2020 Year in Review: Climate

Earth was an impassioned place in 2020 as a pandemic sickened and killed millions and anti-racism protests arose globally. It might be expected that the fight to reverse climate change would be a backburner priority, but instead the issue continued to heat up with record-setting weather events, and campuses again took the brunt of it.  

Some of the largest schools in the United States were temporarily closed due to record-setting wildfire and hurricane seasons, and a wind-driven derecho tossed across the Midwest, damaging campuses from South Dakota to Ohio. While a majority of campuses were nearly empty, with virtual or hybrid learning scenarios in place due to the pandemic, professional staffers on campus had to deal with air quality issues; student organizations lobbied, organized, and petitioned online; and student union projects, though often delayed, still planned sustainability and renewable energy upgrades.

Stony Brook University was able to complete a $65.4 million student center renovation just weeks after the governor of New York issued a March 21 stay-at-home order. The building was designed for LEED Gold certification by way of a thermal envelope construction design that included low-flow plumbing, heat-recovery loops, LED lighting throughout, and occupancy sensor-controlled lighting and power outlets.  

“The pandemic hit just as we were about to open, so it was really weird not being able to have a grand opening ceremony like we had planned to do,” said Matthew DeCarlo, risk and assessment coordinator at the students centers at Stony Brook. “When folks do get in here they are going to find some eye-opening things, including the motion sensors in all the rooms that are designed to cut costs on energy.”  

Energy is central to the climate debate, and student organizations continued to organize and advocate for their schools to divest from fossil fuels and invest in renewable energy. They also reminded administrators of the indisputable evidence that the catastrophic effects of climate change disproportionately affect poor, non-white communities. One report in November, led by University of Washington researcher Ian Davies, found that Native Americans were six times more likely than others to live in areas with a high risk for wildfire, and that racial and ethnic minorities in general faced a greater vulnerability than primarily white communities.  

“Twenty-nine million Americans live with significant potential for extreme wildfires, a majority of whom are white and socioeconomically secure. Within this segment, however, are 12 million socially vulnerable Americans for whom a wildfire event could be devastating,” the researchers reported in the journal PLOS ONE. “Additionally, wildfire vulnerability is spread unequally across race and ethnicity, with census tracts that were majority Black, Hispanic, or Native American experiencing about 50% greater vulnerability to wildfire compared to other census tracts.”  

Speaking at Texas A&M University’s Memorial Student Center during a climate conference centered on communicating on the issue, professor Nathan Crick said people should expect climate to be a dominant source of disruption over the next decade. “It has economic impacts, political impacts, and even war,” he said. “It disrupts agriculture, desertification, and flooding, and creates a battle over resources. From a personal perspective, I have four kids, and when I start to think about their futures I imagine a variety of scenarios. You start wondering if the things you take for granted are going to be true in the sense of ‘Hey, I’d like to take my kids to Venice in five years.’ But Venice might be underwater in five years.”  

Sea level rise is just one issue to worry about, but on the West Coast it was increasingly severe wildfires that were punishing communities in Oregon, Washington, and California. New research published in Environmental Research Letters found that northern California wildfires had been increasing in severity by 10% every decade since the 1980s and that heat waves and drought were contributing factors. Just like residents of the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts are familiar with the hurricane wind scale of 1 to 5, increasing wildfire severity, had students, staff, and faculty on West Coast campuses getting familiar with a new term: AQI, or Air Quality Index, and where to monitor it (www.airnow.gov).  

During smoke events, fine particulates suspended in the air are the main harmful pollutant. The particulates can make anyone sick, even someone who is healthy, so campuses like the University of California–Berkeley, Oregon State University, the University of Washington, and others began promoting policies on exposure levels, campus action levels, and air quality benchmarks. In many cases if an AQI exceeded 150, outdoor work was discontinued or staff were asked to voluntarily use a respirator; if it went above 200, outdoor activities were suspended and workers in buildings with unfiltered air were asked to wear respirators.  

