We’re not in Kansas anymore. CCSC Bureau Chief Nadra Rahman reports on our fave student leaders, not from the Satow Room, but from the far less pleasant-sounding 476A. Oh, and the Roosevelt Institute is there and wants us to go green.
For a change of pace, last night’s CCSC meeting took place in 476A, one of the rooms specially designated for student of color- or LGBTQ-oriented groups. Satow seemed to be occupied by a single student using a laptop. The room was also uncharacteristically crowded—packed with representatives from the Roosevelt Institute. These visitors had come to plead their case for the following ballot initiative, which they proposed be inserted in the upcoming election cycle for CC: “Columbia should commit to 100% renewable energy and carbon neutrality (net zero carbon emissions) by 2030.” A student would then be able to vote “Pass,” “Fail,” or “Abstain.”
This question had been workshopped at an open meeting earlier in the day and was intended to come across in the least biased way possible. At this meeting, representatives were to decide if the ballot initiative was objective, feasible, and in alignment with the mission of CCSC. (Throwback to the last heated ballot initiative on the table, where it was a little hard to focus on this.)
The Institute Makes Its Case
Charles Harper (SEAS ‘18), the Energy and Environment Center Director at the Roosevelt Institute, described Columbia’s imperative to become carbon neutral, citing Columbia’s public commitment to climate action—and the fact that the university has exerted “zero efforts” on that front, despite its current goal to reduce emissions 80% by 2050. Harper also addressed climate divestment: while divesting from some fossil fuel companies is a good first step, what does that signify when three-fourths of our energy comes from non-renewable sources? And of course, he also touched on PrezBo’s favorite word: global. He said: “We want to be a world university, but our emissions are jeopardizing the world.”
In terms of feasibility, Harper mentioned a few paths to carbon neutrality: installing solar panels on rooftops, purchasing renewable energy directly from utility companies and paying a different rate, buying cheap land and installing renewable energy sources, and conducting long overdue repairs on “antiquated” buildings, among them. When 2020 President Sid Singh questioned whether the cost of these changes would be passed onto students, Harper replied: “The university just built—how expensive is Manhattanville? […]They can absolutely afford a few million.”
During questioning, Harper and other Roosevelt Institute representatives emphasized that having concrete numbers on student sentiment would empower them as they engage with the University Senate and administrators on carbon neutrality; it would also allow them to approach other student councils with more confidence.
Ballot Initiative Or Resolution?
By large, it seemed that CCSC members were convinced by the Roosevelt Institute’s arguments, but they were also unsure whether a ballot initiative was the best way to gauge student opinion or mobilize the administration. 2021 Rep Ramsay Eyre, questioned, for example, whether a ballot initiative was appropriate for simply polling the student body when the term implies that concrete policy will be enacted. But President Nathan Rosin referred to the only two ballot initiatives that have passed: (1) the Columbia Divest for Climate Justice (CDCJ) referendum on fossil fuel divestment, and (2) the referendum that resulted in the creation of the Sandwich Ambassador position. While the second is a more traditional ballot initiative, the first case offers precedent for this use of the tool.
Harper added that while the Roosevelt Institute had conducted its own polling (showing over 90% of students in favor of carbon neutrality), they felt the administration would not take their internal polling seriously, as much as they would results endorsed by CCSC. (They also mentioned problems with communicating with Facilities, at which CCSC chuckled. Said Rosin, “Even if you go through CCSC, there is no guarantee you will get a meeting in three months.” ) And of course, many more people would answer the question through a ballot referendum.
Others wondered why a ballot initiative was needed when CCSC could just as well approve a resolution; USenator Jay Rappaport indicated that in the Senate’s eyes, the two would hold equal value, as both would symbolize broad student support for an initiative. However, VP Policy Nicole Allicock replied that while the makeup of CCSC changes every year, a ballot initiative showing 2,000 people in support of a policy is harder to disregard, and thus weightier. Later, 2018 Rep Nicki Felmus (also President of the Roosevelt Institute, which she disclosed), added that “data will tell a story.” Relatedly, 2020 Rep Grant Pace said that perhaps concrete numbers would encourage members of the Senate to run on sustainability-oriented platforms, fundamentally changing dialogues occurring in university government. Finally, Harper referred to the media attention received by the CDCJ referendum, saying: “No offense to CCSC, but I don’t think a resolution would attract national news.”
When Student Services Rep Aaron Fisher wondered what made this issue different from others that CCSC had simply supported with a resolution, Allicock and USenator Omar Khan pointed out that the fact that the Roosevelt Institute had approached them with this proposal should carry some weight; as the ones organizing the effort, their input should be respected. Additionally, as Columbia has been stalling on its sustainability efforts, the proof of broad student support would act as a catalyst of sorts.
While the debate continued on, and at one point 2018 Rep Matt Neky quoted Margaret Thatcher, eventually CCSC motioned to approve the addition of the referendum to the ballot. Overwhelmingly, the motion passed. At no point did members object to the language of the referendum, which they deemed unbiased and not harmful to any parties.
Now Or Later?
But should the question be asked during the elections in mid-April—or should there be a special ballot? Felmus motioned for a special ballot, but this did not pass. While she and other members of the Roosevelt Institute said moving the timeline up would allow for them to start their advocacy work sooner, several members of CCSC felt that not tying the referendum to an election would result in a lower turnout. As Allicock went on to say, carbon neutrality would be a long-term effort, and having the highest turnout and best data was crucial. Furthermore, one of the most appealing aspects of a ballot initiative is that the respondents constitute an unbiased, representative sample group, which might not be the case with a special ballot. In light of these arguments, Felmus’s motion failed.
At this point, the rest of Council absconded, leaving a few lonely seniors alone in 476A. They were there to appoint the three CCSC seniors who would be members of the new Columbia Elections Commission, joining newly-minted Commissioner Josh Burton. After briefly engaging in some ESC gossip (the upcoming meeting, during which the proposed impeachment of President Aida Lu will be discussed, is to be closed and not livestreamed), the group went on to nominate Rosin, Allicock, Fisher, and VP 2018 Emily Lavine for the three slots. Interestingly, Lavine’s platform partly rested on her not having any non-senior friends. On juniors in CCSC she said, “None of them are people I spend a lot of time with.” Others said more conventional things about accountability and punctuality.
After a secret ballot, Rosin, Allicock, and Lavine were appointed to the Elections Commission; they will soon be joined by representatives from ESC. Later in the night, the Vice Commissioner was appointed.