Higher Ed. Leaders Think Big, Aim High When it comes to Climate Change Tim Carter, President, Second Nature

March 5th, 2019

Low Carbon Economy

Two weeks ago, I saw first-hand the power of collective action as hundreds of higher education leaders converged at the 2019 Higher Education Climate Leadership Summit to create large-scale climate solutions for our campuses that will have a global impact. The meeting occurred after a year of growing evidence on the urgency of climate change – be it direct experience with extreme weather events or the latest findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Instead of questions about “should we do something?” the dialog has shifted to “what are we going to do?” While academic research has produced cutting-edge climate science and solutions, the new direction is to innovate, scale, and accelerate progress. In short, it’s time for collective actions to create transformative solutions.

“Colleges and universities have to be leaders on this issue now,” said Wim Wiewel, President of Lewis and Clark College in Oregon. “Our commitment to climate leadership influences millions of students and makes a real difference in our carbon emissions.”

As the largest annual gathering of higher education climate leaders, the participants are all well placed to take local action across the U.S. and catalyze truly global impact – and many of them are working closely with businesses on taking action.

In his opening keynote remarks, the billionaire investment manager Jeremy Grantham made the business case for urgent action on climate change. Investing in sustainability in time and at a scale to change the trajectory of climate change is not, he said, a matter of philanthropy; it’s a matter of survival. Grantham pointed to a tipping point in public awareness on climate, acknowledging the work of scientists and higher education leaders whose willingness to “tell it like it is” – in a way anyone can understand – will remain crucial to accelerating further action.

The conference was inspirational, highly productive and covered a lot of territory. Scott Miller, President of Virginia Wesleyan University, said this about it: “Putting these higher education thought leaders in the same room is truly a catalyst for rigorous and robust action on our campuses and in our communities."

Because of the many ideas that were discussed, it’s difficult to distill two days of great content into a handful of top takeaways, but here are two that made an impact on me:

First, cross-sector action is needed at multiple levels. U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse spoke about increased engagement of higher education. Campus leaders will not only need to work collectively across institutions, but also with the public sector to leverage every tool available to help inform and support the creation of policies that touch on climate, the environment and the economy for comprehensive policy solutions that will be the most beneficial for current communities and future generations.

Second, leaders from business and academia need to stop settling for small or disconnected action and start taking bolder action on environmental justice and creating silo-busting partnerships. We must accelerate the experimentation and thought leadership that students, businesses, and the Higher Ed communities are generating. This includes tapping into financial innovations, like efficiency service agreements, that enable colleges and universities to make transformational energy infrastructure improvements while not affecting its balance sheet and reducing operational costs over the long-term.

Finally, I urge you to read our new Call to Action: Guiding Principles for Accelerating Equitable and Just Climate Solutions (link), which calls for higher education leaders (and leaders in other sectors) to join together in moving society towards a more sustainable, healthy, and prosperous future.