A long list of campuses that closed temporarily because of wildfire smoke between August and November included Washington State University, University of California–Irvine, University of Oregon, Oregon State University, Portland Community College, Sonoma State University, San Jose State University, Western Oregon University, and the California State University campuses at Channel Islands, Davis, and Sacramento. At one point when San Jose State University was open, other campuses were closing and moving students into available housing at that campus. October fires in Colorado forced Colorado State University to cancel outdoor activities like football practice due to poor air quality, and its Mountain Campus was evacuated and in danger of being in the line of wildfires. 

Recognizing that the public crisis of climate change disproportionately affects poor, non-white communities, coupled with the known mission of university’s serving the public good while being less vulnerable to shifting politics compared to elected officials, students on and off campus found themselves in a strong position to call out what they saw were piecemeal or symbolic gestures to address climate change. 

Creighton University President Daniel S. Hendrickson specifically cited sustained pressure from student climate activists, faculty, and staff as the reason that Jesuit campus would reduce its investment in fossil fuel companies. With an enrollment of just over 4,000, nearly 200 students turned out for a “March to the Boardroom” protest prior to a university trustees meeting. It was clear that students were using the digital space to mobilize their efforts, offering advice on protesting practices, creating templates for emailing officials, listing bail funds, and sharing the names of businesses and institutions to support or target. 

At the University of Nebraska, the student organization Divest NU was formed and began attending board of trustee meetings, and at the University of Michigan pressure from students led to a board of trustees decision to not approve a recommended $50 million investment in fossil fuel companies. At Northwestern University, students continued asking for more transparency from the university’s investment advisory committee after petitions had been delivered calling for divestment in fossil fuels and police and military affiliations.

The biggest news came in May when the University of California system announced it had completely divested its more than $1 billion in fossil fuel assets from its pension investment portfolio, adding that it would invest $1 billion in clean energy projects. George Washington University, the University of Dayton, and Georgetown University also announced complete divestments from fossil fuels, and student protests throughout the year continued pressuring leaders to divest in the oil and gas industry.

The international organization Go Fossil Free reported this year that 1,306 institutions had divested $14.49 trillion from the fossil fuel industry, with faith-based organizations making up the majority 34% of the institutions. Educational institutions accounted for 15% of the institutions making divestments.  

Investing energy into the divestment movement was just one way college campuses saw students and the surrounding community take on climate change. Virtual art shows like the “Learn the Science. Love the Art.” event at the University of California–Irvine’s student center ballroom lobby was a success even though access to the exhibit was limited. The student center’s marketing manager, Brian Peyto, not only identified the work of artist Alisa Singer as perfect for the building, but also for sharing virtually. The art—transformations of infographics and statistics about climate change into colorful, textured canvases—was meant to engage the viewer through a connection between art and science. So Peyto had the works reproduced at a greater scale, some upward of 10 feet tall.  

“We upsized the art,” he said. “It’s in your face. It’s bold, it’s beautiful, and it’s an aesthetic for the science.”  

The large-scale exhibit in the student center ballroom aimed to connect science with art to tell the story of climate change, and the same was true of the Global Climate Action Symposium hosted by Georgia Institute of Technology that included a virtual student climate change photograph and art contest and an afternoon session on student engagement and art and climate. Rather than a traditional student panel on climate change, video interviews were conducted with students from Belgium, Germany, France, Greece, Ireland, and other countries. Professional presenters for an afternoon session on urban wilderness included artists and filmmakers from Guadeloupe and France.  

The event, according to Jennifer Hirsch of the campus Serve-Learn-Sustain sustainability initiative, highlighted “connections that we need to understand and address moving forward, between public health, the natural environment, and equity, to ensure that recovery takes us to a new place, not back to the pre-pandemic normal.”  

Equity was on the agenda for the Washington Higher Education Sustainability Coalition, a project led by faculty and staff from a coalition of schools that includes Cascadia College, Central Washington University, Gonzaga University, the University of Washington, and Western Washington University. During its Digital Earth Day Seminars program, a student presentation on ethnicity and sustainability examined the topic of transcreation, or making marketing and communications materials cultural relevant to specific communities. In this case it was the topic of climate change and the communities were Arabic and Korean neighborhoods in Seattle.  

