During his first visit to UF, presidential finalist Sen. Ben Sasse said he believes in climate change. But members of the community are concerned his political history might not fit with the university’s sustainable future.
Colin Hall, a 22-year-old UF mechanical engineering senior, was at the Oct. 10 protest when the crowd rushed in through the forum’s doors interrupting Sasse’s Q&A session. Nominating someone with cowardly and ignorant views on the climate crisis wouldn’t represent the views of the student body, he said.
“We are facing extreme mass destruction of our planet at an alarming rate and he thinks that his profits are a priority over the well-being of all marginalized communities,” Hall said in between deafening chants.
A look into Sasse’s campaign contributions reveals thousands of dollars from the fossil fuel industry. During his career, Sasse received more than $286,000 from the oil & gas industry, according to OpenSecrets — a nonprofit campaign transparency organization. Since 2013, he’s received $127,123 from Club for Growth, a conservative organization that opposes climate change initiatives such as the Paris Agreement.
Sasse opposed an amendment to the Keystone Pipeline Approval Act in 2015, which attempted to include a sentence stating that “climate change is real and not a hoax.” He also condemned “climate alarmists” for not proposing innovative solutions during a Fox News Sunday interview in 2018.
Campbell Al-Khafaji, an 18-year-old UF sustainability studies freshman and political director of Climate Action Gators, said the alarmism comment seemed condescending.
“It's a way of almost speaking down to us and trying to tell us that he knows better and that he has the authority, which is simply not true,” she said. “This is our lives. This is our future. I think that we have the opportunity now to show Sasse how angry we are and how committed we are.”
However, Sasse has more recently affirmed his belief in climate change.
“I believe strongly in climate change,” Sasse said during the Oct. 10 faculty forum. “I believe strongly in the role of UF to be involved in research and mitigating climate change.”
And yet, he remains skeptical about the federal government’s role in mitigating climate change, Sasse said.
Sasse’s team didn’t respond to The Alligator’s request for comment after calling, emailing and using his Senate website’s contact request form.
Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch, a governing board member of the South Florida Water Management District and UF alumna, said anti-regulatory rhetoric is typical among people who support states’ rights. She was appointed by Gov. Ron Desantis in 2019.
As someone who has been on the ground working on water quality issues in the St. Lucie River and in the Indian River Lagoon, Thurlow-Lippisch said protecting the environment is going to require federal, state and local support.
“No disrespect to Mr. Sasse,” Thurlow-Lippisch said. “But it’s all hands on deck.”
Earlier this month, Sasse criticized the EPA’s Waters of the U.S. SCOTUS case. The WOTUS rule, which is being argued in the case, defines where the Clean Water Act can be applied and is currently used in regulating water quality and pollution.
“When unelected bureaucrats in Washington try regulating puddles, ditches and streams things get crazy,” Sasse said. “These decisions are managed best at the county and state level where conservation and common sense go hand in hand.”
For students and faculty, Sasse’s doubt in regulatory policies such as WOTUS and the Green New Deal is cause for concern.
Al-Khafaji emphasized eliminating dependency on fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable energy requires government regulations. His skepticism is an excuse to prioritize personal profit over ecological and societal health, she said.
“UF nor our global environment can afford to have a leader that devalues the importance of immediate climate action while accepting millions of dollars from those who oppose it,” Campbell said. “The issue is too urgent, and the risks are too great.”
One project that Sasse may have to oversee in his potential presidency is UF’s new energy plant.
UF’s proposed Central Energy Plant Project — which will burn natural gas to produce steam — will begin construction in 2023. Although UF’s Office of Sustainability expects the plant will reduce the university’s greenhouse gas emissions by 25%, the plant contradicts the university’s commitment to reach carbon neutrality by 2025, Al-Khafaji said.
If Sasse wants to demonstrate commitment to the student body’s climate demands, he’ll have to halt the progress of the natural gas plant, Al-Khafaji said. That seems unlikely based on his political history, she said, and she expects the demands will be dismissed.
Stephen Mulkey, climate scientist, UF sustainability and climate change lecturer and former president of Unity College, disagrees with Sasse’s reliance on technology and innovation to stop the fossil fuel industry — especially in the U.S., the country with highest per capita emissions in the world.
Demands to decarbonize UF will not be met because of the university’s ties to the state, regardless of the presidential nomination, Mulkey said. For both Mulkey and Al-Khafaji, the ideal first step from here would be for Sasse to reject the presidency. However, they foresee Sasse accepting the position.
The only way Sasse can prove his commitment to mitigating climate change is to agree with demands like Al-Khafaji’s, he added.
Instead of building the plant, Mulkey proposed installing more solar as an alternative, falling in line with a recent analysis by the Rocky Mountain Institute, which suggests transitioning to renewable energy would save the university over $100 million.
During his presidency of Unity College, Mulkey led a successful fossil fuel divestment initiative. Initiatives, even at a flagship university, can succeed under considerable pressure from the student body, he said.
“You need to plan to be active and in protesting and objecting,” Mulkey said. “You've got to be willing to get uncomfortable, to get out there and march and be loud and make the case.”
Student Government Sen. Jonathan C. Stephens, (Change-District D), anticipates they will have to work together with Sasse during their term to continue the different climate-related projects the university has planned. They noted, however, the work ahead involves not only the president but also the rest of the faculty, including the provost and the budget appropriations committee.
“Obviously, the senate can’t fund every single thing when it comes to climate policy,” Stephens said.
Change can come from small actions as well, they said. A straightforward way to get people thinking sustainably every day is to require a universal recycling label on all publicity material within student government organizations, they said.
“Trying to help change the culture is what’s going to help change the tide for us to be able to get a difference in climate change,” Stephens said.
Contact Fernando at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @fernfigue.
Fern is a junior journalism and sustainability studies major. He previously reported for the University and Metro desks. Now, he covers the environmental beat on the Enterprise desk. When he's not reporting, you can find him dancing to house music at Barcade or taking photos on his Olympus.