize them more than they do individuals. But there is another issue with corporate personhood: it treats a company as it would an individual. But a company is not just a product of the individuals that comprise it. It is a product of interpersonal relationships, group dynamics, and the interplay of personal beliefs of all of the people participating in its decisions. In some circumstances, groups can act as a collective to make better decisions than an individual could. However, they can also fall prey to mob mentality and groupthink.
Group decisions also allow for the distribution and dilution of blame for immoral behavior, as no one person is fully responsible. Corporate personhood, in allowing a further shift of responsibility away from the individual and onto an abstract legal entity, can exacerbate this issue further. People may be more comfortable making decisions that negatively impact the environment if the blame is shifted away from them and onto the corporation. For example, we all know that Volkswagen cheated emissions tests, and some of us may know the names of the executives who allowed the cheating to occur. But very few of us know the names of the engineers that took part in that effort. In keeping with Kim’s attempt at restructuring corporate models to account for non profit motivations, maybe policymakers should research legislation that allows individuals to be held reputationally liable for the actions they undertake in the name of a corporation.
*Authors of this blog post chose to remain anonymous.
by Zora Ilunga-Reed, Daniel Jacobson, and Becca Nelson
This quarter we will be featuring a series of blog posts about the geopolitics of sustainability, recapping Roble's Hard Earth Talks. If you are interested in attending this series of sustainability talks at Roble or want to learn more about the Roble Living Laboratory for Sustainability at Stanford (ROLLSS), check out Roble's website. Here is a recap of the first talk, which focused on how carbon pricing policies affect low income households.
On Wednesday, September 26th, Chikara Onda, a doctoral student in Environment and Resources at Stanford discussed his research on how costs are distributed in carbon pricing policy. Climate policies can be either regressive or progressive. Regressive policies take proportionally more from low-income households, whereas progressive policies take proportionally more from high-income households. Climate change often disproportionality affects low-income communities due to geographic location (e.g., socioeconomic disparities between the global North and South), communities which often lack resources to enact climate adaptation measures. Thus, policymakers should take environmental justice frameworks into account by creating carbon policies that are progressive and by understanding how a climate policy may impact different income brackets. According to Onda, carbon pricing policies are often regressive because low-income homes tend to spend a greater percentage of their income on energy costs.
Onda's economic research uses computer-generated equilibrium (CGE) models to predict a policy’s outcomes regarding consumer behavior and the costs of goods and services, such as energy. Onda and other researchers at the Energy modeling forum compared different carbon policies’ economic consequences across different income levels. Ultimately, any form of a carbon tax would affect the cost of many products which would spread throughout the economy. Although a price hike would affect all consumers, it would disproportionately affect low-income households because they spend a larger share of net income on goods. However, in response to carbon-tax-related price increases, firms might change production processes, potentially stabilizing or minimizing the hike. It’s important to note that all actions in this scenario are hypothetical and actual price reactions to a carbon tax are challenging to predict.
The question then becomes “what should the government do with carbon tax revenue?” The most progressive option would be to redistribute revenue back to households on a per capita basis. Two other options include using the increased revenue to adjust capital and labor tax rates, both somewhat regressive options. Emission-heavy industries contribute higher paying jobs for less-educated workers. A new labor tax on these jobs might increase labor mobility away from environmentally damaging industries, thus compounding the positive effect of a carbon tax policy. However, this would negatively affect less-educated workers in need of high-wage jobs. Therefore it would be a more regressive policy.
Onda’s model also explored different sectors that people choose to work in and predicted how they might be affected by a carbon tax. Using individual data, Onda found that people have difficulty transferring their experience across sectors, meaning that a worker with 20 years of experience in one industry would earn lower wages if they had to switch to another industry, and would thus be regressively affected by a carbon tax if they worked in an emissions industry.
