A sign states Pepperdine is “leading through stewardship” by shutting off the fountain on main campus. The University turned off the fountain to conserve water during California’s drought. Photo by Ali Levens
At least 97% of climate scientists affirm the increase in global warming is due to human activity, according to NASA. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has over 200 years of data from 150 countries to support this.
Pepperdine does not take a stance on climate change to encourage debate and free thinking, wrote Ricky Eldridge, director of Center for Sustainability, in a Dec. 3 email to the Graphic. The University has refused to take a stance, despite the scientific consensus on anthropogenic — or human-caused — climate change, while 334 U.S. colleges and universities agreed to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, according to University World News.
Chris Doran — professor of Religion and Sustainability and founder of the Sustainability major and minor — and all five student Youth Evangelical Climate Advocates said the University not taking a stance harms their education, the University and the surrounding community.
“It seems really tragic that we, as a Christian university, would not want to be on the forefront of that issue, trying to mitigate climate releases and to be more effective caretakers of the resources that we claim that God gives us,” Doran said. “If we can increasingly define ourselves on this issue by just not saying anything, it says to the outside world that we don’t think climate change is real.”
Beyond faculty and students in Sustainability, around 88% of respondents in a spring 2022 Graphic survey of 97 students and faculty said climate change is a serious issue and 83% said addressing climate change is important to them.
What is Sustainability at Pepperdine?
Doran advises 53 students who are Sustainability minors and the seven students who are majors. The Sustainability major began in 2021 and focuses on an interdisciplinary approach for sustainability and climate change.
Pepperdine, as an institution, also has several sustainability initiatives it follows. For example, the University implemented a water reclamation program in 1972, according to the Center for Sustainability website.
Pepperdine is outside of Malibu city limits and therefore unincorporated in LA County, so it does not have to follow Malibu mandates, such as the plastic utensils ban. Pepperdine chooses to opt in to certain programs, such as the Dark Sky Ordinance to reduce light pollution, according to previous Graphic reporting.
The University not following some Malibu sustainability guidelines “reflects very poorly on administration,” said Emily Stephens, senior Sustainability major and one of the five members of YECA.
Pepperdine’s sustainability policy decision-making is thoughtful and will not always align with the policies of surrounding areas, Chief Business Officer Nicolle Taylor wrote in an April 7 email to the Graphic.
“[Policy decisions] are complex considerations of our governing jurisdictions (in this case, primarily Los Angeles County), our local and neighboring areas and that which is best for our community, as well,” Taylor wrote.
To offset its effects on climate change, universities can stop using, or divest, from fossil fuels, generate its own renewable power and create an infrastructure that is carbon-neutral, according to The Conversation. The movement is effective if the universities have ambitious leaders to lead climate action and students, staff and university communities who are educated on climate change issues, according to that same article.
“In a professional setting where there is a request, like paying carbon offsets, that will cost tens of thousands of dollars, we must research such a request carefully,” Taylor wrote in a Feb. 11 email to the Graphic. “We asked the YECA students for additional research, and I understand them to be doing that work.”
As an institution of about 10,000 people among the five schools, Doran said Pepperdine needs to be conscious of its impact on the surrounding area.
“We don’t seem to be acting responsibly when it comes to accepting the science for what it is, like all of our other community partners,” Doran said, about Pepperdine not making decisions in the interest of this proven scientific phenomenon.
The Graphic’s survey found 63% of respondents do not think Pepperdine has a sufficient response to climate change and 60% believe the University does not engage in enough sustainability efforts.
Surrounding universities in Southern California, such as University of California, Los Angeles, University of Southern California and University of San Diego, publicly acknowledge their impact on the planet through a climate change lens, so the universities calculate and reduce their carbon emissions in their climate action plans.
Michel Boudrias, professor of Ocean and Environmental Sciences at the Catholic-affiliated University of San Diego, said when making sustainability decisions, it is “critical” to tap into the experts on campus instead of hiring outside consultants.
“We were able to get support from the administration to say, ‘Look you can’t just make this decision without any facts and any background,’” Boudrias said.
Doran said the administration has not meaningfully consulted Pepperdine’s faculty who teach about climate change, but [he believes] the administration should.
Doran said one of his concerns is that Pepperdine’s administrators are not climate scientists and, therefore, make decisions outside of their expertise.
Taylor wrote the University has historically partnered with faculty for research, such as journal publications and with retired Biology Professor Steve Davis’ comprehensive studies on native chaparral plants. The University also hosts Climate Calling and climate science speakers on campus, like Katharine Hayhoe and Bill McKibben.
