Opinion: UI communities are lacking in climate action

The loudest voices in the conversation about climate change in Iowa City should be from UI students and professors — but it’s not.


The Daily Iowan

Citizens of all ages participate in the Climate Strike walk. The Iowa City Climate Strike march was one of hundreds taking place around the world on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019. (Reba Zatz/The Daily Iowan)

Becca Bright, Columnist

In our political landscape, climate change is the most critical issue, yet it is the most neglected.

Iowa City is home to a major university and has a front-row seat to presidential campaigns. Knowing this, we should be an extraordinary example of activism. However, University of Iowa students and faculty are heavily lacking in their efforts against climate change, and we need to recognize the inaction.

When Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg came to Iowa City Oct. 4 to lead a climate strike with City High students, the UI community gladly took to downtown streets alongside City High students to welcome this 16 year old, who is a globally recognized figure in the conversation on climate action.

Massimo Biggers, a key leader to the Iowa City Climate Strikers, and I have remained consistently in communication about the UI’s lack of response to the climate strikes since Thunberg’s visit.

“We have to strike. Our house is on fire,” Biggers said. “If you’re a UI student leader or faculty, and you’re still sitting at your panels and committees and not confronting the UI’s burning of coal, then you’re probably part of the problem, too.”

He emphasized the need for continued public pressure and demonstration from individuals in the community.

University of Iowa students and faculty are heavily lacking in their efforts against climate change, and we need to recognize the inaction.

“Our students, whether they be in college or in high school, will have no future if they don’t act to save our planet,” Biggers said.

Since that particular strike, I expected Thunberg’s presence in Iowa City to not only give momentum to the climate-strike movement within City High, but also within the UI community. When I spoke with UI student Maddie Patterson, an activist working with the Iowa City climate strikers, she said that impact is almost nonexistent.

“Obviously, college students know how to talk about climate change and want to, but they won’t show up,” Patterson said.

When I asked her about the UI students who are and have been involved with the Iowa City climate strikes, she gave me a weak smile.

“It’s actually just me,” she said. “I share information about the strikes with as many friends as I can, as often I can, but when Friday mornings come, I’m the only UI student present.”

As a student myself, I found this incredibly surprising and a little embarrassing.

Of course, some groups at the UI have made meaningful progress. The joint resolution UI Student and Graduate and Professional Student Governments declaring a climate emergency shows the student body wants action to address the urgency of the issue. And it’s not as if the UI has been completely silent. Senior Vice President of UI Finance and Operations Rod Lehnertz told The Daily Iowan that the UI is committed to ending its coal use by 2025 and is exploring ways to possibly end its use of coal sooner. However, these actions are too passive in light of the climate crisis Iowa City and the world face.

While both the Iowa City City Council and City High have declared a climate emergency, the UI has chosen to remain silent.

Wanting to connect with an adult leader, I also spoke with Sheila Zeithamel. She’s a UI alum working with the Iowa City climate strikers as well as the Sunrise Movement in Cedar Rapids, a group that has pushed for local legislative changes to fight climate change for years.

We talked about the absence of the UI’s voice in these organized campaigns. While both the Iowa City City Council and City High have declared a climate emergency, the UI has chosen to remain silent.

“There seems to be no internal motivation within the university to take the opportunity to lead these conversations and these changes with climate change,” Zeithamel said. “The university’s motivation is meant to be the future of their students.”

She also said the UI has a responsibility to use its role in the Iowa City community to promote climate action.

“I would want to give the university the floor, because they need to speak for themselves. They have the largest floor in this conversation. It’s disheartening for them to do nothing,” Zeithamel said.

This lack of an internal motivation is apparent in the UI community, not just the administrative heads. Particularly in comparison with the achievements of City High, the UI community — students and faculty alike — is largely absent in open conversation and public demonstration.

We have to be willing to physically act in saving our planet from climate change. If you do not and I do not, then we all fail. 

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.