Remarks by the President on Climate Action and Justice at Penn State University

By Zachary Patrick McKay

(Watch here)

Good evening, friends and members of the Penn State Community,

I’m speaking to you tonight, on the International Day of Climate Action, in the midst of what can only be described as a national crisis. A deadly virus, which as of today, has claimed the lives of over one million global citizens, with 220,000 of those having died in the United States alone. Racial injustice, highlighted by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Osaze Osagie, and too many more, as well as the protests which followed, identify unconscious bias, white supremacy, and other critical faults in our country’s systems. And at this time, climate change poses a greater danger than ever before. 

It is in times like this that each of us, you and I included, must understand the significance of these issues. As a country, as a union, as a University Community—these problems tear at the very fabric of our society. If they persist, we cannot attain a just and sustainable future for our generation, or the next. These are not partisan issues. These are issues which are both serious and demand the attention of each of us, as they affect all of us in at least some small way. 

They are, however, all issues of injustice, and they do not affect all of us in the same ways. Studies have highlighted how communities of color—particularly, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities—are at least three times more likely to die of COVID-19 than white communities. Black Americans are over 3 times more likely than white Americans to be killed by police, are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder and, even if innocent, are 12 times more likely to be convicted of drug possession than white Americans. 

Inaction on climate change will not manifest differently—it will and already has disproportionately hurt those who are already historically marginalized and underserved. It will ravage our most vulnerable communities. In the coming years, more than 250,000 individuals are expected to die due to the effects of climate change, from things like malaria, heat stress, famines, and malnutrition. In America, thousands will die from mudslides, wildfires, heatwaves and devastating floods. People are already dying because of climate change, and things will only get worse. 

Penn State, as an institution, is in a position to change this future by committing itself to deconstructing today’s systems of environmental injustice. I am grateful to the University for their commitment to the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, as well as to their commitment to reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions 80% by 2050. As a component of this commitment, they have recently purchased renewable energy produced by solar farms here in Pennsylvania’s Franklin County, which will produce 25% of Penn State’s electricity across its campuses over the next 25 years. Still, these efforts are not enough. Penn State has the opportunity and the obligation to make greater efforts if we are to take social justice and empathy for others seriously—as they ought to be treated. 

Earlier this year, a group of University students from University Park gathered to discuss these efforts, and synthesize which have been advocated in years’ past without success. Instead of asking if Penn State is “doing enough,” thereby suggesting that combatting the effects of climate change is about some imaginary quota—of researchers, of facilities, of abilities—the group realized that Penn State already has, in their words, “the world’s finest facilities and technologies, and our community includes leading experts in practically every field of study. We don’t need to decrease our impact;” they argue, “instead we have the ability to increase our impact by doing more good for the world and for our [own] community.”

The group, known as the Penn State Climate Action Coalition, aspires to a University in which every student, regardless of major, feels empowered to change the world through their education; in which this University education includes and inspires citizenship for a better world; in which our University’s operations reflect its value of responsibility by holding strong to a commitment of near-zero emissions, as well as its value of integrity by transparently and pridefully publishing its investments and emissions; and in which every member of Penn State’s community feels confidence and pride in their belonging to an institution which is truly doing the best it can to not only fight climate change itself, but also build the next generation of leaders who will do exactly the same. Each time I hear our alma mater and its final stanza, I think of these aspirations, for with them, virtually no act of ours could bring shame to any heart which loves thy name. But this is not the case. 

At this very moment, nearly 1000 members of the Penn State community, including myself, have signed a petition calling on Penn State’s leadership to address the fact that its inaction in other areas related to climate action does bring shame to many hearts. The petition, which can be signed by students, faculty, staff, organizations, and alumni, urges the University to take actions…

To ensure the rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions with the goal of reaching the point of net zero emissions between 2030 and 2040;

To ensure the prioritization of our world-class research efforts on carbon-capture technology, agricultural carbon sequestration, and carbon neutral fuels, as well as the use of our institutional partnerships to accelerate their deployment;

To ensure a firm commitment to divest from fossil fuels and the fossil fuel industry, and create new investments in the green economy, especially with regard to energy efficiency, renewable energy sources, and zero-emissions transportation;

To ensure a reallocation of a portion of the existing student fee towards sustainability-related initiatives;

To ensure improved efforts to incorporate sustainability education into existing curriculum; and,

To ensure the creation of a Climate Action Committee made up of Penn State experts—faculty, staff, and students—charged with the capacity to study, set policy, assess and publish progress on our university’s climate commitments.

I recognize that Penn State’s administration can champion these efforts, though it cannot bring all of these changes about on its own. These changes instead will require effort and commitment from all of us—from the Board of Trustees, from the Faculty Senate, from our Student Fee Boards, from our student governments, and, perhaps most importantly, from the student bodies of each of our University’s campuses. I recognize that not all of these changes will be able to be made instantly, and many will require systems at this University to be altered, such as the nature in which our University’s very investments are decided. Nevertheless, the time for all of us to take decisive action in combating climate change is now, and there is no excuse for delay.

I have recently seen the support of this petition at individual Commonwealth Campuses, such as Abington and Harrisburg, and have been encouraged by their student governments’ leadership. I have also met with many of my colleagues in the Graduate and Professional Student Association, the World Campus Student Government Association, and the Council of Commonwealth Student Governments, and very much look forward to advocating these changes to our University’s leadership alongside them. Even further, many student organizations outside the realm of student government have already endorsed the asks of the petition, including the Penn State EcoAction, the Penn State EcoReps, the Society of Energy Engineers, Penn State Days for Girls, and the Marine Science Society, and I am very grateful for their example in leading the way. 

This week, I intend to meet with the leadership of the University Park Undergraduate Association’s General Assembly of Student Representatives to urge them to pass legislation officially endorsing the asks of this petition, and calling on our University’s leadership to commit itself to these necessary changes for the protection of those in our world and future generations. Contact your UPUA Representatives and urge them to sign on, as well.

Further, I ask that each of you, whether watching tonight, or at some later point in the future, join me in signing the petition yourselves. Join the chorus of student voices from across our Global Penn State community calling on Penn State to do better. Visit psuclimateaction.weebly.com, or, @psuclimateaction on Instagram to learn more about how you can get involved and sign the petition. If you’re a member of a student organization, encourage your Executive Board to sign it on behalf of that organization, as well. 

When all is said and done, neither a society—nor a University—can remain decent if it witnesses systemic oppression and suffering, and fails to rise to the occasion and act. Join me in calling for that action. 


Thank you very much.