What is Climate Change?
News outlets, social media, and organizations are abuzz about climate change and global warming, but what do these phrases actually mean and how do they affect us and the world we live in?
To understand, it’s best to start with weather. Weather is the temperature and conditions you see right outside your window. One day it might snow while the next day brings clear blue skies.
Many of these weather shifts are dictated by the climate we live in. Climate describes the average or typical weather behavior in a given place over a long period of time. Individuals in Florida would be very surprised to receive two feet of snow in January, but this behavior wouldn’t be uncommon for those in Maine.
Climate change doesn’t relate to day-to-day shifts in weather; instead, it’s concerned with changes in the climate of a place. If the weather report called for snow in Boston on a Monday but it snowed on a Wednesday, that’s a weather change. But if Boston only got 23 inches of snowfall rather than its usual 44 inches, that’s climate change.
So what causes climate change? Scientists have lots of different theories. Some are obvious – sometimes the sun is closer to earth and sometimes it’s further away. Sometimes the sun sends out higher or lower levels of energy.
There are lots of factors outside our control, but the majority of scientists agree that humans and our modern conveniences are also part of the problem. Technology – from cars to central heating – use coal, gas, and oil as sources of power and when these substances are used, they release gases into the air. Many of these gases cause the air to warm, and as more air warms, the climate of a place gradually changes.
According to NASA scientists, the earth’s climate warmed by approximately one degree Fahrenheit over the last century. That may not sound like a lot, but even an increase of a single degree can cause oceans to rise, icecaps to melt, and climates to shift.
If climate change continues to go unchecked, more severe consequences may occur such as:
- Sea levels continue rising, eventually submerging coastal towns or even entire islands
- Temperatures continue rising, eventually making some parts of the world uninhabitable
- Ecosystems are stressed or changed, causing some species of plants and animals to go extinct
- In warm/tropical areas, new diseases likely spread
- Carbon dioxide levels continue rising, affecting biological systems and harming things like coral reefs and marine life
But how do scientists know all of this? Climate researchers use a variety of tools to study the earth’s present and past climates. The current method for collecting data include satellites, weather balloons, radars, buoys, and weather stations, but they also sample prehistoric glacial ice to learn about long ago. Modern scientific instruments have existed for 150 years, so scientists also have that data at their disposal.
12 Ways Colleges Are Tackling Climate Change
Going green in college usually isn’t a solitary pursuit – there are plenty of other students who have the same goals, and most colleges have also begun focusing on protecting the environment. When choosing the right school to help meet those admirable goals, focus on the following possibilities:
Some colleges have dorms that are dedicated to sustainability and green living, complete with rain barrels, solar panels, passive lighting and reclaimed wood. Other colleges spread their efforts out among all housing; for instance, they might not have gray water systems, but every dorm has a solar panel or two.
Being good environmental stewards might also mean teaching students to carry the torch after graduating and leaving campus. Environmental degrees, such as environmental humanities, sustainable agriculture, and natural resources conservation are unique degree programs that can be found at many colleges.
Many large colleges that are committed to fighting climate change also offer individual courses or electives that focus on the environment. So even if you’re pursuing a degree in another field, you can still take climate change-related electives.
Green buildings and practices
Earning a LEED rating is an important step in proving that a college is serious about the environment, but not all green buildings earn the distinction. In this case, it’s more important to look for the efforts – implementation of gray water systems, solar panels and faculty-led initiatives to cut down on water or electricity usage.
Emphasis on alternative transportation
In 2015, the transportation sector was responsible for 27% of all greenhouse emissions in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Why not reduce that by looking for a campus that restricts how many vehicles are allowed there and encourages the use of alternative transportation (biking, walking, public transportation, carpooling)? Students might find that these colleges also help keep them active and healthy.
To make up for the lack of vehicles, many colleges turn to shuttle buses and carpools to get students where they need to be outside of the college campus. Better yet, many of these shuttle buses run on biodiesel or other fuels that are kinder to the environment.
