More than 250 higher education leaders from campuses across the U.S. met last week in Boston for the 2014 Presidential Summit on Climate Leadership.
The summit was organized by Second Nature, the supporting organization for the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC). Almost 700 colleges and universities have signed the ACUPCC and committed to achieve carbon neutrality by balancing the amount of carbon released with an equal amount offset or buying enough carbon credits to make up the difference, but boosters voiced frustration that the number hasn’t been growing in recent years.
Registering at the Revere Hotel (still the 57 to me) I was greeted with a questionnaire that Emerson College students are using to track the summit’s carbon footprint. I was proud to declare that I came by train and on foot.
On the way into town, I had tweeted about a new finding that global warming (recently sanitized as climate change) is wrecking havoc on fall colors. Also that day, papers were reporting on 35,000 walruses coming ashore in Alaska due to melting sea ice. Just two weeks earlier, 400,000 people marched in New York City and elsewhere to call for action on climate change. The summit seemed timely, if not late.
At the conference, Kate Gordon, executive director of the Risky Business Project, outlined her no-nonsense research focusing on climate change’s impacts on energy, agriculture and extreme heat. She and her co-authors wanted to speak in the language of business so they framed the issue as a “risk assessment” and delivered their report in the backyard of Wall Street.
Assessing economic risk of climate change is complicated. Louisiana’s gross state product fell slightly after Hurricane Katrina, but the rest of the country’s grew based partly on storm-related recovery activity.
More importantly, some of the risks of climate change will cascade. For example, there’ll be more “heat stroke days” when the body cannot cool itself off by perspiring. That will mean lost labor productivity (especially in states with lots of outdoor work, led ironically by North Dakota) as well as more air conditioning and therefore demand for more power plants, which incidentally are mostly built along rising seas.
The Southeast will be hit especially bad. And that’s where much of American manufacturing, including green manufacturing, is increasingly based. There was dark joking about moving football’s hot (in more ways than one) Southeastern Conference to the Northwest, where warming with make the weather better suited for outdoor sports. But dead seriousness about how Cargill (whose exec is among the veritable rogue’s gallery of backers who advised the work) could move its corn farming from Iowa to Manitoba to keep up with the weather, but Iowa farm families would be left high and dry.
Among other things, Gordon urged a more interdisciplinary look at sustainability. Why not make it a case study for first-year business students, she asked.
In a separate session, George Washington University President Steve Knapp and American University President Neil Kerwin explained how their campuses are meeting more than 50% of their energy needs with solar energy from North Carolina.
D.C. is promoted among the best college towns in America, but Knapp and Kerwin agreed that colleges in other places could forge collaborations for this purpose. Though some experts are skeptical about locking in rates because energy costs could go down, Kerwin said the ability for the colleges to come together allowed their supplier Duke Energy Renewables company to go to capital markets for better deals. Knapp and Kerwin also credited politically savvy students with the success and urged other higher ed leaders to prepare the ground with trustees in advance.
A panel moderated by NEBHE President Michael K. Thomas explored how sustainability champions can get their message to national audiences. Portland State University President Wim Wiewel suggested more emphasis on foundation support in the face of a tight federal government as well as forming a committee to focus on “partnership creation.” Millersville University President John Anderson noted that he is using his appointment to a hospital board to advance ACUPCC’s message by reminding them how hurricanes Sandy and Katrina clobbered hospitals.
The audience provided solid observations about building national action. Cal State Chico reps observed that student associations are key. A Second Nature employee, who previously worked at NACUBO, noted that the voice of members is the best way to influence any national organization. Penn State’s sustainability director said he gets together with counterparts via the Big 10 athletic conference. The president of Cal State Northridge noted that she is a member of the NCAA, and pondered what might happen if the national athletic association turned to sustainability. A staffer from Illinois State University asked how can colleges can leverage their alumni on behalf of climate efforts. A GW sustainability official called for more positive stories and more group purchasing. An official of the American Meteorological Society said his group has courses at universities across the nation. Another campus official noted that federal policy on sustainability is out of touch with newer thinking. Sustainability guru Tony Cortese, formerly of Tufts and a cofounder of the ACUPCC, said the time is right now for climate action, as it was when ACUPCC started.
One non-scientific observation (a rarely acknowledged qualifier on this subject) is that the audience revealed a remarkable lack of diversity, even for a meeting of New England “thought leaders.” Also some communication contamination … lots of diagrams and terms like programs and ideas being “birthed” … perhaps because these folks know the end is nigh with, as another sustainability hero, former Unity College President Mitch Thomashow warned, the human-caused sixth mega-extinction knocking at the door.
John O. Harney is executive editor of The New England Journal of Higher Education.
Painting of “Small Porch Series #3” by Montserrat College professor Timothy Harney.