The University Network

Ask The Expert: College Students Should Lead Energy Transition

Climate change is happening right now.

Humans are endlessly pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, causing global temperature rise. And without an effective, ethical switch to clean energy, climate change will only grow as a threat to the world as we know it.

The past generations have failed us, so educating young people on the benefits of clean energy and incentivizing them to act politically and scientifically is pivotal.

Daniel Kammen, currently the Class of 1935 Distinguished Professor of Energy at the University of California, Berkeley, is one of the experts dedicated to leading the next generation into a more sustainable future.

Kammen is the founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL) at UC Berkeley. In April 2010, he was appointed the first Environment and Climate Partnership for the Americas Fellow by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In 2007, he earned a share of the Nobel Peace Prize from his work with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

His list of accolades goes on, but currently Kammen is focused on educating and inspiring college students.

Each fall, he teaches a course called Energy and Society at UC Berkeley.

Here, we find out how/why Kammen believes college students should lead the next energy transition.

TUN: Why is student action so important for the clean energy transition?

Kammen: As I lay out in a recent Op Ed, “Students must mobilize to support equitable clean energy,” voting on the environment has long been seen as a “secondary” issue, far behind the economy, security and party politics. We are not at a time, however, when voting on how humans study, discuss and manage the environment has become critical. The youth vote is the single most directly peer-to-peer influenced group in the U.S. Both how they turn out, and the collective push they give at the polls, can determine what the U.S. does about the climate, social justice and how we steward the planet.

TUN: What are the major takeaways you want students to gather from your course Energy and Society?

Kammen: Energy and Society is first and foremost an experience in interdisciplinary learning. We cover the science, engineering, economics, justice and distributional issues around energy, from the individual to the global level. Our goal is to integrate technical, or STEM tools, with those from the social sciences and humanities. This is a challenge, but one where the work that goes into it is – I hope – uniquely rewarded, with a very inclusive view of the energy system, from the poorest individual family to the impacts on the global economy and environment.

To try and address the need for a shared environmental and energy literacy, this class mixes graduate and undergraduate students in the same course (different exams and readings, however), includes both technical and non-technical issues, includes field-trips to visit energy installations, and looks across energy to climate to social and environmental justice issues.

Energy and Society Class Lecture
Image: Daniel Kammen

TUN: Can young people/students do anything to lessen the political divide on climate change?

Kammen: Absolutely. A clean and sustainable environment is not a “left/right” issue for people who plan to live in the world we leave behind. A view to managing the planet is a vote to bring sides together.

TUN: What can young people/students do to help inspire climate change activism?

Kammen: This list is near endless.

First, of course, is to vote how you feel and for or against candidates who are clear on where they stand and what they will do in office on environmental issues.

Second, know the facts. There are many ways to get up to speed, but on the global energy-climate nexus, the IPCC is a great place to start. I have worked for the IPCC since the late 1990s, almost a decade before it shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

Also, knowing one’s own climate footprint is hugely educational. My laboratory produces a climate and resource footprint calculator used widely in the U.S. and Europe.

TUN: Many people are concerned about the threats posed by climate change, but they feel as if the issue is overwhelming. They don’t know what individual efforts they can make to help. What would you say to these people/advise them to do?

Kammen: I would start by: (a) learning where political candidates stand on energy and climate issues, and (b) checking UC Berkeley’s Cool Climate Network’s website to see where your own
footprint measures up, and what are the most cost-effective (they likely save you money, too!) ways to reduce your footprint.