What Is a Stance?
The University purposefully does not take a position on many issues, and a lack of a position does not hinder the University’s sustainability efforts, Eldridge wrote.
“It is generally rare for the University to take an official stance on any given issue, as such stances can, in effect, impose thought-mandates, limiting the aforementioned ideals,” Eldridge wrote. “At Pepperdine, sustainability has been conceptualized in light of our faith-based mission, resulting in a commitment to managing our resources in an ethical, practical and purposeful manner.”
Although Eldridge and Taylor said the University does not take public stances on social issues, the YECA members said the University must make a statement on this issue because of its Christian affiliation.
“[Pepperdine] will not use Christianity to take a stance on issues like this, where the Bible so clearly states that as Christians, we are to care for God’s creation and to care and love for our neighbors who are being directly impacted by these issues of climate change,” Stephens said.
Doran and the YECA members said Taylor and Eldridge told their Climate Change Fundamentals class in the January 2021 term the University will not take a stance on climate change, especially anthropogenic climate change.
Taylor confirmed this statement, but affirmed the lack of a stance is “intended to encourage the widest discussions and investigations in this topic without limitation or influenced conclusions.”
Pepperdine acknowledges the importance and complexity of climate change as it faces “the sustainability community,” Eldridge wrote, but encourages students to seek “empirical and academic knowledge” to make “informed decisions for the overall betterment of the environment.”
Boudrias said it is critical for a Christian university to take a stance on climate change. He said climate change occurring and disproportionately affecting poor and disadvantaged communities is not up for debate.
“If you’re a faith-based university that cares about the poor and the disadvantaged, and you care about the planet, then it’s just something that needs to be done,” Boudrias said.
Around 80% of respondents in the Graphic’s survey indicated they believe Pepperdine should take a stance on climate change.
“We would love to see Pepperdine take that chance and take action on climate change because it’s our generation’s and most generations’ most pressing issue,” Stephens said.
Approximately 69% of Generation Z said they are anxious, motivated and angry to act on climate change, according to a 2021 PEW Research Center Survey.
Florencia Padilla, senior Sustainability major and Global Fellows student, said Pepperdine refusing to take a stance on climate change shows privilege and is in direct opposition of the University’s mission.
“We are a Christian school, and we need it to reflect our values of loving our neighbor as ourselves and taking care of communities that do not have the privilege just to even acknowledge this issue,” Padilla said. “They’re living it in their everyday lives.”
Padilla said the administration added the words “climate change” to the website without denoting that it is human-caused this semester.
The statement, “Pepperdine encourages open dialogue on the issues of sustainability and climate change,” is on the Curriculum tab under the Current Practices page on the Sustainability website. The phrase did not appear on the homepage.
The University plans to add additional information to its website with the help of the YECA students, Taylor wrote.
Eldridge wrote the “key to our educational enterprise” is to refrain from implementing administrative beliefs for the entire University, instead encouraging “the free exchange of ideas, intellectual inclusion and respectful discussion and debate.”
Similarly, Taylor wrote the “neutrality” of the University does not hinder its support for faculty, student, sustainability and research goals — despite the differing views of administrators and students.
“The absence of a University position shouldn’t be mistaken for members of the University administration not feeling very strongly about the importance of climate change,” Taylor wrote. “And thank goodness it doesn’t, because the whole point of an educational institution is to be a foundational support for research, thought leadership, investigation and appropriate advocacy.”
Why Is There No Stance?
Doran said the lack of a position on climate change could be due to Pepperdine’s conservative, Evangelical donor base and administration.
“To say it out loud would be to disenfranchise some folks that we want to attract,” Doran said. “Or, we make some people who are in positions of power at our universities’ top administrative level very uncomfortable because […] their comments do not square with the science as it is.”
Boudrias said he faced similar challenges and resistance from the University of San Diego’s Board of Trustees about early sustainability initiatives in 2006. He said he puts sustainability investments into perspective, as most of the Board’s concerns were about costs, which turned out to save his university funds in the long run.
Boudrias said it is more important to focus on students’ wishes and lose a few donors because a university takes a stance.
“What we should be doing is putting our energies and supporting the hundreds and hundreds of people who want to do it right,” Boudrias said.
This lack of a stance could impact relationships with potential students, climate advocates, donors and surrounding communities, Doran said.
“There are plenty of people in Malibu that would love to participate in what we do here, but if they believe that we don’t take climate change seriously, and that’s their issue that they want to donate money about, why would they be a part of that?” Doran said.
Taylor said people who support and oppose using alternative energy have both reached out to the University, showing no one’s dedication is “diminished by the presence of the other position.”
