UMN student, professor combine efforts on environmental advocacy

The duo, both members of Citizens Climate Lobby, are pushing for the University sign on to an initiative supporting carbon pricing.

Austen Macalus

Savita Sidhu and Scot Adams bonded over two things when they met in Washington D.C. last summer: environmental advocacy and the University of Minnesota. 

University undergraduate Sidhu and Adams, a math professor, are both members of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a nonprofit with hundreds of chapters across the world. They happened to run into each other at a CCL conference last June. Now back on campus, Sidhu and Adams are teaming up to combat climate change through grassroots advocacy. 

The pair is pushing for the University to sign on to the Put A Price On It campaign, an initiative encouraging lawmakers to support carbon pricing. Advocates say the proposal will help decrease carbon emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change. 

Savita said she was inspired to bring advocacy efforts to campus after working as a CCL intern over the summer. 

“It was figuring out: Is this something we can do? And adding the political will behind it,” she said. “I’m a person who likes to see action.”

She and Adams are splitting efforts to encourage students and faculty to get involved. Sidhu launched a CCL student group this fall and hopes to work with other student organizations on the issue. Adams is trying to garner support among faculty and staff; he presented the initiative in front of the University Senate’s Social Concerns Committee last week. 

Put A Price On It has assembled endorsements from hundreds of public figures, companies, advocacy organizations and schools. Although nearly 50 colleges publicly support the efforts, most are small private schools. Macalester College and the College of Saint Benedict are the only two schools in Minnesota to sign on. 

The campaign calls on state and federal lawmakers to adopt carbon pricing legislation, which would make carbon more expensive and incentivize people to pollute less. 

“The general idea is that every person who makes a decision — where that decision increases carbon — would have to pay an additional amount in proportion to that amount of emission,” said Gabriel Chan, a professor of energy and environmental policy in the University’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. 

There are many ways to accomplish this goal, Chan said, such as a tax on carbon goods or a cap and trade system, which allows polluters to buy and sell permits required to emit carbon. 

However, Chan says there are difficulties in implementing proposals. 

California is the only state in the country with a cap-and-trade policy. A carbon tax bill in Washington state failed in a statewide referendum this year. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a cap-and-trade bill in 2009, but it failed to gain traction in the U.S. Senate. 

“The political feasibility of these kinds of initiatives is challenging,” Chan said. “Effectively, it would mean that gasoline prices, electricity prices, maybe some food items would increase in price in proportion to the amount of carbon that entered into the atmosphere in the production.”

Several Minnesota DFL lawmakers introduced legislation to price carbon in the state last session without success. 

Chan said that many people still see carbon pricing as an effective way to address climate change. But, he said there are other measures that could help, such as more funding for research and incentives for renewable energy.

The University is already working to decrease greenhouse gas emissions on its own. In 2008, University officials set a goal to reduce carbon emissions 50 percent by 2020 and to be carbon neutral by 2050.  

Adams said the University could also play a big role in pushing lawmakers and others to support carbon pricing. 

Although he’s not an expert on the issue, Adams said everyday people like himself can still play a role in addressing climate change. 

“We should encourage people to step up and get involved. Even if they are not the exact right person for the job,” he said. “I think maybe more people need to take a more active role in political issues.”

Sidhu said she hopes more people on campus will get involved in the efforts. She said her partnership with Adams, built on a chance encounter, shows there are people everywhere who care about combating climate change. 

“I was so happy to know that wherever I am there will be people who are just as passionate, who are just as motivated … and have enough alacrity as I do to make something happen,” she said.