Indiana University forms committee to develop climate action plan, students want commitments

The first meeting of a new committee charged with identifying ways to reduce Indiana University's carbon footprint attracted about a dozen protesters calling for more aggressive goals and student representation.

Indiana University President Pamela Whitten established the Climate Planning Action Committee in April to identify strategies and develop recommendations for reducing greenhouse gas emissions across IU’s properties, according to a statement.

Whitten tapped Thomas Morrison, vice president for capital planning and facilities, to chair the committee made up of faculty, staff and students from across IU's campuses.

“The best thing about this is everybody is of a like mind in terms of wanting to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That’s been the easy part,” Morrison said. “The hard part is trying to figure out how to do it. To have ideas that work at scale because we have really big campuses — that’s going to be a challenge.”

More than a dozen students from Indiana University's Bloomington campus drove up to IUPUI on Friday, April 29, 2022, to demsonstrate during IU's first Climate Action Planning Committee. Student demonstrators chanted and held signs up outside the window of the first-floor room where the closed-door meeting was held.
More than a dozen students from Indiana University's Bloomington campus drove up to IUPUI on Friday, April 29, 2022, to demsonstrate during IU's first Climate Action Planning Committee. Student demonstrators chanted and held signs up outside the window of the first-floor room where the closed-door meeting was held.

What the committee did in its initial meeting last week is unclear, however, because the meeting was closed to the public, including students and the media. IU spokesman Chuck Carney wrote in an email to IndyStar that it was purely an organizational meeting and keeping it private meant members had the opportunity to have a "free and full dialogue" on a range of topics.

But more than a dozen students from the Bloomington campus’s Students for a New Green World who drove up to the meeting were already calling for more student representation and a different committee chair, among other demands.

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Sidd Das, president of the student group, said there are plenty of examples of well-written directives with easy, actionable steps in other Big 10 university's climate action plans.

“As of right now, the planning committee has not made a formal commitment to a climate action plan, there’s no mention of carbon neutrality and they excluded the sustainability offices,” Das said.

Das and others from the group laid out four demands for IU and the committee during their demonstration Friday: Create a formal climate action plan by 2023, be carbon neutral by 2040, allow students to chose the student representation on the committee, and appoint a new chair who is a sustainability expert.

Working toward emission reductions

Speaking before the meeting, Morrison said the committee will take advantage of what the university has already done to reduce emissions and turn those achievements into policy. The group will then look for new ideas moving forward to work closer toward carbon neutrality.

Alisa Clapp-Itnyre, an English professor at IU’s East Campus, said she’s thrilled Whitten named her to the committee.

“I’m passionate about the topic and eager to do my part,” Clapp-Itnyre said. “We have some fabulous and very knowledgeable climate scientists at IU and will be leaning on them for ways forward.”

While Clapp-Itnyre said she is the only non-scientist on the committee, she’s been active with the university’s Office of Sustainability at the East Campus and in 2019 co-wrote the first-ever Faculty Senate Sustainability Resolution.

“We thought it was important (IU) heard from faculty becoming concerned about climate change because faculty directly deals with students and they’re just so concerned,” Clapp-Itnyre said. “This is their future we are handing them.”

The cornerstone solution of the committee, Clapp-Itnyre said, is creating a climate action plan for all of IU. She hopes the committee prioritizes sustainability while supporting the work of the sustainability council.

The university has already made some strides toward emissions reductions, Morrison said, including improving the maintenance, renovations and operations of all the infrastructure. The university also focused on easy things from switching to LED light fixtures and efficient heating and cooling equipment to improving the steam lines underneath campus, he said.

“Largely through reductions in use of electricity we’ve been able to, on the Bloomington campus, reduce greenhouse gasses just under 40% in the last decade,” Morrison said.

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Morrison also said collaboration with IU researchers and looking to examples set by other universities will be a big part of the committee as it gears up to put a climate action plan together within the year.

Sarah Mincey, managing director of IU’s Environmental Resilience Institute, also sits on the committee and said members will gather input from key stakeholders for the climate action plan to address short- and long-term goals.

Planning for climate change is becoming mainstream for universities across the county, Mincey said, and there are a number of creative ways some have pursued reductions through capital investments.

“Like anything, we can all have a similar goal but reach it in very diverse ways,” Mincey said. “I think one challenge of this committee is to look across the landscape of universities that have been successful and to identify strategies of those universities that might also support IU efforts.”

The committee will also consider whether it’s going to compare itself to its baseline emissions and attempt to reduce from the baseline or work toward zero emissions or carbon neutrality, Mincey said.

Students want representation, expertise

Students like Das want to push them toward the goals of Students for a New Green World.

As the committee conducted its first session in private, Das and about 14 other students from the group drove to IUPUI from Bloomington to stand outside the window where the committee met at University Hall.

A little more than a dozen Indiana University students representing Students for a New Green World drove from Bloomington to IUPUI Friday, April 29, 2022, to demonstrate during IU's first Climate Action Planning Committee meeting.
A little more than a dozen Indiana University students representing Students for a New Green World drove from Bloomington to IUPUI Friday, April 29, 2022, to demonstrate during IU's first Climate Action Planning Committee meeting.

“What do we want?” Das would ask through a megaphone.

“Climate action now!” the group responded.

The group wants more students on the committee and wants the student body to pick those students, Das said.

“We requested a meeting with President Whitten but have not heard back yet," Das said. "We’re hoping to negotiate these demands with the administration — we don’t want to keep protesting.”

Climate planning is something the administration should care about, but Das said it’s concerning if the university refuses to engage in dialogue with students and advocacy groups.

Morrison said there’s a limit to how many people can sit on the committee before it becomes too large and too slow, but he remains committed to gathering information from as many people possible.

“I’m willing to meet with student groups, faculty and people who just want to give us ideas,” Morrison said. “It’s all important and we have to be committed to gaining that input.”

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The committee will hold open forums in the future, Morrison said, with a lot of early sessions in the fall.

“If we were disingenuous with the process, we would do work in the summer,” Morrison said. “I recognize students will leave soon and not be back until the fall.”

The plan is to go out on campuses to sit with student and faculty groups, he said, and listen to their ideas.

Karl Schneider is an IndyStar environment reporter. You can reach him at karl.schneider@indystar.com. Follow him on Twitter @karlstartswithk

IndyStar's environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: IU develops climate change plan, students seek expertise