“The fact that someone is so passionate about a subject doesn’t absolve the responsibility for funding requests to be evaluated among the many competing priorities and requests and the finite pool of organizational resources,” Taylor wrote.
The Graphic survey found that 71% of respondents believe organizations with a strong response against climate change are attractive to them.
“Those advocating for it aren’t going anywhere,” said Allie McMullen, junior Sustainability and Political Science double-major and YECA member. “The administration’s going to have to choose whether or not they’re going to make a decision, or if they’re going to continue just to let all these issues pass them by.”
Doran said he is disappointed to see Pepperdine essentially ignore science by not taking a stance, especially as a donor, professor and sustainability advocate for the Santa Monica Mountains.
Doran and his wife, Amy, have endowed a climate fellowship for a senior “who has demonstrated a deep commitment to educating the Seaver community about the effects of anthropogenic climate change,” according to the fellowship’s webpage.
Effects on Education
Doran said he worries the administration thinks the Sustainability faculty are teaching “a large global conspiracy” and that climate change is not real.
“As a professor, it’s really disheartening to me to think that a university that says it wants to pursue truth relentlessly is not willing to accept the truth that has been pursued, which is the vast, vast, vast, vast majority of the world scientists who work on climate change,” Doran said.
In response, Taylor wrote no administrator has “express[ed] a view even close to what is described.”
The five YECA members are also Sustainability majors and said they feel disconnected from what they are learning in class versus the administration’s overall attitude regarding climate change.
“It feels almost as though [the administration believes] that our education is something that is quite silly, for lack of better words,” Stephens said. “They obviously don’t accept that climate change, anthropological climate change is real, and that is our entire major. That is what we’re learning about. That is the basis of who we are and what we are going to do for the rest of our lives.”
Junior Dawnielle Wright, Sustainability and Political Science double-major and one of the five YECA members, said she does not feel supported by the administration and finds it difficult to be proud of her vocation of climate care — or a calling to be conscious of an individual’s acts to cut carbon emissions — because of administration’s attitudes.
Taylor wrote she has never heard of an unsupportive administrator, and instead wrote the administrators are “instrumental in supporting our students in pursuit of such vocations.” Administrators have spoken with sustainability-related classes and know students feel “very well-educated and supported upon graduation,” Taylor wrote.
The YECA members said they want administrators to publicly acknowledge the impact of climate change and why it is important for many peoples’ livelihoods.
Climate change has dire consequences that affect the entire population, such as worsening air quality, loss of water sources and rainfall, a decrease in food supply and rising global temperatures, according to Mercy Corps. These issues force people to relocate and send people into poverty.
Wright said Pepperdine should be a leader and steward of the land.
“It depletes our credibility if we can’t say anthropogenic climate change is real and do something about it,” Wright said.
USD published its first climate action plan in 2016. Boudrias said this was a collaborative effort to become a “greener university,” from undergraduate and graduate students to the expert faculty and facilities to the Board of Trustees and administration.
“We’re trying to combine the power of the students and the energy of faculty and students together to inform what the university needs to do as a university that’s becoming more and more part of what we do for the climate,” Boudrias said.
Boudrias said he pushed hard for the phrase “climate change” to appear in USD’s recent investment policy, which details the university’s divestment from fossil fuels by 2035 and considers the environmental and social aspects to the University’s investments. As of 2021, Boudrias said USD has around 5,000 solar panels.
About a quarter of Pepperdine’s electricity is from renewable sources, according to the energy page on the Center for Sustainability website; however, the FAQs page says the University’s energy is 36% renewable. The other 75% is not listed. The University also has gas-fired heating systems, according to the website.
One of the ways Pepperdine can learn about its greenhouse gas emissions is to measure and create solutions to reduce these emissions, known as a carbon audit, YECA and Doran said. This was a major component in USD’s climate action plan.
“Any topic of carbon audits, carbon neutrality, carbon offsets, was shut down by administration and said not to be important,” Wright said.
The YECA team also suggested the University pay to offset carbon emissions for students traveling abroad in Pepperdine’s International Programs, which Taylor wrote could be costly and likely have an impact on the finances required for those students.
USD is one of two U.S. universities to have a climate action plan approved by the Pope in “Laudato si,” or care for the common home. This agreement with the Vatican holds USD to a seven-year sustainability commitment for the climate action plan, climate adaptation and resilience, and environmental justice.
Pepperdine does not have a climate action plan or similar measurable accountability.
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Contact Ali Levens via Instagram (@journ.ali.sm) or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org