Ask Jayne Stevenson about the origins of her environmental activism, and she’ll tell you, perhaps anticlimactically, that there was no lightbulb moment.

“I guess I just don’t really have… one instant that changed my life,” she says with a laugh.

But Stevenson, a sophomore from Minneapolis studying Earth Systems, has long been advocating for environmental policy with a public persistence. At Stanford, she is involved with Fossil Free Stanford, a student group advocating for the university’s divestment from fossil fuel producing companies, and Stanford Students for Sustainability, for which she is leading a project to address environmental policy changes within the university administration.

Getting a university with a multibillion dollar endowment to change its investment policies has certainly been a challenge, says Stevenson.

“Several years ago, they [Stanford] had agreed to divest from coal,” she said. “But when [Fossil Free Stanford] tried to go even farther to divest from oil and natural gas, they said no. It’s a pretty complicated process, given all the factors that go into filling out a divestment request.”

Last school year, Stevenson and the rest of Fossil Free Stanford pushed for the inclusion of a non-binding amendment on the ASSU ballot asking students whether or not Stanford should divest from fossil fuel companies. Though the measure was largely symbolic, it passed with 65% support from the graduate community and 70% support from the undergraduate student body.

In parallel with her divestment campaign, Stevenson is also advocating for Stanford to raise its environmental standards through other avenues. Just this past year, the university announced that it was committing to 80% carbon neutrality by 2025, but Stevenson is pushing the administration to pursue even higher emission standards. Carbon emissions are delineated into three classifications: Scope 1, direct point source emitting of pollution (think coal plants); Scope 2, emissions produced from energy production; and Scope 3, all other forms of indirect carbon emission. According to Stevenson, Stanford’s carbon neutrality goal does not currently encompass Scope 3 emissions.

“There are a lot of things that are unaddressed, like athlete flights, going home for breaks, employees traveling,” she said. “We’re trying to get our facts straight and then hopefully write up some op-eds and requests to the university.”

Stevenson has demonstrated a unique willingness to tackle Byzantine bureaucracies head-on and dive into the minutiae of policymaking to effect change. In high school, she helped develop an environmental report card for her hometown’s city council, and successfully advocated for the city to pass a resolution committing to carbon neutrality by 2040. She says that her effort is reflective of a larger trend of student and grassroots level involvement in climate advocacy, as the impacts of global warming become increasingly dire.

At Stanford, Stevenson has been encouraged by widespread support for environmental causes among the student body, citing the enthusiasm she witnessed firsthand for fossil fuel divestment. But she notes that there seems to be a dissonance between ideological support and tangible action. For example, she says, campus waste audits have revealed that a substantive percentage of items placed in landfill disposal could be recycled or composted.

“I definitely think there is a phenomenon that people will say ‘Yeah, climate change is real, we need environmental policy, we need to act on it’ but they won’t be implementing changes in their lives,” she said.

“Of course, you can only do so much. You can only act on so many things, so even just having people there to sign petitions, or give phone calls — I do think there’s a lot more things people could do in their lives if they really do care…really, all it takes is a Google search.”

What stands out about Stevenson’s activism is its all-encompassing nature. While she lobbies for lofty, large-scale political action, she remains dedicated to the sort of personal lifestyle changes that are a drop in the bucket in the vast ocean of climate change but nonetheless, she says, represent commitment to the cause. Her vegetarianism and hyper-awareness about her energy use, among other things, are very much a part of her larger notion of environmental advocacy.

“Most definitions of sustainability revolve around the concept of ensuring that there is a habitable life for future generations. In terms of scaling that down to individual lives, leading a sustainable life is really about having an awareness of the impact of your actions, and understanding how, over time, everything you do adds up and has an impact on the Earth.”

For Stevenson, climate change action isn’t just about the grandiose gestures; it also involves sustained, incremental improvement on a personal level.

“Leading a sustainable life and advocating for the environment really focuses on understanding the impacts of every single thing you do and ultimately, being open to changing it.”

By: Dhara Yu
Photography by: Olivia Lancaster and Cathy Wang