On April 20 the School of Environment and Natural Resources at Ohio State University organized an Earth Day event called Time to Act on Climate Change. On tap was a long list of distinguished speakers including university President Kristina Johnson, slated to receive the Chadwick Award for efforts to address the climate crisis.
However, members of Ohio Youth for Climate Justice and Sunrise Columbus had other plans. About 20 waited in the audience until Johnson began to speak. They then donned white t-shirts demanding that Ohio State divest from fossil fuels, carried signs and banners opposing the university’s combined heat and power plant, and used sirens and megaphones to bring the event to a halt.
Event organizers weren’t prepared for the youth action, but handled it as best they could. The event stopped for a while as Johnson was led off stage. Eventually SENR director Jeff Sharp walked out with the youth activists for a dialogue in the hallway, and the event resumed.
To their credit, SENR has posted the entire video unedited, which you can see here.
Why the protest?
So what brought on this protest? Were these foolish misled youth who don’t understand the complexities of modern society? Or were they young people fighting for a future that is increasingly under threat?
The evidence points to the latter. Consider the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — the world’s climate scientists. This report made it clearer than ever that the world must sharply cut carbon emissions by 2030 — and the era of fossil fuels is over.
For the first time, the IPCC report included the work of social scientists who have studied the multibillion-dollar climate denial campaign that has successfully stalled climate action for decades. Their conclusion? The use of fossil fuels must end.
UN secretary general António Guterres put it this way: “Some government and business leaders are saying one thing, but doing another. Simply put, they are lying. Increasing fossil fuel production will only make matters worse. It is time to stop burning our planet, and start investing in the abundant renewable energy all around us.”
Yet that is not what Ohio State University is doing. Instead of following in the footsteps of the city of Columbus and major Columbus corporations such as AEP, Huntington Bank, and Cardinal Health by seeking 100% renewable electricity, Ohio State is building a plant that will burn fracked gas — and what’s more, this gas plant is at the center of the university’s climate action plan.
Plans for the gas plant surfaced as early as 2019. The university claims it will lower carbon emissions by 30% — but that’s not counting all the methane leaked in extraction and transport. Methane is 86 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
It’s also not counting the pollution to the air, land and water where fracking occurs — mostly in eastern Ohio. Such considerations are “externalities” the university does not take into account.
Green hydrogen or green washing?
Further, the university claims that within 10 years the plant could be converted to run on “green hydrogen” — hydrogen energy created by splitting water atoms through electrolysis. Such energy could be carbon-free — but only if the energy used by the plant itself comes from renewable sources.
It takes a lot of renewable energy to create green hydrogen — yet in its very same climate action plan, the university claims it cannot site enough renewable energy to power its own operations. So which is it? If we can ramp up renewable energy enough to power a hydrogen plant on campus, why can’t we use that renewable energy to power university operations?
The likelihood is that even if the gas plant is converted to hydrogen energy, the energy powering the plant will continue to come from methane gas. Green hydrogen is still 40 times more expensive than fracked gas, and the only thing that could change those economics is a massive rollout of renewable energy – which the university doesn’t support.
This is why Ohio Youth for Climate Justice and Sunrise Columbus protested Ohio State’s Earth Day event. To these activists it makes no sense to give an award for climate action to a university president who not only greenlit a fracked gas plant but repeatedly rebuffed their attempts to talk.
The last time Johnson spoke to the youth climate activists was May 2021. But instead of a dialogue about stopping construction of a gas plant on campus — ironically next door to the School of Environment and Natural Resources — Johnson told the youth activists to concentrate on lowering their own carbon footprints by switching to LED lightbulbs and buying a Tesla.
This was a major disappointment from a president who previously served as undersecretary of energy in the Obama administration and oversaw a road map to 100% renewable electricity by 2023 as chancellor of the State University of New York. Yet here in Ohio, she would not stand up for clean energy critical to ensuring a livable future for the very students the university serves.
Taking fossil fuel cash
Johnson’s lack of action on the gas plant was not the only climate disappointment for youth activists. Another issue is that not only does Ohio State refuse to divest from fossil fuels — it is actively taking money from fossil fuel corporations.
