Help UC’s Carbon Neutrality Initiative Get More Student Representatives

Since its formation in 2014, the University of California’s Global Climate Leadership Council (UC GCLC) has advised President Janet Napolitano on how to meet annual carbon neutrality goals.  

People can experience cancer, asthma and heart attacks from pollution from fossil fuels from power plants and vehicle tailpipes.  And the overwhelming scientific consensus is that climate change is being driven by the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, primarily from the burning of fossil fuels.  The UC Carbon Neutrality Initiative (CNI) seeks to emit net zero polluting greenhouse gases from its buildings and vehicle fleet by 2025.  

Carbon neutrality is larger than operational changes (such as more efficient lighting) and requires decisions that aren’t black and white (such as which types of off-site carbon offset programs to employ).  So such an ambitious goal understandably requires a variety of perspectives and the inclusion of a diverse group of stakeholders at the table.

Ranging from student representatives to campus chancellors and senior administrators at the UC Office of the President (UCOP), the GCLC spans the spectrum of perceived authority and power within the UC system, but is ultimately quite top-heavy in its representation. This realization was not all that alarming upon first recognition; these high-ranking individuals have the final say in many campus level decisions. But after attending multiple GCLC meetings as a student member of the audience, it has become apparent that the underwhelming diversity of positionality from across the UC is manifesting as a limitation to its effectiveness.

Currently, the UC system is comprised of about 210,000 undergraduate students, 144,000 staff members, 54,000 graduate students, and 21,000 faculty across the ten campuses. Normalized, that’s about 50% undergraduates, 33% staff, 13% graduate students, and 5% faculty. But below is a breakdown of the current

The GCLC is comprised of 35 members:

  • 8 Chancellors or Vice Chancellors
  • 7 UCOP Administrators
  • 6 Professors
  • 4 External Advisors
  • 3 Sustainability Staff/Directors
  • 3 Center/Institute Directors
  • 1 Graduate Student
  • 1 Undergraduate Student

It doesn’t take a mathematician to identify that the GCLC does not accurately represent the totality of those who make up the UC. The faculty represent about 17% of the council, but even this over-representation is not that egregious, comparatively. The senior administrators and staff make up 60% of the council, while the single undergraduate and graduate students each account for less than 3% of the council while making up 62% of the UC system as a whole.

Photo by the University of California

Think about that for a second…

Pallavi Sherikar, the lone undergraduate student representative on the GCLC, is responsible for communicating to the councilthe needs and desires of 210,000students from all across California. For perspective, members of the US House of Representatives each represent about 700,000 residents, and do so as their full time responsibility (also getting paid a cool $174,000/year, while GCLC members volunteer their time). Benjamin Sommerkorn, the lone graduate student on the GCLC represents 54,000 students, the second largest responsibility only after Pallavi.

For some additional context, the GCLC meetings are fast-paced, high-level conversations about the recent accomplishments of the various working groups, progress of incremental sustainability goals, or updates from external partners. The group only meets three times each year, cycling among the campuses, and the 35 member council with 15-30 additional audience members require a large room that does not lend itself to serious deliberation. Rather, one-way communication with a short question and answer session is the norm for these 6-hour meetings.

Would adding students, both graduate and undergraduate, to balance the representation result in more effective GCLC meetings?  It would result in over 100 people trying to have a single discussion about carbon neutrality, but it would probably not accomplish much.

Would restructuring the GCLC membership to keep it at 35 members, but 17 of them being undergraduates, 11 staff, 4 graduate students, and 2 faculty result in the decisions that account for the capacity and reality of actions that can be taken at the campus level? Again, probably not. There does need to be a critical mass of high-level decision makers present if substantial movement on the GCLC recommendations are going to have any chance of being adopted at the campuses.

So then how can student voices be more appropriately represented in the GCLC?

I suggest two things be considered:

  • Increase the amount of student representatives from one to three. Ensure a diversity of student disciplines and campuses is represented. This would still leave the GCLC smaller than 40 members, but allow for a spectrum of student perspectives, and hopefully lend to the preservation of institutional knowledge as student members cycle through.
  • Actively recruit additional students to serve on the various working groups under the GCLC’s purview. The working groups include the Technical Offsets group, the Applied Research group, and the Student Engagement group, to name a few. It is these working groups that conduct the analyses and develop the reports that are presented and discussed at the GCLC meetings, and student participation at this point in the process can potentially have a greater impact on the direction and flavor of the GCLC recommendations. But a simple newsletter ad or system-wide email soliciting student involvement won’t cut it.  Each campus should deliberately and sincerely seek out student sustainability leaders and request their engagement with the GCLC working groups. Student sustainability groups already exist on most if not all of the campuses. Reach out to the leaders of these groups. Classes are taught on the intersectionality of engineering and environmental justice. Consult with the faculty teaching these courses to identify potential student contributors. A genuine effort towards engaging students in this manner would go a long way towards increasing student buy-in and engagement with the GCLC and carbon neutrality.

The GCLC has made some positive contributions in advancing the UC towards our carbon neutrality goal, and I believe many of its members do value students and their perspectives regarding how we continue in this effort. But there is also room for significant improvement towards magnifying the student voice in the UC efforts towards holistic sustainability.

Tell UC’s systemwide Sustainability Office you agree. Just share our Facebook post and tweet! And follow the student-run Facebook group of news about the UCBCLC.

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I am currently pursuing a doctoral degree in Chemical and Environmental Engineering at the University of California (UC) Riverside and am studying the aggregation and deposition mechanisms of engineered nanomaterials.

As the Public Relations Officer for the UCR Graduate Student Association, I have worked to institutionalize sustainability in the graduate student experience on campus.

I am passionate about the inclusion of science in the state and federal level policy-making process, and intend to use my scientific training to participate in the sustainable management of natural resources in the face of climate change.

I am the Editor in Chief of a science communication resource focused on southern California’s Salton Sea, and currently serve on multiple advisory committees under the California Natural Resources Agency regarding the Salton Sea Management Program.