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How Higher Education Is Keeping Us Marching Forward on Climate Action

By Gibbs Rehlen
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Due in part to the Paris Climate Talks, 2015 was a banner year for climate change awareness across many segments of our society. Faith communities were inspired by Pope Francis and Laudato Si’. In the health sector, physicians started to flag climate change more aggressively as a major health concern for kids and adults alike. Across the brands that make up corporate America, hundreds of companies endorsed the American Business Act on Climate Pledge, while others backed an ad placement in the Wall Street Journal headlining Business Backs Low-Carbon USA. Mayors of US towns and cities also raised their voices in new and impressive ways. The higher education sector was no exception to this new level of climate action.

The fact is, postsecondary institutions have been historically among the first and most vocal amplifiers of climate change information. In that vein, the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment , has moved many institutions to pledge to reduce their impact and footprint. It was nearly ten years ago when presidents and chancellors of colleges and universities began to recognize and act on the threat of climate change, and acknowledge the adverse health, social, economic, and ecologic effects on the planet.

As a soon-to-be mother and someone who works with higher education associations (AASHE, AASCU, ACCU and HACU) representing hundreds of United States colleges and universities, I am encouraged by all the good work underway. Young people have a special opportunity to engage on climate action. Climate change will affect their future and they can start doing things about it on campus. I know my child will confront a changing climate, but with a growing population that is well-educated on climate issues, I am confident that we will make great strides over the next two decades.

Creativity at the campus level is bubbling up. Students across the United States are leading dorm room challenges like RecycleMania, Do It in the Dark, and Kill the Cup campaigns. From “Meatless Mondays” in the cafeteria to concert series like the Campus Consciousness Tour, students are engaging on climate change in exciting new ways. There are many other initiatives underway that inspire a new sense of confidence in this generation.

Last year, we saw heightened momentum as individual institutions vowed to do more, and the higher education sector as a whole felt the need to weigh in before the United Nations COP21 in Paris. The White House unveiled the American Campus Act on Climate initiative to amplify the voice of the higher ed community in support of a strong international climate agreement at COP21.  To date, 318 colleges and universities representing over 4 million students have joined the American Campus Act on Climate.

In September, prior to Pope Francis’ visit to the United States, nearly 100 leaders in U.S. Catholic higher education joined nearly 80 Catholic university presidents from 32 other countries in signing a statement of support and public commitment to work together to study, promote, and act on Pope Francis’ call to action laid out in Laudato Si’. This partnership was encouraging not only because it was a group of higher education institutions, but the faith community, a more traditionally conservative group of players, also took part.

Individual institutions like Stanford University released a very strong statement of support prior to COP21. The Stanford Board Chair and President called on the conference leaders in Paris last fall to look to universities for guidance, emphasizing Stanford’s progress on the issue – including its new energy system, expected to reduce campus emissions by 68 percent.

But that’s not all. According to gofossilfree.org there is a small but growing trend among schools to divest their endowments from fossil fuels, including such universities as Syracuse University, Green Mountain College in Vermont, Naropa University in Colorado, University of Hawaii, and the University of Dayton. We also see more institutions investing heavily in renewable energy. The EPA’s Green Power Partnership is a voluntary program that encourages organizations to use green power as a way to replace electricity from conventional sources. An annual list of the top 30 colleges and universities calls out those using a substantial amount of new green power. And it isn’t necessarily school leadership pushing for these actions, but the students themselves. According to a recent USA Today article, students are more informed and want to see their school more involved in solving the climate protection problem.

Imagine if we were successful in getting the more than 4,000 higher education institutions in the U.S. to divest, implement energy efficient plans, power up with renewable energy, and adopt higher efficiency modes of transportation. This would create a ripple effect across our country and most certainly influence decision-makers across our society. The fact remains that students and post-secondary education play a critical role in shaping the future of our world. We must listen to them and be humble enough to accept their unique perspective on innovation and technological connectivity as we implement real change across campuses and surrounding communities. It would serve us well to provide new platforms for these young student leaders and higher ed administrators who lead the way on this issue.

At ecoAmerica, we encourage higher education institutions to be part of solving aspects of the climate crisis. This year, for the second year, ecoAmerica’s higher ed program Solution Generation will provide monetary support and public recognition to those schools who are setting the bar for inventive sustainability and climate change awareness best practices. Together with several higher education association partners, Solution Generation is offering the Climate Leadership Awards Program. We believe that an awards program is an important vehicle to reward behavior change and provide important visibility to change agents and their breakthrough initiatives.

As we prepare in the weeks ahead to launch the awards program and read submissions, I am hopeful about – and already proud of – what our partners are doing to make their campuses, our communities, and our planet cleaner and safer for all of us. With over 18,000,000 students across this country and hundreds of thousands of professors and administrators, I believe there are many more drummers that we could enlist in the climate change marching band. Perhaps this year’s class of award winners will bring to light new ideas that become viral across campuses nationally and internationally. Now, wouldn’t that make for a beautiful rhythm?