In our discussion of Onda’s talk, we weighed the regressive impacts of carbon pricing with our planet’s urgent need to reduce carbon emissions and had a hard time justifying regressive policies even if they cut emissions effectively. During his presentation, Onda made a point that many of the low-income countries in the tropics that contribute the least to climate change are feeling its worst effects. In times of such rampant wealth inequality in our own country, it doesn’t seem right that those with the least should bear the largest burden to solving the problems our planet faces. Policymakers should create carbon policies that reflect principles of environmental justice.
by Spencer Robinson '20
Stanford is a world leader in both research in and active engagement with sustainability! Clean energy, ecosystem conservation, waste reduction, water conservation… you name it! I mean our mascot is the tree right?
Here are just a few of the many things you should check out on campus!
Majors to take a look at:
If you’re interested in bettering people’s livelihoods and improving our relationship with the natural environment, you’ve likely seen the list of majors below. BUT to be honest, no matter what department you're in, there will be either be classes dealing specifically with sustainability or some tool or concept that you can use in the sustainability field.
Cool Classes to Consider for Freshmen year
Whether you’re interested in ecology, green-technology, environmental policy, or social impact – there’s probably class that covers it! Here’s a list recommended by members of SSS:
Here’s a quick summary of some sustainability clubs to check out!
We at Students for a Sustainable Stanford are an inclusive and intersectional community that works to implement long-lasting sustainable practices on and off the Stanford campus through discussion, engagement, and direct action. What do we do? We run waste education programming for frosh, launch campaigns to eliminate plastic waste, volunteer and collaborate with local environmental justice organizations, host/present our ideas around sustainability at conferences and act as a resource to help other student groups to their part to minimize their environmental impact.
Email us at email@example.com If you are thoroughly confusing by waste sorting at Stanford and want to help set up a date for us to do a waste sorting training/discussion with your dorm. Come along to our meetings on Mondays at 9pm Haas Center DK Room!
The Stanford Energy Club is Stanford's largest student-run energy organization, with a mission to create a diverse energy community, enable collaboration across different departments, and foster the energy and sustainability leaders of the future. We serve as a hub for students interested in energy to connect with other students, researchers, and professionals through our events, hangouts, annual conference, and journal.
We do a lot of things! We organize events every quarter for students to learn from leaders in the energy industry and academia like panel discussions, tours at companies like Tesla, and large networking events with 30+ companies; we run hands-on projects to reduce energy use on campus, teach high-school students about energy, install solar panels with a local nonprofit, and host energy case competitions and design thinking workshops; we host an annual conference (Stanford Energy Week), bringing together over 400 people from campus and the wider community; and we regularly publish articles in the Stanford Energy Journal.
How to get involved: If you’d like to learn more and stay updated on upcoming events, follow us on Facebook (facebook.com/StanfordEnergyClub) and sign up for our mailing list on our website (energyclub.stanford.edu). If you have questions, feel free to email our leadership at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our first open meeting is scheduled for the week of October 1st (i.e. week 2 of spring quarter).
The Stanford Chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW) was founded in 2003, and has since then, hosted numerous events and projects including workshops, international internships, design projects, and conferences. ESW welcomes participants from all disciplines and skill-levels. We strive to improve the quality of life in underserved communities, through building partnerships with those who share our vision, and by developing the necessary perspectives and skill sets.
“Stanford Farmers is about connecting students in meaningful ways to the O’Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm on the west edge of campus, in addition to cultivating discussions around food systems and many connected fields, like race and gender equality, art, and engineering. Stanford We hold meetings where we plan fun, interesting events, like the Fall Harvest Festival, and discuss the topics mentioned above. There are regular farm volunteer hours from 9am-4pm on Saturdays, and from 8:30am-12pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Check us out on Facebook and check farm.stanford.edu. Contact email@example.com if you want to know more and to join the email list. Our first event will be a fresh-baked PIZZA PARTY at the farm on the Saturday after Week 1, September 29th, 2-6pm!!”
