Penn State, Climate Change, Natural Gas, and Greenwashing

After my post yesterday on Penn State President Eric Barron backing the Paris Climate Agreement, someone posted this on my Facebook page: “BS they have direct ties to the gas industry.” Fair enough. But it’s not the whole story or even, right now, a fair story.

But before I go further, let me say that I don’t speak for the university in any official capacity. I’m just speaking from what I understand, with the information that I have before me, and as a critical participant.

Based on some internal reporting, in the most recent 5-year period Penn State conducted something like $50M in biofuels, $40+M in solar, $30+M in fossil fuels, $7M in nuclear, & $2M in wind research. That’s about a 3:1 ratio in low- or zero carbon energy compared to fossil fuels. It also doesn’t include work on the smart grid, net zero housing, the three-time National Collegiate Wind Competition, & the largest solar PV assessment classes in the state (maybe the northeast). Those are all real. The dollar amounts above also don’t include the work of the dozen or so IPCC members that include the work of Michael Mann, Richard Alley, Petra Tschakert, Janet Swim, Klaus Keller, and several others, nor the National or PA Climate Impact Assessment teams,or the Sustainability & Climate Risk Management group, nor the outreach work that WPSU & others do, me included.

That can’t hide–and mustn’t hide–the fact that Penn State has been the seat of fossil fuel research. We are one of the top coal research schools in the world. As a land grant university in a coal state that makes historical sense. The Marcellus Center for Outreach & Research and the Consodine study have played parts in supporting an industry that has clearly violated people’s human rights by suppressing speech, lying, damaging worker’s, family’s, & public health, & brutalizing the land. Those are travesties, not just in my opinion but in the opinion of rights organizations the world over.

Is all this greenwashing? That’s a great question. Having written about it before, I’ll invite you to consider the possibility and say that a university with this comprehensive a research portfolio will have a hard time not skirting greenwashing. Both of these Penn States are real. Just as Charles Murray and Orlando Patterson had to work near one another at Harvard, so too do climate hawks have to work with gas hawks and renewable energy whizzes are down the hall from coal mavens at Penn State. It’s an interesting place to say the least.

But I would argue that Penn State is changing as the rest of the nation is…maybe even better. We have far to go. What I’m writing shouldn’t be read as absolving some people or the institution of culpability. Not at all. But I think these changes are significant & good.

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