THE BLOG
09/23/2014 09:45 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2014

What Universities Can Do About Climate Change

This week's UN Climate Summit calls upon people and institutions around the world to consider how they can become active leaders in combating climate change. What is the role of our colleges and universities in this effort? Those of us in the academy should be asking ourselves what more can we do to confront one of the most urgent and consequential challenges facing our civilization.

Among those advocating for action in New York are many thousands of students, from our institutions and others. We are inspired by the passion and purpose they bring to this issue. We applaud and encourage the dedication of students who are determined to translate passion into action, to invest themselves in a cause that reaches far beyond themselves and their lifetimes and to remind us that the future of our planet is our collective, immediate responsibility, not something to leave to others for another day.

Educating informed, effective citizens of the world is a central part of the mission of our universities. Today's students will lead our world in what will be a most critical era for assuring our planet's health. We must continue working to provide innovative academic pathways that will equip them for that responsibility, along with leadership opportunities that build the skills they will need to be effective influencers, consensus builders and decision makers. We must intensify and expand our courses and programs focused on energy and environment, educating our students even as they educate us.

In addition to their educational objectives, universities must continue to do even more in the research arena to provide actionable solutions for mitigating and adapting to climate change.

University scientists play crucial roles in investigating the origins and trajectory of climate change, in gauging its present and prospective consequences and in devising the new technologies that will accelerate the transition to renewable energy sources. Whether through breakthroughs on battery technology that will make energy storage more reliable and economical, or improvements in efficiency and production costs for solar systems and hydrogen fuel, a wide span of university research both fundamental and applied will drive many of the solutions to climate change.

The effort must go well beyond our scientists and engineers. University scholars across fields are vital actors in efforts to shape policy, organizational practices and wider attitudes regarding climate change and the grave risks it poses. This week, Rob Stavins and his team at the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements released new research that centers on aligning national and regional climate policies through a new international framework. Stanford faculty have been leaders in the international UN effort to document the scientific consensus on the state of the world's climate and the impacts of climate change in fields ranging from human health to food security. Economists and lawyers, architects and ethicists, political scientists and experts in organizational behavior and finance, sociologists and humanists -- all have essential parts in envisioning and spurring creative, pragmatic strategies to align governments, businesses and others in a shared quest for solutions.

A third area for university leadership is in piloting and modeling effective operational practices. Stanford has dramatically reduced employee drive-alone rates to work and is building a new campus energy system that will substantially reduce water use and carbon emission on campus. Harvard has implemented initiatives that have already resulted in a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 21 percent, when we include the effects of growth and renovation in our physical plant (31 percent excluding growth), and has joined forces with other universities and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to develop the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center, which uses state-of-the-art approaches to reduce energy consumption by minimizing cooling needs. Universities must "walk the walk," acting as pioneers in embracing the new technologies and policies that will be needed to sustain our ecosystem.

The work of universities alone will not be sufficient, of course. We agree that -- in the words of United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon -- 'everyone must step up and become a leader on climate change'. Nations -- including the largest emitters of greenhouse gases -- must step up and play a collaborative role in shaping new international agreements if we are to make meaningful progress. Local governments must also step up, as they shape regulations and infrastructure that will guide development and growth in cities around the world. Industry must step up, accelerating the development and deployment of alternative and affordable sources of energy while committing to greater energy efficiency.

But we in higher education must continue to step up, as well. Universities have the opportunity and obligation to look toward the long term. Uniquely, they bring together a wealth of intellectual resources across fields, an abundance of creativity and collaborative energy across generations, an opportunity to convene key actors on neutral ground, a commitment to serving society in ways that privilege objective evidence and rigorous analysis and the dedication to pursuing powerful long-term solutions without becoming subservient to near-term economic interests or partisan political concerns.

Universities must use these inherent strengths to make the most potent possible contribution on climate change. There is no challenge facing the world today whose effective redress depends more on the capacity and commitment of every part of society -- governments, industry, universities, nonprofits and each one of us as citizens. Whether we rise to that challenge, with the urgency it demands, will largely determine what sort of world we leave for the generations to come.