Stanford Coalition for Planning an Equitable 2035 (SCOPE 2035) is a group of students that advocates for equitable labor and transportation policies, greenhouse gas mitigation, and affordable housing in the Santa Clara County. General Use Permit For more info visit their website here.
Great Resources on Campus
The Office of Sustainability!
Yep! Stanford has a whole office dedicated to reducing resource use on campus! Sign Up for their program MyCardinalGreen once you get on campus and you can get PAID $75 for completing different tasks to reduce your energy, waste and water use.
The TomKat Center for Renewable Energy
If you get an amazing project idea or need funding for an activity for class consider applying for their energyCatalyst Grants which can be used to subsidize class trips; guest lecturers in a class; and materials for course projects or demonstrations.
Email me, Spencer Robinson (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have any questions about sustainability on campus or want to get involved!
by Holden Foreman '21
We’re back with you for Part 2 of how to be green, live green, and earn green at Stanford – check out our earlier blog post if you missed it!
1. Riding a USED, non-motorized bike is the coolest and most efficient way to travel on campus.
Forget the boosted boards or motorized vehicles. Why waste electricity when you can look like a total G riding a bike. It builds character and calf muscles. Plus, If you practice a bit (or know already), you can ride with no hands and up your G factor by a thousand, easily. Trust me. I didn’t realize how fun this is until I learned myself. DISCLAIMER: DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. PLEASE WEAR A HELMET, AND DO NOT ATTEMPT ON BUSY STREETS.
2. C is for California and [water] Conservation - ditch the 15-minute shower
For those of you who aren’t already CA residents, you may be aware that our beautiful state is on fire and/or parched 98% of the time. Reducing your personal water footprint by washing only full loads of laundry, limiting your showers to 5 minutes, and generally not wasting can save well over 2,500 gallons per year, per person – and that makes a big difference in our drought-prone state! Conservation is a way of life in California, regardless of current drought status.
3. There is a GREAT vegetarian/vegan community at Stanford.
After moving to Stanford, I stopped eating meat, and it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Not only is the meat industry objectively terrible for our environment, but Stanford (California in general, for that matter) is home to some of the best vegetarian food out there! Even if you eat meat, try to minimize your consumption because meat products require much more energy (and water) to produce than plant-based foods.
4. The filtered water available in dining halls is amazing. Take a reusable water bottle everywhere!
And if you can’t get to a dining hall, there are water bottle re-fillers across campus (there is one in the Huang basement, for instance). Don’t waste money and resources by purchasing bottled water.
5. The bookstore sells pens, notebooks and paper made from recycled material!
There is a special section of the store for these materials, but you can also buy recycled materials online to save money! Check out Sustainable Stanford’s Green Office Supply Purchasing Guide for more inspiration.
6. It is super easy to donate unwanted items at the end of the school year with Give & Go! Save your extra stuff until then!
I donated my aforementioned refrigerator with ease by carrying it to the front of my dorm at the end of the year. There will be Give & Go bins around campus in early June to collect materials to send to Goodwill, so that you can pass on some of your belongings to someone in need. You’ve got a whole school year ahead of you before you need to worry about packing, but it’s helpful to remember before trashing something that could still be useful to someone else.
Check out Stanford's Student Sustainable Living Guide for a full list of ways to shrink your environmental footprint in your dorm! There is a ton of general sustainability advice and information on the Sustainable Stanford website.
Thank you for reading, and we hope you find these tips helpful as you begin your journey at Stanford! You’ll have a lot to think about and do in the upcoming weeks, but we hope you’ll keep these tips in the back of your mind as you transition into college life!
Please feel free to email me, Holden Foreman (email@example.com), or Students for a Sustainable Stanford leader Spencer Robinson (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have any questions about campus sustainability or want to get involved!
Welcome to our blog!
This is a forum for students to share their writing on intersectional environmental topics, curated by Students for a Sustainable Stanford. Writers of all backgrounds, abilities, and perspectives are welcome.