Shana Weber
Photo: Jared Flesher

You may be apathetic or even terrified about climate change. You may believe nothing can be done. In this issue of PAW, we aim to set aside those feelings and examine how Princeton and the alumni community are working the problem.

From plasma to poetry to heat pumps, alumni, scientists, students, faculty, and administrators are tackling the effects of climate change across a broad spectrum. Shana Weber sees it every day as the University’s founding director of the Office of Sustainability, working to help Princeton reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2046, or “sooner,” she says.

“The sense of urgency feels different now than it did when I was an undergrad or even 10 years ago with Princeton students,” Weber says. “The acceleration of climate change is so much faster than anyone thought, so it’s a question of how will we adapt?”

Princeton is a testing ground for this. The move to net-zero and increased sustainability measures can be seen and felt throughout campus. There’s the small: electric buses, composting, and stormwater management. And the big: solar panels that provide 20% of electricity, construction of a massive geoexchange system, and developing offshore wind power.

This isn’t only intended to make the University a more sustainable place, but to serve as a model for larger communities.

“There’s a lot of interest in how we’re navigating these changes,” Weber says. “Policymakers are paying close attention because they’re trying to figure out how to incentivize more of it. We take every opportunity to share what we’ve learned.”

Students are also a part of the equation, contributing as part of what’s called “campus-as-a-living-lab.” For example, low-carbon concrete was used to build the new Stadium Drive Garage, and students installed sensors into the concrete as it was poured to track its effectiveness and the building’s structural health over time.

Those are some of the physical changes at Princeton. There’s also groundbreaking research and teaching that is producing alumni who are fighting climate change. These classes and projects can be found in virtually every corner of the University, from the sciences to the liberal arts and beyond.   

And then there are activists who are pressing for even greater urgency and accountability. Some work at nonprofits, think tanks, and other universities. Some are students and alumni who want to make a difference, and a good number of them have coalesced around Divest Princeton’s mission, which is to see Princeton fully divest and cut ties with all fossil-fuel companies, specifically BP.

This activism can get messy and distract from the big-picture work at Princeton. But climate change needs accountability and attention, and not just from the scientists or researchers.

“I do have moments of frustration with the very human slow reaction-time to what some call the ‘creeping catastrophe’ of climate change, but I am also heartened by the listening, passion, problem-solving, and activism students are practicing,” Weber says. “In other words, I may not agree with all proposed strategies, but I so believe in the practices of civil disagreement and questioning.”

We hope this issue of PAW provides some insight into the complex web of climate change issues and the impact Princeton and alumni are having.

“Climate change is here. The world is dealing with it,” says Weber. “You have to hold that knowledge at bay a little bit and focus on the long view so you can do
the work.”