Carol L. Folt is the 12th president of USC. (Photo/Courtesy of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)


President Folt outlines ambitious yet achievable plans for sustainability

In two high-profile public appearances, the president also detailed USC’s efforts to combat the local — and global — effects of climate change and COVID-19.

September 24, 2020 Gary Polakovic

In a clarion call for action, USC President Carol L. Folt staked an expansive role for the university as a force for solutions to the triple threats of climate change, social injustice and the novel coronavirus during a pair of public events this week.

In back-to-back appearances in Los Angeles on Monday and Tuesday, Folt expounded on her vision for sustainability, a priority since she came to USC one year ago. Since then, the need to curb environmental threats has converged with imperatives to halt a global pandemic, economic instability and racial inequality, all of which disproportionately impact vulnerable people in society and destabilize the nation and the planet.

“For me, sustainability is at the core of everything I believe,” said Folt, an environmental scientist. “I see very few problems bigger than the problem of sustainability, than building a healthy planet that will sustain people, keeping people’s health strong and helping to eliminate the disparities that — with climate change and pollution — are increasing health and educational disparities between people that have access to good resources and people that don’t.”

Sustainability is at the core of everything I believe.

President Carol L. Folt

Folt delivered her remarks to government, business and health leaders, first at a webinar hosted by the USC Institute on Inequalities in Global Health on Monday that featured David Nabarro, a World Health Organization special envoy on COVID-19. The event was co-sponsored by the Presidential Working Group on Sustainability, a faculty-led USC task force that Folt created last year.

And on Tuesday, Folt appeared in a joint session with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti at the L.A. Business Council’s annual Sustainability Summit, an online gathering of business and government leaders. The session marked Folt’s latest public-facing event with the mayor this year and underscores the deepening partnership between USC and the city to respond to big challenges. The summit was a partnership with the USC Price School of Public Policy, the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy and the Center for Engagement-Driven Global Education (EDGE) at the USC Rossier School of Education.

President Folt links climate change and COVID-19 as pressing global issues

Since her arrival at USC, Folt has advocated a vision for an activist university that meets the biggest challenges of the day with the full weight of its resources. Total USC engagement involves the expansion of strategic partnerships, preparing students to become change agents and leveraging the academic clout of a leading research university to solve problems. This week’s sessions with the WHO’s Nabarro — who is also a U.N. leader on health and sustainability issues — and Garcetti — who leads America’s second-largest city — underscore that strategy.

“Two of the most pressing issues of our time [are] climate change and COVID-19,” Folt said. “Their pairing is appropriate. Climate change and environmental degradation have always hit underserved communities the hardest. And as we’re seeing here in the United States, the same is true for COVID-19.”

She noted that, among people of color, Blacks die at a rate 2.4 times greater than whites in America due to COVID-19. “Inequities like this set off alarm bells that warn us that we need answers and we need solutions quickly,” Folt said.

“There are enormous inequities about COVID. It is a disease that really bites into poorer communities all over the world, and it’s getting much worse,” Nabarro said.

In response, USC’s vast research enterprise has made a hard pivot in the past six months, investing millions of dollars and dedicating dozens of scientists, doctors and engineers on a mission to decipher the novel coronavirus, develop vaccines and track disease transmission across populations.

Also, USC has helped the local community cope with COVID-19 by:

  • Delivering 4 million pounds of food to needy neighborhood schools, families and seniors.
  • Providing people with 160,000 prepackaged meals.
  • Delivering 25,000 bags of groceries.
  • Providing lodging for 10,000 nights to USC workers who can’t go home for fear of spreading disease.

To protect the environment, USC should capitalize on the moment and respond to the climate crisis by allying with partners working diligently for the same purpose. She described partnerships with the city to plant trees in L.A. and promote environmental education in conjunction with the L.A. Unified School District.

Said Garcetti: “This is the moment, this decade must be the decade of action. I call it the climate decade. It is clear that it’s too late to reverse what’s happened, but it is not too late to mitigate it if we do it together.”

USC president shares list of top sustainability initiatives

To that end, Folt shared a short list of aggressive yet achievable initiatives to promote USC sustainability, including:

  • Phasing out single-use, non-essential plastics.
  • Attaining a zero-waste campus.
  • Achieving carbon-neutrality.
  • Adding more solar energy panels atop buildings.
  • Advancing a new 2028 Sustainability Plan to guide efforts for the coming decade.

In the quest for a more just and sustainable planet, USC’s biggest asset is its people. Folt described the USC community — 80,000 strong plus roughly 400,000 alumni — as a “magnificent army” that can make a difference.

“We have a community that is pushing for change, students who want to turn the tide for the future and faculty and staff who are pursuing cutting-edge research and operational changes to drive sustainability,” she said. “This is our moment. We would be remiss if we didn’t see that opening and run through that door.”

This is as service-minded a generation as I’ve ever seen.

President Folt

In particular, Folt mentioned changes coming to the USC curriculum so that undergraduates receive education in sustainability, cutting across schools and departments. She also mentioned research initiatives, such as convergent science on environmental issues at the USC Center for Sustainability Solutions.

She described new efforts by USC educators to reach young people in L.A.’s K-12 schools before they get to college, to equip them with a basic understanding of sustainability issues.

“You’ve got to start with these kids, got to get them educated and have them understand the importance of decisions they make and opportunities for them that deal with sustainability,” Folt said. “You really can’t talk about justice at all if you don’t think about the way people are educated, the help they have, the world in which they live.”

USC students key to sustainability goals, President Folt says

Folt described USC students as her best hope in the face of the most daunting challenges in today’s world. Hope is found, she said, in preparing young people for action, dispersing them across business and government and nonprofit groups, and unleashing their creativity and passion for change.

“This is as service-minded a generation as I’ve ever seen,” Folt said. “And I think the COVID-19 pandemic has really inspired people, as well as all the movements associated with Black Lives Matter. People want to help others. We have that amazing group of people to really help us.

“They inspire me every day, and hope is a great inspiration in times of travail. I think we all turn to it — so now, let’s make it be real.”