New student-run environmental initiatives on campus aim to give students the chance to stand behind more than just their ballot votes next week. 

Eric Chien ’14 recently launched a dorm room energy audit system and a “Sustainable Room Certification Checklist,” in an effort to hold individual students accountable for their lifestyle choices and promote environmentally-conscious actions. Chien, a former Eco-Rep who now works for Sustainable Bowdoin, is also a proctor in Appleton Hall, which has given him a forum to implement his projects.

Advertising the first-year dorm energy audit through Residential Life, Chien personally responds to student requests, evaluating rooms in three categories: “Lighting and Electricity,” “Heating,” and “Food and Cooking.” He said his goal is to make students aware of lesser-known energy-saving measures, such as making sure refrigerator cooling coils are clean and using task-oriented lighting instead of overhead lights.

“We become inundated with the same old factoids about energy savings and such, and my hope is to expand on that and get some new information,” said Chien.

He said participation has been limited so far.

“Only a few people have asked me to come…it’s generally only the people that are doing the best,” said Chien. “Part of my hope is to get people who actually have questions and may need it more than others to be comfortable asking me about it.”

Next week Chien will expand his “Sustainable Room Certification Checklist” from Appleton, where he has been piloting it for the last few weeks, to the rest of the first year bricks. If successful, he hopes to make it a campus-wide movement.

The “Sustainable Room Certification Checklist” lists 26 possible actions—under the categories of “Rooms: Waste and Energy,” “Laundry,” “Bathrooms,” “Dining Hall,” and “Get Involved”—of which rooms discuss and decide how many to commit to. For Sustainable Bowdoin certification, rooms need to pledge to sign onto at least 20 actions. 

“When people make commitments and sign their name, they’re just more likely to follow through with those things,” said Chien. 

Dorm rooms that receive the certification get a “Bowdoin Green-Certified” seal of approval for their door.  

“We also have had almost exclusively female participation,” said Chien. “That’s actually a larger trend across campus for any environmental awareness projects.”

Chien’s project contributes to the broader goal of Bowdoin’s Carbon Neutral by 2020 plan, a commitment the College announced in 2007 when President Barry Mills signed onto the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, a network currently consisting of 661 institutions of higher education who promise to address global warming.

“We’re trying to find ways to get students more involved in the climate action plan,” said Bowdoin’s Sustainability Coordinator Keisha Payson. 

Matthew Goodrich ’15, the Reed House Eco-Rep, is also knocking on doors in first year bricks, seeking signatures to challenge the College’s commitment to this 2020 goal. 

Goodrich’s petition “I Believe Carbon Neutral Means Carbon Free,” questions how the College plans to reach carbon neutrality without eliminating natural gas as a primary heating source. It also urges Bowdoin to “divest fossil fuels” by committing to invest “only in clean energy by 2013 to support a livable future for its students.”  

“I’m trying to create grassroots student support for this,” said Goodrich. “It’s not really the responsibility of the students to make sure Bowdoin fulfills its promise of being Carbon Neutral. We’re trying to keep the administration in line with what they’ve said they do.” 

As long as Bowdoin relies on fossil fuels, Goodrich asserts that the College will not truly live up to its promise to be carbon neutral. 

“We should focus less on making students recycle and focus more on what we are investing in and where we are getting our energy from,” said Goodrich.

He began circulating the petition during September’s Greenstock event, and launched a related Facebook group last week. Goodrich said the petition has over 200 signatures so far. 

This fossil fuel divestment movement has picked up speed across the country this year, as students from Hamilton to Harvard urged their administrations to eliminate endowment investments in coal and oil companies.

“If all the NESCAC, all the Ivies, divested from fossil fuels…they could directly impact the health of that market,” said Goodrich. 

Sustainable Bowdoin employee Sarah Johnson ’13 applauds Goodrich’s initiative rallying students, but questions the feasibility of his aims.  

“Personally I don’t think carbon-neutral means carbon-free,” said Johnson, acknowledging the necessity of purchasing carbon offsets to allow the College to operate. “I think if you were to actually ask Bowdoin to get carbon-free energy by 2020 that would really change life as we know it and would be extremely expensive.”

According to Payson, the College originally set a goal of neutrality by 2050, but decided that benchmark was too distant to spur the kind of action needed.

“People said, ‘it’s way too far off for the future’…if I have kids that go to Bowdoin, they will have come and gone way before 2050,” said Payson. “It provided no sense of urgency.”

According to Payson, the school has moved “farther, faster” than a 2050 deadline—the carbon neutrality benchmark for a number of schools, including Bates—would have required. Nonetheless, Payson said it is unlikely the school will become completely independent of natural gas without major technological breakthroughs in the energy sector.

“We need to be realistic and work within the budget that we have,” said Payson. “The chances of actually reaching carbon neutrality by 2020 are probably pretty slim unless some research and development in energy and biofuels happens quickly.”    

Payson said that the College has pledged to purchase Renewable Energy Credits to offset remaining emissions in 2020, while continuing to strive for energy independence.

“We’re not going to get to 2020, and say, ‘oh we don’t need to work on this more,’” said Payson.
She cited the importance of environmental student engagement in signaling campus priorities to the administration.

“Having someone like Matt put together the petition helps put us focused in what we are trying to do,” said Payson. “If students showed no interest in this, we would still be working on these efforts, but because the students are showing interest, it makes us work harder.”

The College will release its 2012 Carbon Neutrality Implementation Plan next week.

Find out more about Bowdoin's Carbon Neutrality Plan: