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Leading the Charge

Swarthmore enters the carbon-pricing conversation

I learned about global warming back in grade school: With time, global temperatures would increase, seas would rise, storms would intensify—and that would be bad. As a child, I viewed the polar bears’ plight as sorrowful, but a problem a later generation would surely figure out. 

As a Swarthmore student, I discovered much more about the ways in which fossil fuels contribute to human suffering and death. I learned about food and water insecurity that will become a reality for many regions, from extreme permanent drought in East Africa, the Middle East, and the western United States to submersion of agricultural land in Bangladesh and the Mekong Delta. I learned about ocean acidification killing marine life that tens of millions depend on for food. I learned about equatorial cities that will become uninhabitable when temperatures regularly exceed what humans can survive and the forced migrations and political instability that these impacts will engender.

Indeed, the world pays a steep price for our extraction of fossil fuels.

To avoid the worst effects of climate change, the United Nations agreed that the planet must restrict its global temperature rise to under 2 degrees Celsius. To have a reasonable chance of meeting that goal, we must keep more than 84 percent of our fossil fuel reserves in the ground. Unfortunately, there aren’t many politically feasible policy options for that kind of swift and deep decarbonization of the global economy. 

What to do?

Placing a sufficiently expensive price on extracting carbon is a rare policy solution that can keep those reserves in the ground while holding bipartisan appeal. If the tax is high enough, fossil fuels won’t be able to compete with renewable energy, and continued extraction won’t be profitable. Even better, in models with a dividend to families, lower-income people come out ahead, since wealthier people consume more carbon. 

Immediately after graduating, I started work as Swarthmore’s climate action senior fellow in the Office of Sustainability to help bring the College and higher education into the national carbon-pricing dialogue. Swarthmore’s nascent Carbon Charge program provides a platform to educate and engage the community on carbon pricing while incentivizing emissions reductions right here on campus. Beyond Swarthmore, we’re working with other colleges and universities to build awareness and momentum for internal carbon pricing in academia and elsewhere.

We’re also working with others to advance carbon pricing on the national stage, including David Gelber ’63, H’17, who co-created the Years of Living Dangerously documentary series on the impacts of climate change. That team partnered with the national advocacy group Our Climate to create the Put a Price on It campaign, which aims to empower students and encourage higher-ed leaders to push for a national price on carbon. President Valerie Smith was the second signatory on their endorsement letter, and she spearheaded efforts to encourage other college presidents to join as well. (David created a video——on our efforts.)

Even as one of the most feasible solutions to climate change, enacting carbon pricing is still an uphill battle. To change the political landscape, we need advocates using many strategies from all sectors of society. We need to make it clear to elected officials—and everyone—that the climate is a priority and that carbon pricing is a necessary part of the solution. In many ways, Swarthmore is taking leadership on this issue. You’re a part of that. Visit to learn more or email

NATHAN GRAF ’16 is Swarthmore’s climate action senior fellow.