COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Outside a locked building holding the offices of Ohio State University’s top administrators, Isabella Guinigundo led the same chants, shouted the same demands on Friday that she’s been making for nearly two years: Ohio State needs to rethink its energy policies and priorities.

More than 60 students joined Guinigundo and the Ohio Youth for Climate Justice in front of Bricker Hall on Ohio State’s campus Friday morning to protest what they said is the university’s failure to limit its climate impact. Protesters held signs reading “You’re killing us” and “RIP fossil fuels,” calling on the university to divest money from fossil fuel companies.

Friday’s event was the latest in a years-long campaign the Ohio Youth for Climate Justice and climate justice advocates have waged on Ohio State’s campus. Until the university takes their demands seriously, Guinigundo said, it will be far from the last.

“Until President [Kristina] Johnson and the Board of Trustees take action, we will continue to show up and intensify,” said Guinigundo, the communications director of Ohio Youth for Climate Justice and a third-year student in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies.

Yousuf Munir, a second-year student in sociology and the education lead for the Ohio Youth for Climate Justice, asked protesters to think of the ways climate change has harmed global communities. As a Pakistani, they said their mind goes to the devastating floods that killed nearly 1,500 and displaced at least 30 million in Pakistan — floods that some climate scientists have said were exacerbated by climate change.

“Really, it’s not their fault,” Munir said. “They’re not the ones emitting massive amounts of carbon. They’re not the ones over-producing. They’re not the ones killing the planet and killing the people who live on it. It’s not their fault, but they’re suffering the consequences of universities like ours.”

(Sarah Szilagy/NBC4)

Witnessing the global impacts of climate change, Guinigundo said, has made Ohio Youth for Climate Justice consider the wider-reaching impacts Ohio State has, primarily through its long-term investment portfolio.

The Ohio Youth for Climate Justice claimed that Ohio State invests $15 million into fossil fuel companies, including Duke Energy and Energy Transfer Partners. 

When Ohio State was asked to confirm its investment amount, a spokesperson said Ohio State does not disclose specific investment funds, but clarified that it does not invest in individual stocks – it outsources to external capital managers.

Ohio State has “made no new investments in illiquid oil and gas exploration and production since 2014,” spokesperson Chris Booker said in an email, adding that the university began “winding down” such investments in 2018.

Still, Guinigundo, Munir, and other climate justice advocates want Ohio State to follow in the footsteps of other major universities – including the University of Michigan – in completely divesting from nonrenewable energy companies. They’ve spent months attempting to reach the ears of university administrators to no avail, Guinigundo said.

And since 2020, Guinigundo said, she and other activists have sent dozens of emails to administrators, made public pleas on social media, and tracked down Ohio State President Kristina M. Johnson on campus to make their demands. 

NBC4 asked Ohio State whether Johnson or other administrators have met with the group or considered their concerns, but the university did not answer those questions.

“We’re sick of these nonresponses,” Guinigundo said. “If they’re going to keep ignoring us, and if they’re going to keep investing in fossil fuels, keep using fossil fuels on campus, then we have no choice but to do whatever is necessary to make them stop.”

By its members’ own admission, the Ohio Youth for Climate Justice has ramped up its tactics. In April 2022, protesters interrupted an event at which Johnson received an award for her efforts to combat climate change, taking to the stage to call for the university’s divestment from fossil fuel companies.

Earlier this month, Ohio Youth for Climate Justice dropped banners from the stairs of Ohio State’s busiest dining hall and the Ohio Union. Last Friday, protesters hand-delivered letters to the Board of Trustees’ offices in Bricker Hall, again asking for divestment from fossil fuel companies.

On Friday, Munir asked protesters to make a promise to keep making their voices heard until the university responds.

“We will win by any means necessary,” Munir said. The crowd shouted it back.

What has Ohio State done to mitigate climate change?

In 2008, Ohio State formulated its Climate Action Plan, a document outlining steps the university would take to reduce its waste, carbon emissions, and other environmental impacts. One of the original plan’s loftiest goals was to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

Johnson announced in 2021 her vision to see zero carbon emissions by 2040. In line with both the Climate Action Plan and Johnson’s more aggressive goal, Booker said the university is doing the following: 

  • Improving energy efficiency through upgrading campus heating and cooling systems, replacing lights with LED fixtures, and designing efficiency plans for campus buildings
  • Developing energy production and conservation measures, including the university’s proposed Combined Heat and Power Plant
  • Converting the university’s bus fleet to compressed natural gas by 2026
  • Planting trees and otherwise improving the university’s canopy

As far as investing in renewable energy, Booker said the university signed a 20-year contract in 2012 with Blue Creek Wind Farm to purchase 50 megawatts of energy a year. Booker also said the university has “made commitments to managers” who invest in renewable energy infrastructure. 

“Ohio State is dedicated to sustainability, combating climate change and creating a carbon neutral university,” Booker said in an email.

The Combined Heat and Power Plant

The Ohio Youth for Climate Justice’s protests began in earnest in 2020, as Ohio State pushed forward plans to build a Combined Heat and Power Plant to provide the university’s energy. Instead of using coal – like Ohio State’s McCracken Plant – the new plant will use natural gas.

According to Ohio State’s calculations, the new plant will reduce the university’s carbon emissions by about a third, but that estimate doesn’t include the energy required to extract the natural gas – which is chiefly done through hydraulic fracking.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences reported that fracking can lead to water contamination and noise, light, and air pollution as workers drill into deep rock formations, exposing chemicals to the air as they collect natural gas.

Construction on the plant, which began in 2020, stalled in February due to supply chain and staffing issues. A university spokesperson was unable to provide an updated timeline for the plant’s completion.

Guinigundo said she’s heard from several community members living near the proposed plant site – on the western edge of Ohio State’s campus – who are concerned about the impact the plant will have on their homes and lives.

“A lot of community members feel that Ohio State kind of takes over the city,” Guinigundo said. “It’s allowed to do whatever it wants. It’s allowed to endlessly grow into people’s neighborhoods, and it’s allowed to just hurt people who live around campus.”