As a leader in higher education, you can inspire your campus to chart a new course on climate.


Inspiring A Network for Neutrality

(resize font)

Tony Cortese grew up in the North End of Boston where his family enjoyed swimming and harvesting clams in the harbor. He remembers when they could no longer swim in the harbor because it was too polluted. When John F. Kennedy gave his historic inaugural address in 1961 and spoke those famous words, "Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country," Tony was listening. “After listening to JFK’s speech, I took up the mantle of doing something for our country that was bigger than me.” Tony decided to dedicate himself to environmental protection because of its public health impacts.

After nearly two decades in public service with EPA and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Tony founded Second Nature with Senator John Kerry to transform higher education to create a sustainable society and was a driving force in the development and growth of The American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC). The ACUPCC is a network of presidents and chancellors who have made institutional commitments to achieve carbon neutrality on their campuses and to educate students to create climate solutions. To date, it is the largest commitment to climate neutrality in the world.


  • Start with a clear and inspirational goal – Presidents know that although climate neutrality is a difficult goal, it is necessary and inspiring.
  • Gain leaders’ commitments – By securing leaders’ pledges and empowering them to invite their peers to do the same, the ACUPCC dramatically increases its impact.
  • Build capacity within institutions – Presidents are encouraged to build teams of administrators, business officers, provosts, faculty, students, sustainability and facility directors, and others to achieve goals.
  • Be flexible, transparent, and accountable - The ACUPCC requires specific milestones, yet is flexible regarding the route to neutrality. It requires public transparency and accountability.
  • Provide a support network and assistance – Second Nature is the supporting organization of the ACUPCC providing tools, resources, education and best practices to guide signatories and their institutions.


From a beginning with 12 founding signatories in 2007, the ACUPCC is a stellar example of how a small group of forward-thinking and committed leaders transformed higher education to address climate change in operations and curriculum. The presidents and other colleagues had a deep concern about the need to create a sustainable society. They recognized that higher education had a unique responsibility to be cutting-edge and responsive to major societal challenges.

As signatories communicated with their peers, the momentum grew to today’s network of over 680 colleges and universities in all 50 states. Over 6.8 million students now attend ACUPCC institutions. Four schools -- Colby, Green Mountain College, College of the Atlantic, University of Minnesota at Morris --- have achieved carbon neutrality and hundreds more are moving quickly toward this goal. ACUPCC has inspired countless students to pursue more sustainable lifestyles and careers, and work toward a healthy future.


Presidents and chancellors have varied stories about what inspired them to get involved in the ACUPCC, and how they transformed their institutions’ culture, operations, and curriculum. Some common themes emerge. Leaders universally recognized that climate change is the defining challenge of 21st century and that higher education needed to lead on solutions. Presidents are also seeking new ways to fulfill their missions to lead, educate, and inspire their students. Leading on solutions appeals to students' profound interest in climate change, which they reflect in their votes on admission decisions.


The ACUPCC signatories acknowledged that the target - climate neutrality, defined as net zero greenhouse gas emissions from campus activities - was difficult yet imperative. It didn't make sense to go for percentage reductions, the presidents and students agreed that climate neutrality had to be the goal.

ACUPCC also encompasses the mandate to infuse sustainability across the curriculum. This provides students with the knowledge and skills to address climate change and enables them to benefit from the resulting opportunities provided by engaging in climate solutions.

Presidents who have been the most effective focus on building participation among students, faculty, and administration. They have harnessed their energy and passion for creating and implementing solutions.

Additionally, the mandate to produce results on campus has led to securing new capacity in schools, and to dozens of schools receiving national recognition for their climate and sustainability leadership.


The achievements of the individual campuses have been strengthened by the synergy of schools working together. The power of coalescing a network, and the message that voluntary action can achieve substantial reductions, is echoing through other sectors in society. The ACUPCC is a vibrant example of how leadership and engagement can make climate solutions possible in communities and our nation.

Tony’s work has been instrumental in establishing climate change and other sustainability issues as a major priority for colleges and universities today. As he commented, “The higher education system is the only sector in America and in the world that has made the significant commitment to being carbon neutral. It has been a stimulus for other sectors to begin to do serious work on climate change.”


Next Success Story

Peter Bardaglio and the TCCPI enable campus and community collaboration for climate solutions. They demonstrate that job creation, energy security, resilient communities, and climate stewardship are not mutually exclusive.   > Learn More

View All Success Stories