By Parker Brown, Communications Specialist

claire wang sign
Wang petitions for action on climate change. Photo:Duke Climate Coalition

DURHAM, N.C. — Claire Wang has cared about the environment for longer than she can even remember. That passion has led the rising senior Environmental Sciences and Policy major to become a dedicated environmental advocate.

Wang was recently awarded two prestigious scholarships: the Truman Scholarship and the Udall Scholarship. With Truman funding, Wang plans to pursue a degree in environmental law to lay the foundation for a career in environmental advocacy. This spring she was also recognized with Duke's Outstanding Leadership in Sustainability - Student Award.

Duke Environment corresponded with Wang recently to talk about her dedication to environmental advocacy, how students can benefit from studying environmental science and policy, her plans for the future, and what legislation she would most like to implement.

You have been an environmental advocate since you were a teenager in Utah. What sparked your interest in the environment and environmental advocacy?

Looking back, there was no single spark or a clean narrative arc that can explain my passion, but there were several formative bits and pieces. My parents, who immigrated to the U.S. from China almost 30 years ago, always emphasized to me the importance of not wasting food, water, or energy, which lent itself easily to a conservationist ethic.

My Chinese zodiac animal is the tiger, and when I learned as a kid that tigers were endangered, I launched myself into learning about species and habitat preservation, which fed a growing interest in the environment at large. Growing up in Utah, I lived just 10 minutes away from our state’s oil refineries and experienced dangerous levels of air pollution during the winter, which made me realize early on the harms associated with fossil fuel dependence. In high school, I decided to focus on climate change since it encompasses and exacerbates virtually every environmental, social and economic problem.

The impulse for advocacy has always been built into my interest in the environment, starting in my childhood by pestering my friends and family to change their own habits, and now pushing for institutional and system-wide change. With such urgent environmental threats, I never saw any choice but to act.

What are you most passionate about, and how have you cultivated that passion at Duke?

The issue I am most passionate about is climate change, which necessarily means that I am passionate about climate action. At Duke, I have worked directly on pushing for climate reforms through advocacy with my student group Duke Climate Coalition (DCC). In my freshman year, I launched a campaign for 100 percent renewable energy and a campaign for Duke to support renewable energy policy reform in North Carolina. By the end of the academic year, we had secured Duke’s support for the legalization of third-party energy sales in North Carolina, a policy which would expand access to and affordability of renewables for all customers in the state.

Since then, I have focused my organizing efforts on a new natural gas plant proposed to be built on campus. The plant had been announced with no prior consultation of campus or community members, and it was originally proposed to operate for at least 35 years and to begin construction in April 2017. Thanks to DCC’s organizing efforts among campus and community stakeholders, Duke created a committee to review the plant proposal, adjusted its carbon accounting to truthfully incorporate emissions from the plant, and promised to explore non-fossil options to meet its energy needs. This April, the plant was officially suspended. DCC will continue to work on ensuring equitable community input in Duke’s ongoing efforts at biogas procurement and will continue to push for renewable energy and energy efficiency options on campus.

Before I came to Duke, I could not have anticipated that student advocacy would be such an essential part of my college experience, but I’m incredibly grateful that it is. Students are uniquely positioned to call for the ambitious and much-needed change that is key to the survival of our generation and those to come. As I begin my senior year, I’m excited to create foundations that will allow for continued student advocacy and engagement on climate and environmental issues.

How has what you have learned in the classroom and through your internships made you a better environmental advocate?

Simply put, advocacy is a process of identifying problems and implementing solutions. These require knowledge of the issues (mostly gained through my classwork), as well as the skills and confidence to act on them (mostly developed through my student organizing and work experience).

How do you think other students at Duke could benefit from taking an Environmental Sciences and Policy course?

There is no issue that is unaffected by the environment. Interactions, effects, and dependencies with the natural world are at the core of all human knowledge and practice. Learning about the environment becomes even more important in the era of climate change, which will radically destabilize and transform the world that we know today. Understanding environmental problems and solutions will be essential in order to produce new sustainable, equitable, and resilient systems across issues and disciplines.

You were recently awarded two prestigious Udall and Truman scholarships, and have indicated an interest in pursuing concurrent Juris Doctor (JD) and Master of Environmental Management (MEM) degrees. Why does that degree program appeal to you, and what do you see yourself doing in five years?

The law has always interested me as a tool for environmental progress. Legal knowledge is important on a policy front to write and implement legislation or regulations. As is obvious in the current presidential administration, the law also enables the defense of environmental safeguards. The legal training that I would gain from a JD, coupled with the scientific and economic knowledge I would gain from an MEM, would provide me with the tools to create lasting, effective change.

If you had the power to get one piece of legislation signed into law right now what would it include and why?

I would create a national target for the phase-out of coal and natural gas in electricity generation, coupled with economic revitalization programs for coal- and gas-dependent communities. I won’t pretend to know exactly how and when such a policy should be implemented – obviously, any reform of this magnitude would require substantial analysis and stakeholder consultation before it could be implemented. The need for such a policy, however, cannot be denied.

The Paris Agreement aims to achieve global carbon neutrality by 2050 in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. Our current plans fall far short of that goal, and the implementation of those plans is even more lacking. At the 2017 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP23), 19 countries began planning to phase out their use of coal by 2030. Natural gas, while it burns cleaner than coal, results in leaks of methane – a gas with 80 times the warming effect of CO2 on a 20-year timeframe – and gas infrastructure build-out would lock in fossil fuel use for decades.

We need to start treating emissions reductions as an obligation, not as an afterthought. This means we need to accept that fossil fuel use cannot continue forever, and we need to plan for its transition. With ample renewable resources, already-viable technologies, and the potential to decarbonize other energy sectors, electricity is a key area to start.

As part of this transition, we must also ensure that communities dependent on fossil fuel for their livelihoods are not left behind. Assistance to retrain workers, protect pensions and healthcare, and encourage the development of new industries should be included as part of the climate package.

This is a tall order, but it’s one that is necessary for the survival and well-being of the country and the planet. Even at times like the present, when steps backward on the environment seem to outnumber steps forward, it is crucial that we do not lose sight of this vision. There are always opportunities to make positive change – we just need to be ready and willing to act.