Where does the college get the electricity to run all the buildings and services? Look for a college that supplements their electricity through solar power, wind power or even water power. Though you can’t expect to find an off-grid college, you can definitely find those that do their part to create their own power for a variety of buildings and housing units.
Recycling and composting programs
In 2013, Americans recycled 87 million tons of trash, or about 34% of all waste. A college that is serious about sustainability will also have a serious recycling program, as well as opportunities for composting. These programs should extend further than the food service kitchens and dining halls, and be encouraged for all students across campus.
Water bottle refill stations
Only one out of every five plastic water bottles is sent to the recycling bin, which means that 80% of all those bottles go back into the environment, where they create a variety of hazards. Colleges recognize the problem and offer incentives for students to carry their own reusable water bottles, which can be refilled at filtered water stations throughout the campus.
Reimbursements for going green
Some colleges go the extra mile by encouraging students to do their part in protecting the environment. An example might be offering a small reimbursement on cafeteria costs if students bring their own utensils, or offering discounts on purchases of recycled paper products at the bookstore.
Organic farming for food on campus
Many colleges have enormous areas of beautiful green space. Those that are serious about going green are turning much of that green space into large gardens or farmland, and using the yield from those fields in the dining hall. Look for college campuses that encourage organic gardening and offer spaces where students can participate in creating their own healthy meals.
Cutting funds and ties from companies that dispute or deny climate change
Many schools – including Barnard College, Yale, Stanford, and the University of California – have begun either fully or partially divesting their endowments to companies that contribute to the climate change crisis. Barnard College became the first American college to fully divest in 2017, pulling its $18 million investment out of fossil fuels and instead investing in a more sustainability-friendly industry.
What is Stars?
The Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System is a self-reporting platform where colleges and universities can track their progress in going green. Students who want to attend a college that takes sustainability seriously can search through schools that are making great strides toward environmental stewardship, and can make informed choices on which colleges suit their personal green goals.
Green School Spotlight
Some schools go above and beyond to create an eco-friendly atmosphere. Here are a few of the top performers:
STARS score: 76.05 (Gold)
A model of sustainability, Sterling College in Vermont offers only environment-related degrees, and is one of seven federally-recognized work colleges in the nation. The third college in the nation to divest its endowment from fossil fuel extractors, Sterling takes its efforts further with solar panels to wind turbines and much more. In fact, in 2016 almost all campus power was created by 13 solar trackers. Sterling has the distinction of being number one in the nation for serving “real food” to students: 75% of all food served is local, sustainable, fair-trade and humane.
P.O. Box 72, Craftsbury, VT 05827
New England Association of Schools and Colleges
STARS score: 85.29 (Platinum)
This university earned top marks for student engagement in sustainable issues, as well as waste management, planning and innovation. Thirteen solar arrays, over 20 LEED-certified buildings, and research into sustainability ongoing in over 90% of CSU’s departments shows being green is a way of life on campus. And CSU students are following suit – 86% say that sustainability matters to them, and 80% “ride the talk” by registering bikes as their campus transportation.
711 Oval Drive, Fort Collins, CO 80521
STARS score: 63.09 (Silver)
Students at UC Santa Cruz enjoy the fact that 24% of all produce served in the dining hall is organic. A trayless dining program has saved over 30,000 gallons of water per month and reduced food waste by 40%; the leftovers that does remain are composted.
1156 High Street, Santa Cruz, CA 95064
WASC Senior College and University Commission
From the Experts: How 3 Colleges Are Leading by Example
The colleges above are just a few examples of schools committed to fighting climate change. Below Alexis Reyes and Prabhakar Shrestha, leaders in the fight against climate change at Pomona College and the University of Nebraska, Lincoln respectively, discuss the specific actions their colleges took to get involved. The information they offer can give you ideas for steps you can take on your own college campus.
