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Tuesday, Mar 28, 2023

Middlebury College Climate Action and the Fall 2022 Climate Attitudes Survey

In fall of 2022, Professor Julia Berazneva’s Climate Change Economics class (ECON 0365) put out a survey about attitudes on campus towards climate change and potential policies the school could adopt. The survey had 1,265 total respondents including 350 faculty and staff members. Notably, 55% of respondents identified as female and only 39% as male, with the remainder identifying as non-binary, other, or declining to answer. Over 95% of respondents said that climate change was a “very important” or “quite important” societal problem. With broad support across the board, addressing climate change is clearly an important issue for much of the campus. We asked survey questions about potential policies the school could adopt to address climate change including adjusting thermostats, meat-free dining days, an internal carbon charge and a new distribution requirement.

The most popular of the proposed policies was turning down the thermostat in certain buildings. This policy would simultaneously reduce energy consumption and increase comfort in particular buildings that are frequently overheated in the winter, meaning occupants are less likely to have to open windows when a room is too hot. Downregulating the thermostats in certain buildings had broad support — 85% of respondents indicated they were for this policy, and there were minimal differences in support across student, faculty, staff and gender lines. In fact, some respondents even listed buildings that they thought were too hot. Downregulating thermostats could easily be instituted in buildings like Proctor, Sunderland, Munroe or the Athletic Center. Since heating is so energy intensive, a one- to five-degree Fahrenheit decrease in temperature during the winter months could have a large effect on reducing our emissions. This policy is overwhelmingly popular, easy to implement, and should actually save the college money. Based on these findings, we recommend that the college should implement this change in certain buildings immediately to both increase occupant comfort and reduce carbon emissions, particularly in the energy intensive winter months.

The survey also asked about the Middlebury community’s attitude towards reducing the college’s carbon-intensive meat consumption by reintroducing a meat-free day in each dining hall on a rotating basis. This proposed policy also received strong support, with 72% of students expressing support for meat-free days. Interestingly, 80% of female-identifying respondents showed support for the policy, but only 60% of male-identifying people were in support. One criticism of this policy that we received was that climate initiatives should require institutional change rather than individual responsibility, but we should remember that institutional changes will require personal sacrifices. We recommend that the college experiment with meat-free meals — a policy that the school has employed in the past.

Some of our policy ideas were more controversial. For example, the survey assessed attitudes towards implementing a campus-wide carbon charge — a variation on a carbon tax that the school could implement internally in order to incentivize emissions reductions. These charges could be organized by department, by building, or in some other way and would affect energy consumption and possibly other sources of emissions. The overall support among respondents was 65%. However, while 71% of students supported the carbon charge, faculty and staff supported it at a rate of just 57% and 56%, respectively. This may be because an internal carbon charge would have very little effect on students’ day to day lives while faculty and staff would have to work to institute and work around the new charge. Many respondents indicated they would like to learn more about the carbon charge before deciding whether or not they would support the policy. We do not know enough about what the structure or efficacy of a carbon charge would be like at Middlebury to make a recommendation at this time.

A new “climate change and sustainability” academic distribution requirement was proposed to raise climate awareness and competence, though this would not directly reduce college emissions. The proposal received 72% support overall, but with students and staff rating it higher than faculty, in the order of a 20 percentage point difference. Adding a new distribution requirement would be a dramatic change to the school’s existing requirements, but it would ensure that all students would leave the college with some academic background in climate change and sustainability. While this policy had strong support from students and staff, we think that the college should focus on ideas that may be easier to implement in the near-term and have more immediate, tangible effects.

With any policy that the school does implement, there are many necessary considerations. We need to know who is affected by the policy and who carries the responsibility of actually implementing it. For example students supported the internal carbon charge at a higher rate than faculty and staff, but students are also unlikely to bear the consequences of the policy. Faculty, who would have to make changes to their curriculum and reprioritize different learning outcomes, were less likely to support a new distribution requirement. Another key consideration is near-term feasibility. Resetting the thermostat, particularly in modernized buildings would be easy and low consequence, but instituting an internal carbon charge could be a bureaucratic nightmare and affect the day-to-day operations of every department and division on campus.

Regardless of any specific policy outcome, it is clear that Middlebury students, staff, and faculty want to investigate and pursue new ways to address climate change.

Professor Berazneva and the students of ECON 365 thank everyone in the community that participated, as well as the Environmental Affairs office and the Climate Capacity Project for their collaboration on the survey.