Many other institutions including University of Dayton, University of Michigan, and Harvard University have committed to divesting from fossil fuels as a way to stop funding the root cause of the climate crisis. Divestment from fossil fuels is widely seen as critical to making the transition to renewable energy at the scale and speed we need.
But at Ohio State, the chair of the Board of Trustees is the former CEO of Marathon Petroleum Corp. — which recently gave $250,000 to the School of Environment and Natural Resources for students to study vegetation management along the rights-of-way for fossil fuel pipelines.
The fact is, you can manage the vegetation around a pipeline all you want — but if that pipeline is carrying fossil fuel that will emit even more carbon when burned, then it’s not sustainable.
From The Guardian: “The IPCC states that existing and currently planned fossil fuel projects are already more than the climate can handle. More projects will lock in even greater emissions and our journey to climate hell. The IPCC warns fossil fuel investors they are on track to lose trillions of dollars if governments act as they must.”
So why is Ohio State doubling down on fossil fuels at a time when the world’s climate scientists are clear that burning fossil fuels must stop?
I don’t know for sure — but considering the amount of power the gas industry wields in Ohio, it’s pretty easy to figure out. Ohio is a fracking state whose legislature recently passed laws forbidding cities from transitioning off gas and creating extra hurdles for approval of solar and wind projects that coal, oil, and gas projects don’t have to contend with.
The fossil fuel industry was also at the heart of the $61 million bribery scandal in which FirstEnergy purchased enough state legislators to bail out its coal and nuclear plants and roll back Ohio’s renewable energy and energy efficiency standards.
If the university truly wanted to address the climate crisis, they would be moving functions powered by fossil fuels, such as heating and vehicles, to electricity by installing heat pumps, transitioning to electric fleets, installing more EV charging stations, and expanding transit options. They would then seek to procure 100% renewable electricity from in-state solar and wind projects. Such a move would create jobs and boost our economy while cleaning the air, improving our health, and addressing the climate crisis.
The university would also pull its investments out of fossil fuels, whose reserves cannot be dug up burned. Fossil fuels are stranded assets, making them a terrible investment.
Yet Ohio State isn’t considering any of this. They are doubling down on fossil fuels, all while congratulating themselves on taking climate action. And that’s why youth climate activists brought their Earth Day event to a halt.
The youth are right
To be clear, I don’t think any of the Ohio State personnel involved in this are bad people. I worked at Ohio State for 14 years and graduated with a master’s degree from the School of Environment and Natural Resources. I have attended lots of events hosted by Environmental Professionals Network, which organized the Earth Day event. These are good folks doing good work for sustainability on any number of levels. One glance at EPN programming over the years shows the important sustainability work they do.
But on the issue of fossil fuels, the youth climate activists are right. It is a travesty that while other universities are divesting, Ohio State is building new fossil fuel infrastructure and taking money from fossil fuel corporations. The university shouldn’t be doing this — and what Ohio Youth for Climate Justice and Sunrise Columbus did at the Earth Day event was a much-needed intervention.
To their credit, SENR leaders acknowledged the need to listen to and dialogue with the youth climate activists — and university president Kristina Johnson should do the same.
According to the world’s best science, the world has only a few more years to drastically cut emissions if we want these young people to have a planet that supports life.
A combined heat and power plant is the least bad of fossil fuel infrastructure because it redirects the heat it creates into energy production. But no matter how much you cloak new fossil fuel infrastructure in the aura of sustainability, it’s still not sustainable. By locking in decades of carbon infrastructure, it is still a direct assault on young people’s lives.
In the words of U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres: “Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals. But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels. Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness.”
Ohio State University, I stand with the youth climate activists. I call on you to stop building a fracked gas plant and divest from fossil fuels — for the sake of the young people you serve and for the rest of human civilization and life on earth.
Cathy Cowan Becker is a longtime climate activist in Central Ohio and outgoing executive director of Simply Living.
All photos accompanying this piece are by Taylor Dorrell.