Colleges and Universities Answer the Call on Climate Change

04/27/2015 11:53 am ET | Updated Jun 27, 2015

This spring is anything but silent on university campuses when it comes to the issue of climate change. Many colleges and universities have been making powerful efforts to speak about the climate problem.

On March 26, Clark University in Massachusetts -- a private institution with approximately 3300 undergraduate and graduate students -- held a campus-wide teach-in on the topic of climate change. The event included 45 sessions organized into four tracks, two keynote speeches, "councils," and a film festival. The 600 or so participants at the teach-in formed a diverse community who understand the gravity of climate change and care enough to do something about it.

Professors and invited speakers led the sessions, most of which were followed by lively discussions among the participants. Students chose from a rich collection of sessions. Speakers approached climate change from a diverse array of disciplines -- including physics, biology, chemistry, geology, geography, engineering, sociology, political science, business, international and community development, history, English, philosophy, psychology, and visual and performing arts.

Climate scientist and Clark graduate Susanne Moser gave the first keynote speech, summarizing climate trends and urging the audience to take action. Quoting former South African President Nelson Mandela, "It always seems impossible until it's done," Moser provided numerous examples of humankind having achieved the "impossible" -- such as defeating Hitler and putting a man on the moon. Because government action on climate change remains tepid, grassroots action is required, Moser said.

Pennsylvania State University biology professor Christopher Uhl gave the second speech, addressing the big-picture question "How can humans live in harmony with each other and with the Earth?" He spoke about the culture of separation -- from our bodies, our feelings, and our true meaning and purpose; and from each other and from our Earth. Uhl proposed that the answer to climate change, as well as to other dire problems, lies in ending separation.

The councils -- a forum unique to Clark and employed in prior Clark programs -- were small groups of students, faculty, and other teach-in participants. Participants came from diverse academic, social, and ethnic backgrounds and disagreed in many ways -- for example, their outlook for the future ranged all the way from complete despair to hopeful confidence -- yet the meetings were characterized by a sense of respect and unity. Participants sat in a circle and took turns speaking their thoughts and feelings about climate change. The councils provided a forum for genuine and heartfelt expression.

The teach-in is not over. Discussions on campus are underway about ways Clark can build upon all that has been accomplished thus far and share with others outside the university. Clark offers suggestions about how other universities can build their own climate change teach-ins.

The day after the Clark teach-in, the University of Michigan (UM) began a two-day climate change teach-in, 50 years after the university hosted the country's first teach-in on the war in Vietnam. The historic Vietnam teach-in became the seed for other teach-ins across the country, which led to massive demonstrations in Washington, D.C., which in turn led to the end of the war in Vietnam. This March's climate change program provided an opportunity for people to learn, collaborate, and demand action on a different, divisive conflict: climate change. The UM teach-in included a rally, speeches, panels, open meetings, and brainstorming workshops.

In recent years, many higher-ed institutions have hosted climate change teach-ins. For example, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell held its fifth annual climate change teach-in in 2014. In 2008, more than 1,500 U.S. colleges, universities, schools, and community organizations held a student-organized climate change teach-in that was billed as the largest teach-in ever. Climate change teach-ins have been held at the University of Louisville, Swarthmore College, LIU Brooklyn, Winona State University, Colleges of the Fenway, and Roanoke College, to name a few. International examples include the First European Climate Teach-In Day 2009 and the World Climate Teach-In Day held in 2010.

Universities also engage in other sorts of climate change-related activities. For example, on March 26, Antioch University New England (AUNE) in New Hampshire presented a webinar on climate change communication strategies. AUNE's Center for Climate Preparedness and Community Resilience, launched in 2014, partnered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to convene the Local Solutions: Northeast Climate Preparedness Conference. The Center's mission is to prepare for, respond to, and recover from climate impacts through collaborative, innovative solutions, on a local, as well as national and international, scale.

The AUNE webinar was one in a series of climate change webinars co-created by the Center and the EPA. Participants hailed from Canada, Lebanon, Greece, Oman, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Zambia, Columbia, Egypt, France, China, Grenada, and Mexico. The Center and EPA are currently partnering, along with the City of Baltimore, to co-create the 2016 Local Solutions: Eastern Regional Climate Preparedness Conference.

Universities also lead on climate change by piloting and modeling practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Example practices include energy and water conservation, alternate transportation, carbon-free energy, green buildings, and recycling. The American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment serves as a high-visibility effort to address climate change on campuses. To date, 697 colleges and universities have signed the commitment, which entails completing a greenhouse gas emissions inventory, scheduling reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, taking immediate steps to reduce emissions, integrating sustainability into the curriculum, and making the action plan, inventory, and progress reports publicly available.

This spring, students and others have been staging demonstrations at a number of colleges and universities throughout the U.S. and abroad, urging them to divest their fossil fuel company holdings. A growing number of colleges and universities have already committed to divest -- including at least 22 in the U.S., two in the United Kingdom, and one each in the Marshall Islands, New Zealand, and Sweden.

Universities lead on climate change by working in partnerships with other universities and other institutions. For example, the Harvard China Project was founded in 1993 as an interdisciplinary program to study China's atmospheric environment, energy system and economy, and the role of environment in U.S.-China relations. Harvard President Drew Faust calls the partnership "an engine of broad environmental knowledge that has influenced policy in both countries, and improved the lives of our citizens."

People at universities are -- to some extent -- allowed to think differently, work across disciplines, and speak out in ways that others cannot. For example, the University of Wisconsin's Center for Climate Research investigates climate change globally, assesses climate change impacts on state resources, develops adaptation strategies, and held a two-day climate change symposium in March 2015. But a month later, Wisconsin officials banned employees of a state agency from discussing climate change or even responding to an email about the warming climate. Similarly, the Florida Climate Institute, with eight member Florida universities, performs extensive climate change research, education, and outreach. Meanwhile, Florida Department of Environmental Protection employees are barred from using the phrases "climate change" and "global warming" in any official communications, emails, or reports.

Universities are unique in bringing the full array of disciplines to bear on the problem of climate change. Universities in all parts of the world research climate change origins, trends, and impacts; develop new technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; and shape institutions and policies.

Will universities rescue our climate? Not single-handedly. But students, educators, researchers, and administrators are leading the way, lending hope that we will successfully address our climate problem.

Ellen Moyer, Ph.D., P.E., is an independent consultant dedicated to remediating environmental problems and promoting green practices to prevent new problems. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and Facebook or find more information on her website.