As the temperature dropped overnight and ushered in a chilled, gray morning, four University of Washington students awoke chained to the campus’s power plant. Sunday marked nearly 36 hours and counting that a small group of student activists have used their bodies to protest the university’s continued investment in fossil fuels.
The demonstration followed a rally and march through the campus Friday evening.
The students are seeking a commitment that UW will achieve 95% decarbonization by 2035, and a concurrent emissions reduction, by replacing the fossil fuels used to heat the campus with geothermal energy and heat pumps. The university now has a goal to meet this target by 2050, but as one of the state’s top greenhouse gas polluters — ranked 30th in Washington — students say waiting nearly 30 years is not ambitious enough.
“We will remain here until our demands are met,” said Brett Anton, an organizer among the students chained to the fence Sunday, a group that had grown to six by midmorning.
Anton said Ana Marie Cauce, the university’s president, has been receptive and met with the activists three times already over the weekend to negotiate terms. She also has agreed not to have the protesters arrested or impeded, as long as they remain peaceful and nondestructive, though that will be reassessed Monday morning based on whether the students’ presence impedes power plant operations, Anton said.
Victor Balta, a spokesperson for the university, wrote in an email that while the school cannot sign an agreement without first understanding the scope of the potentially $825 million project, “we share their concerns and commitment to replace the steam plant as soon as is feasible.”
Cauce intends to work with students and UW Facilities “on a decarbonization plan with a feasible goal and timeline that she and the Regents could commit to in the fall,” Balta wrote.
According to Anton, Cauce told the group they could expect an update on the university’s commitment on climate goals at the November Board of Regents meeting.
The campus, which has been relying on fossil fuel generation since the 1890s, produced nearly 90,000 metric tons of climate-warming greenhouse gases in 2021, The Seattle Times reported in February. UW anticipates it will pay up to $5.2 million a year for its emission allowances as part of the state’s newly launched carbon pricing scheme, which allows large emitters to buy and sell carbon, essentially paying to pollute.
However, to meaningfully replace fuel sources campuswide, Anton said the university will need to undertake significant construction to alter piping systems. Alongside the climate commitment, the group is also seeking a pledge to upgrade the school’s accessibility for students with disabilities during this construction. Moving throughout UW, he said, is now prohibitive for many students with disabilities.
Alongside a handwritten banner hung in front of the power plant’s looming, black smoke stack, was a display of orange block letters reading “Fracked Gas Is a DEAD End.”