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FEHON: Future steps for climate action at Rutgers

Column: Climate Corner

Rutgers has certainly contributed to efforts to combat climate change and other environmental issues, but it still lacks a central agency that can coordinate these issues. – Photo by

Rutgers donates leftover prepared meals to local food pantries and feeds pigs and bacteria to digest our food waste. Rutgers does recycle, and in fact, we send more to the recycling center than we do to the landfill (65 percent of our waste stream). Our seemingly isolated New Brunswick campuses are incredibly easy to bike between, and often faster than buses.

Yes, you are reading an opinion article and not a laundry list of random statements, but these all relate to one key aspect of sustainability that Rutgers needs to work on: making their sustainable practices visible to students. Although each of these statements is true, most students (especially outside of the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences) do not know all of these points.

Making students aware of the sustainable practices at Rutgers is not just important so Rutgers can toot its own horn, but so students can have some perspective on their individual actions. For example, students are more likely to hold onto their soda can until they see a recycling bin if they know it is actually going somewhere to be recycled.

With more than 50,000 undergraduate students at Rutgers—New Brunswick and Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences alone, what students know carries a lot of weight. This idea is especially important now as Rutgers is at a big moment in its journey to sustainability.

Just a year and a half ago students, faculty, staff and community members were out in the streets demanding three things from Rutgers: ethical divestment, a climate action plan with a swift carbon neutrality date and an Office of Sustainability.

Right now, we are in a good position to check all of these boxes in the near future. We have divested from fossil fuels, the climate action plan is expected to be finalized this June and … well, we still have no concrete word on the office of sustainability.

Although Rutgers has many faculty and staff focused on sustainability (Rutgers Energy Institute, Rutgers Climate Institute, Rutgers Sustainability Committee, etc.) we have no office or full-time staff with the primary goal of making Rutgers more sustainable. It is like we have a bunch of star players, but no quarterback. An office would act as our sustainability quarterback. 

The Rutgers Climate Task Force has already dabbled with the idea of an office of sustainability (with a possible alternative name “Climate Mobilization Office”), but the final word really comes from the top. 

If University President Jonathan Holloway wants to develop a culture of sustainability on campus where students believe Rutgers has a positive influence on its surroundings, then instituting a well-funded and staffed robust Office of Sustainability is an absolute necessity. 

And so far, it looks like Holloway supports the mission of sustainability. This January our president selected 12 “Big Ideas” to guide Rutgers pioneering into the future, one of which being “Earth 2100.”

This Big Idea aims to “use the Raritan watershed, the state of New Jersey, and the broader Northeast megapolis as living laboratories to pilot the observing and modeling networks needed to track and manage environmental changes affecting diverse megapolitan regions.” 

This is music to my ears, but one key detail is missing from this statement. Using Rutgers' campus as a living lab. Currently, we have hundreds of researchers aimed at Earth sciences and sustainability, with Rutgers own coordinated sustainability plans needing the most work. The Office of Sustainability could be the linkage between our academic work and campus-level work.

By ambitiously paving the way to a carbon-free campus, we will serve as a testing ground for climate solutions to be implemented around the world.

We will be finding answers to the limitations of solar energy and battery storage, how an institution can support a renewable grid for its host city, seeing how flexible people are to climate-positive changes like new bus routes and other modes of travel and the feasibility of relatively new technologies like utilizing broken down food waste for energy.

If we make a point of leading by example and serving as a living lab, ambitious undergraduates and upper-level researchers looking for a home for their revolutionary minds will see Rutgers as the place for them and continue to make Rutgers a better, more impactful place. 

As my last Climate Corner article of the year, I want to end with this. We are at a much better place with sustainability than we were years ago, but we only got here through consistent Rutgers community support at every level. As we look forward to the future of Rutgers, we have to continue to investigate what we can be doing better, and work together to make it a reality, for our ideal sustainable Rutgers.

Nolan Fehon is a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences junior majoring in marine biology. His column, "Climate Corner," runs on alternate Thursdays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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