“No greenwashing”: Provost candidates cover climate crisis in debate led by Mary Robinson

Provost candidates outlined strategies to increase Trinity’s sustainability efforts at a climate change discussion this evening

Avoiding tokenism and greenwashing should be important factors in the next provost’s plans to address the climate crisis, the candidates for the role have emphasised. 

At a debate on climate change this evening, Professors Doyle, Hogan and Ohlmeyer outlined strategies to increase Trinity’s sustainability efforts while avoiding new burdens on staff members’ workloads.

Former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, who is an adjunct professor in Trinity and a former chancellor, posed questions to the candidates on embedding climate knowledge into curricula, how to achieve sustainability in College operations, and creating a culture change in College’s approach to the climate.

The candidates were asked their opinions on Trinity’s Green Week and how effective it is to have students providing leadership. 

“Every week should be Green Week,” Professor Ohlmeyer opened. She said that although it is “fantastic that we’ve taken the initiatives we have,” College must “look at biodiversity in all of our campuses.” 

Ohlmeyer proposed the creation of allotments at Trinity Hall, outdoor trails, and outdoor classrooms. 

Professor Hogan identified that it is “important for the university not to co-opt student activity” and that it must “allow that to be as radical as it needs to be” to “push us to be better than who we are.” 

She said that Green Week needs to be “embedded across the university.”

Doyle said that she believes Green Week is akin to “the chapter in the history book on women’s history”, and that environmental efforts need to be “part of everything”. 

She expressed that rankings are a “very very poor way” of showing progress because of a lack of transparency, and that “while it’s great to have [Green Week], that doesn’t equal that we’re doing great”. That attitude is “at best not properly thought out” and “at worst it’s greenwashing.”

On how the candidates would “achieve true sustainability” in College operations in a way that would address key issues, such as biodiversity, procurement and waste management, Professor Hogan said: “No greenwashing, no tricks, and no gimmicks,”

She added that College needs to be “prepared to pay the price for that”. She called for a full annual audit of College’s carbon footprint and a review of direct and indirect emissions.

Professor Ohlmeyer said that she would take a “bottom-up” approach and listen to student voices on this issue. She highlighted plans to appoint a dedicated sustainability officer and emphasised the need to involve “everybody in the college” in sustainability efforts.

Speaking next, Professor Doyle looked at the importance of tackling both “very bold radical things and very boring things”. She raised the idea of developing buildings on both the east and west ends of campus in a way that “puts energy back in the grid”.

Candidates navigated a question on how they would “embed the necessary knowledge and skills on climate and biodiversity across college curricula and support students in pursuing environmental careers”.

Doyle said that she would introduce a sustainability office and a vice-provost for biodiversity and climate, a plan which was later echoed by Professor Ohlmeyer, who said she would appoint a vice-president for climate action, biodiversity and sustainability. 

She said the new appointment would “underpin all of the other activity”, which she envisions involving weaving the environment into existing curricula and “creating dedicated modules that all staff and students can take in a micro-credentialing model”.

Looking at students, Professor Hogan said that they are “far ahead” of staff on climate issues and that would be “one of the things that needs to guide our approach to education and the student journey”.

Embedding skills around responding to the climate crisis and planet responsibility into modules would be important, Hogan said, as well as developing new programmes for undergraduate and postgraduate students, and for continuing professional development.

“We begin this conversation by actually listening to students,” Professor Ohlemyer said, touching on the need to create students that are “environmentally literate and care passionately about the environment”.

Ohlmeyer said that College needs to incentivise staff to “embed climate action and biodiversity in everything we do” and to “ensure that Trinity is a laboratory of learning in terms of how to decarbonise and celebrate biodiversity”.

The final question of this evening’s discussion centred on how to ensure all staff members are “environmentally literate”, and what trade-offs candidates would be willing to make to do this without adding additional workloads onto staff. 

Speaking first, Ohlmeyer stated that she would draw on the College’s alumni network, while also harnessing the “amazing expertise that we have” and “the passion of our students”. She added that College as a community needs to give the issue “150%” and address it with the same urgency as Covid-19, as well as needing to “develop a distinctive and influential Irish voice in this discussion”.

Doyle echoed Ohlmeyer’s sentiment, stating that there needs to be more focus in teaching and research. She said that there needs to be solutions in place to allow people on campus to feel the impact of changing their lifestyle, such as making it “simple” to find somewhere to put your bike or to build water foundations. 

Hogan responded to the question by emphasising the importance of leadership, stating that a “culture change is essentially about setting our values and living our values. She emphasised that it was important not to “bureaucratise” this, and that she was “very concerned about Trinity’s history of something being “overly bureaucratised” and which then “becomes a box ticking exercise”.

Leading the discussion, Robinson put it to the candidates that academics are already stressed with their workload and asked them how College could be more focused on ensuring colleagues feel “cared about in a real way”. 

Responding to this, Doyle said that while College “does a lot about social justice … we don’t exercise that ourselves when running things”. She said that significant work needs to be done to drive a “deep-rooted fairness” to tackle issues like these “head on”, and that the values behind climate action feed into similar principles of fairness and human rights.

Ohlymeyer said that many in College are “drowning in paperwork”, which is caused by “systems not being fit for purpose”, and this needs to be addressed to “give colleagues back time”. She said that issues of climate action “need to be embed”, and it is critical people have “the time and headspace to actually do that”, as well as being sympathetic to colleagues who may be parents or have other responsibilities.

Hogan responded by saying that “fostering the culture of empowerment, autonomy and trust” is fundamental to the issue of balancing work on climate action with balance for staff, and it is “all about empowering people”. “The work does not become burdensome when one has the capacity to choose one’s priority,” she explained. 

Responding to a question on the extent to which staff and students’ travel patterns needs to change in the context of their impact on the environment, Hogan said that it is important for students to travel to other places as part of their education, but added that a balance needs to be struck between the values of internationalisation and our carbon footprint. 

She said this could be done by reducing flights by 10%, offsetting the other 90%, and building hybrid forms of education to reduce the carbon footprint. She said that this would need to include student travel and College should pay the cost of offsetting those flights.

Ohlmeyer responded similarly, stating that in the last year due to the pandemic, she has canceled twelve flights. Upon reflection, she admitted, she “probably only needed to take three of them”. Ohlmeyer added that this year has been a “wake-up call to us all”, and while we need to acknowledge that we are an island and some air travel is necessary, we need to use our imagination to build hybrid systems through technology.

Doyle looked at the idea of approaching travel in a different way than how it currently happens, giving the example of an “Erasmus-Camino”, which would become one of traveling on a boat or train and “learning along the way”, she stated. Doyle said that this was just one College can “turn things on its head” and “do things in a different way” to provide a solution to reducing our carbon footprint. 

The climate change debate took place this evening over Zoom, with around 500 viewers watching the discussion at the start of the night.

The next public hustings in the campaign is set for March 29, when the candidates are to be hosted by Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU).

Lauren Boland

Lauren Boland was the Editor of the 67th volume of Trinity News. She is an English Literature and Sociology graduate and previously served as Deputy Editor, News Editor and Assistant News Editor.

Shannon Connolly

Shannon Connolly is the Editor-in-Chief of the 69th volume Trinity News, and a Senior Sophister student of English Literature and Philosophy. She previously served as Deputy Editor, News Editor and Assistant News Editor.

Kate Henshaw

Kate Henshaw is current Deptuty Editor of Trinity News, and a Senior Sophister Sociology and Social Policy student. She previously served as News Editor and Assistant News Editor.