Mona Becker of McDaniel College offers additional advice for students who want to get involved:
Getting Involved Beyond Campus
There are lots of simple, everyday things students can do personally to help mitigate greenhouse gases, but what if they want to get involved on the policy side of things? Whether local, state, national or even international, the suggestions below are a great way to get involved with larger policy initiatives:
Work with a group focused on climate change
The number of nonprofits dedicated to lessening climate change has grown tremendously in the last decade, and students can find a range of options to suit their interests. 350 is a national organization focused on stopping the use of fossil fuels and, instead, promoting renewables. In addition to hosting the International Day of Climate Action, the group is also hosting a global satellite art project concentrated on climate change. Another great option is the Power Shift Network, a youth-led organization that holds regular rallies in Washington D.C. and throughout the nation.
Join a coalition
Even if you don’t work as a scientist or policy maker, that doesn’t mean your voice is ineffective. One good way to voice concerns is by joining a coalition. Groups like Blue Green Alliance are comprised of labor and environmental organizations dedicated to increasing the number of green jobs, while Apollo Alliance is comprised of business, community, environmental, and labor leaders pushing for a quick move to clean energy. Meanwhile, the American Clean Energy Agenda is made up of state and local groups working towards using more renewable sources.
Host a free climate reality presentation
The Climate Reality Project is getting the word out about the seriousness of climate change by hosting free presentations from trained climate reality leaders who can talk about what’s happening to the earth and what we can do to diminish the effects. Students can check to see if a talk is happening near them; if not, they can host one free of charge.
Get in touch with your local and national politicians
Change happens when constituents make their concerns heard en masse. If you’re unhappy with how your city or state is responding to climate change, use your voice and your vote to influence change. Even if it isn’t an election year, you can still call and write your representatives regularly to let them know where you stand on the issue, and about any bills being considered specifically.
Take part in a climate campaign
Organizations like the Earth Day Network, Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, League of Conservation Voters, Greenpeace International, and the Sierra Club all have ongoing campaigns that students can join and support. The Sierra Club even has one specific to learners, known as the Sierra Student Coalition.
If you want to get even more involved, many colleges throughout the U.S. now offer climate change-related degrees at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels to help students become change-makers after graduation. Examples include:
Ecosystems and Human Impact
Stony Brook University in New York provides this interdisciplinary bachelor’s degree program for students who want to address the complex factors that contribute to climate change. Some of the unique courses offered in this program include preservation and restoration of ecosystems, sustainable natural resources, and global environmental politics.
Climate and Space Sciences
The University of Michigan’s College of Engineering is home to this integrated Ph.D. program that provides a comprehensive study of atmospheric, planetary, and space sciences before moving into more specialized study. Some of the coursework students can expect to encounter includes planetary atmospheres, cloud and precipitation processes, and advanced fluid dynamics.
Climate and Society
Columbia University offers this year-long master’s degree for individuals who want to understand how they can be a change agent against the impacts of climate change. As an interdisciplinary program, Columbia’s offering combines studies in areas of earth engineering, political science, economics, international relations, and earth sciences to create a comprehensive plan of study.
Climate Science and Solutions
This 18-month master’s program at Northern Arizona University focuses on the intersection of science and policy and was developed for individuals who want to fight against global warming. Coursework covers the management of greenhouse gases, global environments, and the economics of natural resources. It also includes a field experience component.
Climate Change Studies
The University of Montana launched this baccalaureate program in 2009 as the first in the nation of its kind. Students study the science behind climate change before delving into additional coursework related to ethics and policy. A minor is also available. Coursework includes studies in paleoclimatology, global cycles and climate, and the environment of the Mekong Delta.
The Scripps Institution for Oceanography offers this Ph.D. for anyone who wants to dig into the chemical, dynamical, and physical interactions of things such as the atmosphere, ice, land, oceans, and marine biospheres. Examples of current student research includes interannual climate variability, the physics of El Niño, air-sea interactions, and climate theory.