“It’s important to realize that just simply translating materials isn’t going to be easy or understandable to some communities,” said University of Washington graduate student Pooja Kumar. “So with transcreation, instead of working with translators you work with community groups. With these materials, they have an English version and they have transcreated it into different languages that are the most commonly spoken.” In one case, commonly seen trash items found in a Korean household were used in a Korean version of the county’s recycling guide.  

Kumar exemplifies the work of students broadening outreach on climate change without letting the pandemic serve as a deterrent. In fact, students serving as virtual campus organizers were at the forefront of making public the connection between climate change, environmental justice, COVID-19, and what many think should be a “green recovery.” Even after the pandemic had spread across the country, connected campuses were organizing climate conferences, art and film contests, hackathons, and Friday for Future protests. A live-streamed “digital march” on Earth Day drew over 200,000 attendees, and campuses like the University of Colorado–Boulder, the University of Wisconsin network of campuses, University of Massachusetts, University of Miami, and Keene State University exemplified the energy that went into multiday virtual Earth Day celebrations. In October the California State University campuses, conducting classes virtually while essential faculty and staff dealt with on-campus air quality issues, carried out free virtual programming for a Campus Sustainability Month that was a first-ever collaboration among 16 campuses.  

At the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign a waste audit found that the Student Center East saw 6.5 tons of nonrecyclable plastic thrown out each month when students were on campus. To help bring that point home, Earth Day 2020 was centered around a “Plastic-Free UIC” campaign that included a virtual clean-up from wherever students, staff, and faculty were. By downloading an app called Litterati, participants took pictures of litter, tagged it for a campus challenge, and were then able to view maps of litter by concentration, type, and percent. The photos and information were then used to raise awareness about the ongoing plastic-free campus campaign.  

Four months later, the Urbana-Champaign campus and surrounding communities were devastated by a severe windstorm called a derecho that carried 120-mile-per-hour winds and produced 20 confirmed tornadoes. Thousands of buildings lost power in the area and across the 770 miles the derecho traveled through the Midwest. At Iowa State University, student move-ins the week before classes began had to be delayed after COVID-19 testing sites on the campus were closed, and at the University of Iowa numerous buildings were damaged, although the cost was not comparable to that of the 2008 Iowa River flood that damaged 22 major campus buildings. The 2020 derecho caused over $9.5 billion in damage, the most costly for a thunderstorm in U.S. history, and more than the damage estimates of all but one of the record 12 hurricanes that made landfall in 2020.  

“We lost power for two and a half days and we had to close the union because we didn’t have power,” said Brad Hill, associate director of operations at the Iowa State Memorial Union. “Campus was set up for large scale COVID testing of freshmen who were moving in, so all that had to be changed.”  

Derechos are still considered rare weather incidents, but then so were storm seasons in the Atlantic that require naming so many storms that the use of the Greek alphabet is required. For only the second time in history the 21-name list for tropical storms was exhausted, requiring the Greek alphabet to be used for nine additional events. Hurricanes and tropical storms closed coastal campuses from North Carolina to Texas and the remnant effects, rain and wind, led to campuses as far inland as the University of Arkansas canceling classes for days.  

Hurricanes are weakening more slowly than in the past due to climate change, and they are getting wetter, stronger, and more dangerous. Take for example Hurricane Zeta, the 27th named storm in the record-setting 30-storm hurricane season. It was able to pass all the way through north Georgia as a tropical storm, knocking down trees, killing three in the state, and leaving over 1 million people without power. Emory University had to cancel classes.  

Tulane University, Louisiana State University, University of Houston, University of Florida, and Lamar University were some of the larger schools that were forced to temporarily close as hurricanes approached. Texas A&M moved students from its Galveston campus to College Station as Hurricane Laura approached, and hundreds of other campuses at community colleges and smaller universities were forced to shut down temporarily.  

This year, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction said climate change was largely to blame for a near doubling of disasters in the past 20 years, from 4,212 between 1980 to 1999 to 7,348 between 2000 and 2019. Disasters in the past decade have affected 4.2 billion people and cost the global economy $2.97 trillion.  

