Our Environment is suffering and our Democracy is failing – Recap: Upenn's Climate Justice panel.

Updated: Oct 24, 2019


From left to right: Meenal Raval, Peter Handler, Dr. Eric Orts, Gabriella Marchesani, Ellen Neises

University of Pennsylvania, October 15th 2019.

Dynamic dialogue erupted at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman Center for Political Science and Economics as 10 panelists representing a wide array of environmental specialists, scholars, and activists gave their opinion on how climate change and environmental degradation is affecting our economy, way of living, and democracy. Hosted by the Penn Government & Politics Association and the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy, this event focused on the role of government in promoting environmental citizenship and sustainability.

Ten Panelists

  • Feliquan Charlemagne: US Youth Climate Strike Co-founder

  • Peter Handler: Citizens Climate Lobby & Artist

  • Sabirah Mahmud: Youth Climate Strike PA State Lead

  • Ellen Neises: Landscape Architect

  • Dr. Eric Orts: Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership

  • Gabriella Marchesani: Youth Climate Strike Florida State Lead

  • Dr. Andrew Huemmler: Chemical + Biomolecular Engineering Professor

  • Meenal Raval: Sierra Club Southeastern PA

  • Mitch Chanin: 350 Philadelphia

  • Chad Forcey: Exec. Director of PA Conservative Energy Forum


One of the biggest questions of the night relevant to many attendees was whether Penn should divest from fossil fuels. Many panelists, especially those with strong ties to the University, believed that the University should stop investing in the industry.


“Fossil fuel investments are rather risky,” said Dr. Andrew Huemmler, a professor in the Penn CBE department, explaining that oil investments bet on a future of political turmoil. He also says that “from a reputation basis it would be a huge advantage for Penn [to divest].”


“Penn has a moral responsibility to take action,” said Sabirah Mahmud, stating that Penn’s actions have an impact on the surrounding community. Sabirah says she’s witnessed firsthand how such decisions disproportionately affect people of color in the adjacent area where she lives.


Most panelists also agreed that the fossil fuel industry is compromising our democracy. Dr. Andrew Huemmler discussed how he's more concerned about the immediate threat of the oil and gas industry destroying democracy on a global basis, rather than on destroying the climate. Dr. Eric Orts added onto this discussion by highlighting the need to compromise so that the people can use democracy to win power. He describes how constant disagreements only allows the fossil fuel industry to grow stronger.


17-year-old Gabriella Marchesani brought a youthful perspective on the issue. Being both American and Brazilian, she discussed how she was displeased that both of her countries prioritized profit over people.


“Both [my] countries [Brazil and the US] have completely failed democracy,” said Gabriella Marchesani.

However, there was disagreement among panelist on what type of energy would be part of a sustainable future. While everyone agreed that solar and wind are essential renewables, there was discussion on whether natural gas will also play a part.


Chad Forcey, executive director of PA Conservative Energy Forum emphasized the quintessential role natural gas has had on meeting the United States’ energy needs, while also cutting emissions significantly. Not only does natural gas release half the amount of carbon dioxide that coal does, but it also does not release other harmful chemicals such as nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and mercury. He believes that natural gas will continue to play an important role in bringing us into a more sustainable future, and that we should not rush to categorize it similarly to other, more harmful fossil fuels.

“Natural gas is a bridge, it’s not the end. It’s a bridge from coal and petroleum to a future of renewables,” said Chad Forcey, citing how natural gas has replaced coal as the main energy source for electricity in Pennsylvania.


Dr. Eric Orts had similar opinions but also stated that “[natural gas] needs to be treated as a true bridge and not as a substitute.”

Dr. Eric Orts, however, had a more aggressive stances towards fossil fuels, calling for the complete and quick “ban on coal… not just in the United States but everywhere”.


Other panelists believed that there was no room for natural gas, and that we should stop painting the substance as a valid solution. Some argue that given the current state of our climate we must remove all fossil fuels if we are to stop the planet from warming drastically.


“We’re setting up a false dichotomy between natural gas and coal, which are both terrible options,” said Feliquen Charlemagne who firmly believes we need to completely step away from both.

Mitch Chanin echoed Feliquen’s statement saying, “We need to phase out all fossil fuels including natural gas very quickly.”


Afterwards, Dr. Andrew Huemmler said he did not want to bring up nuclear energy given the scrutiny natural gas got by most panelists, despite natural gas’ instrumental role in reducing carbon emissions and replacing coal. Andrew firmly believed in the power of nuclear given it exists as a net-zero carbon energy source. Other energy ideas that were briefly discussed were wind farms on the coast and solar farms in open rural areas.


Other new technologies such as geoengineering were discussed, but panelists generally believed that the technology is risky and not developed enough to have a significant impact on solving the climate crisis.


Altogether, all the panelist believed that it is necessary to take action before it is too late. Panelists urge the audience to take a stand despite how intimidating the problem seems; whether it be through political means or starting one’s own project. Though not all ten of the panelists agreed on how we would get towards a more sustainable future, they all knew it was necessary to start prioritizing people when making decisions.


“If you want change, consider understanding and having a little bit of empathy for your neighbors,” said Chad Forcey.

The Environmental Exchange

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