Take a single month—October—in the United States. In 2020, two Category 2 hurricanes, Delta and Zeta, hit the Gulf Coast within weeks of each other; the University of Hawaii–Hilo and the surrounding community was experiencing the warmest year ever recorded; the coldest temperature ever recorded in the United States at that time of year, -29°F, was noted just a short drive from the University of Montana; and Colorado was experiencing not one, but three of the largest wildfires in its history.  

Hurricane Zeta left much of Rice University without power, but its student center remained open and became a central place for students to get meals and power laptops and phones. Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer and professor at Rice, said people are realizing that historic weather events are no longer an aberration, but rather a precursor for what is to come. “We’re seeing the outer limits of the bell curve of distribution being redefined by rarer incidents, with incidents that are off the charts. We keep having rainfall events, we keep having temperature events. The Gulf of Mexico heat being off the charts—that’s climate change.”  

There are signs that U.S. leaders are ready to act on climate change that can be found in the COVID relief bill passed by Congress in December. It called for extending solar and wind tax credits; reducing hydrofluorocarbons produced by cars, air conditioners, and freezers; reducing diesel engine emissions; and for storing carbon dioxide emissions. As those goals progress, the work being done by many of the 20 million college students and their mentors on campuses will continue, if not be amplified.  

At Bowie State University, an effort to create an orchard functioned as a service project, a climate-fighter, and a social needs effort designed to provide fresh fruit to the campus food pantry operated by the Division of Student Affairs and Campus Life. Working in collaboration with campus organizations, students donned face masks and work gloves to plant apple and pear trees. “I was excited to come and plant; this will be good for the environment,” said sophomore Rosheen Simpson. “We may not get fruits from it, but those who are coming up will be able to.”  

At Middlebury College, which is now carbon neutral and saving almost $2 million annually on fuel costs, President Laurie Patton made it a point in a 2020 commencement address to recognize student activists at the school for their work on climate change.  

“You’ve been powerful advocates for the environment and sustainability. You were actively involved in developing Middlebury’s transformative sustainability initiative, Energy 2028; you were part of the design team that created a beautiful, sustainable Habitat for Humanity home for a local family,” she said. “One of you worked on climate policy issues during your internship with The Nature Conservancy in D.C., and you were inaugural members of our Sustainability Solutions Lab.”  

At the University of Wisconsin–Madison, student activists became immediately concerned about the low amount of student representation that a new university sustainability advisory council would have. By bringing student organizations to collaborate on organizing a successful petition and awareness campaign, they eventually helped double the number of students on the council.  

It took student members of Georgetown University Fossil Free more than five years to see success after first helping the Georgetown University Student Association send a resolution calling for divestment to the university’s board of directors. Given another effort in 2020, this time a campus-wide student referendum, the university board voted to sell the university’s investments in fossil fuels.  

Students have driven the global wake-up call to climate change and its effects, and higher education could well lead the world in decarbonizing energy systems and educating the next generation of citizens. But a United Nations report on the environment found that a majority of universities have been struggling with the concept of “greening” and how to enact significant change, adding that effort to date had been “scattered and unsystematic.” In the United States, over 450 colleges have signed onto the 2007 President’s Climate Leadership Commitments project, yet only nine have reached carbon neutrality.  

Campuses already have the minds, the research capabilities, and technologies to teach and demonstrate how innovative strategies for sustainability can be implemented, and some are doing that already. But more importantly, campus communities continue to maintain the ability to encourage and guide students in their habits, behaviors, and actions as they develop into leaders. It is these leaders that can change the course of climate change in the future.  


  • Steve Chaplin

    Steve Chaplin is managing editor of ACUI’s The Bulletin and manager of the ACUI College Union and Student Activities (CUSA) Evaluation Program. A former newspaper writer, editor, and manager, he has volunteered as a student mentor as a member of the National Association of Science Writers, and received awards for his writing and reporting from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Kentucky Education Association, and the Kentucky Press Association.

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