Sustainability on College Campus

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Table of Contents: Sustainability on College Campus
1. What is Climate Change?
2. Why Should You Care?
3. Four Ways Colleges Are Tackling Climate Change
4. Climate Change Degrees
5. From the Experts: How Three Colleges Are Leading by Example
6. Getting Involved Beyond Campus
7. Climate Change and Sustainability Resources

Most young people care about climate change. According to the 2021 NextGen Climate Survey, 83% of Gen Z youth worry about the planet’s health. College students can make a difference by pushing for campus sustainability and taking steps to make a more sustainable campus.

College students have a voice on campus. Choosing a sustainable college or encouraging sustainable practices can make a difference. For example, the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, & Rating System rates colleges on sustainability and recommends college sustainability programs.

If you want to learn about campus sustainability and ways to get involved beyond campus, read on. This guide explores how students can get involved in college sustainability efforts.

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What Is Climate Change?

Climate change refers to a shift in global climate patterns characterized by increased temperatures and a greater volatility in weather patterns. The climate changes all the time. However, global climate trends have been faster and more volatile in the past century.

In the 20th century, scientists began measuring greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. They found that today’s atmosphere contains the highest levels of greenhouse gases in nearly one million years. These greenhouse gases increase temperatures because they trap heat in the atmosphere.

Human activity contributes directly to climate change. Burning fossil fuels causes a major increase in greenhouse gases. The Environmental Defense Fund asserts that “humans are the main cause” of climate change. Most climate scientists agree that climate change is real –– and it’s caused by humans.

The five warmest years since the 1880s occurred since 2015. Average temperatures in 2019 were nearly two degrees warmer than 20th-century averages. However, climate change involves more than increasing temperatures. Climate change also means more extreme weather, more destructive natural disasters, and more lives lost. Colder, wetter winters are a direct result of climate change. So are droughts, heat waves, and forest fires.

In the future, climate change could threaten life on earth. In 2017, the National Climate Assessment reported that “without significant reductions, annual average global temperatures could increase by 9°F (5°C) or more by the end of this century.” Our choices now will shape the planet’s future.

Why Should You Care?



Climate change has already altered life for billions of people, and its impact will only increase in the future. Here are some of the many reasons college students should care about climate change.

Food Shortages

The climate plays a major role in our food supply –– and not only through droughts or floods. Changing climate patterns affect biodiversity in many ways, from the decline in pollinators like honeybees to overfarming and habitat losses.

The USDA warns that climate change puts global food security at risk. Disruptions in food supply and production problems create shortages, increase food prices, and diminish food safety. Shifting weather patterns and changing temperatures put everything from our most-grown crops to marine food sources at risk.

Natural Disasters

Natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, and wildfires show evidence of climate change. While these events are often dismissed as naturally occurring, the National Wildlife Federation warns that “many natural disasters are becoming more dangerous due partly to climate change.”

Extreme heat waves, the slipping polar vortex, and megafires can all be traced to climate change. These natural disasters increasingly impact every community around the world.

Health Risks

Climate change increases health risks across the globe. According to the CDC, climate change influences human health and disease in many ways. Climate change intensifies health threats such as respiratory issues and heat-related illnesses. It can also contribute to malnutrition, the spread of infectious diseases, and mental health.

Air pollution, temperature extremes, wildfires, and floods all endanger lives. By tackling climate change, we can improve people’s health.

Energy Consumption

The ways we use energy, how we produce energy, and greenhouse gas emissions from energy consumption all influence climate change. Additionally, climate change impacts our energy consumption. Extreme temperatures increase demand for energy, which can lead to blackouts.

Demand for fossil fuels directly affects the climate. Drilling for oil, polluting the environment by burning fossil fuels, and releasing petroleum-based chemicals into ecosystems has taken a major toll. Unless we build a clean energy future, we might destroy the planet.

Four Ways Colleges Are Tackling Climate Change

Colleges committed to fighting climate change invest in college sustainability programs. They build green dorms, invest in low-carbon transportation, and limit waste. This section covers the ways colleges are tackling climate change on campus.


  • 1. Green Buildings and Housing

    Colleges are making campus buildings and housing greener by retrofitting older buildings and constructing new structures that prioritize campus sustainability. Putting solar panels on buildings to create renewable energy sources helps colleges lower their reliance on fossil fuels. Greywater systems limit water usage, while LEED-certified buildings meet high standards for sustainability.


  • 2. Alternative Transportation Modes

    Cars pour onto many college campuses every day. Colleges can encourage alternative transportation modes to limit emissions. Rideshare programs, free or discounted transit passes, and e-scooters help students commute to campus with a lower carbon footprint. Colleges can also invest in low-carbon transportation for their needs.


  • 3. Food Shortage and Consumption

    Food waste represents a major challenge for campus sustainability. Colleges play a major role in tackling food waste and related issues like consumption and food shortages. For example, colleges can reduce the amount of meat they serve in cafeterias, support local and organic farming, and reduce food waste to make a more sustainable campus.


  • 4. Recycling and Water Usage

    Increasing recycling and reducing water usage can significantly impact college campuses. Colleges that invest in recycling bins and compost bins can reduce trash waste and build a more sustainable campus. Installing on-campus water refill stations encourages reusable water bottles and limits plastic waste. Campuses can also limit water waste in dorms by implementing greywater systems.


Climate Change Degrees



Degree-seekers can research climate change as part of their academic studies. Colleges and universities are increasingly offering programs in fields related to climate change, including climate science, environmental science, and sustainability. This section introduces unique degree options related to climate change.

Ecosystems and Human Impact


Stony Brook University offers this degree at the undergraduate level. Learners explore interactions between humans and natural environments, studying fields like biology, ecology, and geography. Undergraduates complete research courses, internships, and field courses to gain a hands-on understanding of the human impact on ecosystems.

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Climate Science and Solutions


Northern Arizona University’s School of Earth and Sustainability offers this degree that blends climate science with sustainable systems studies. Students also gain professional training for careers in the climate industry. By combining scientific and management training, the program prepares graduates for leadership roles in the green economy.

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Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering


An interdisciplinary option at the University of Michigan, this program covers atmospheric, space, and planetary sciences. Enrollees focus on a specific research area. Other colleges may also offer options that combine climate and space sciences.

Explore Here

 
 

From the Experts: How Three Colleges Are Leading by Example



Alexis Reyes and Prabhakar Shrestha


Alexis Reyes and Prabhakar Shrestha, leaders in the fight against climate change at Pomona College and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, respectively, discuss how their schools got involved in college sustainability. Consider their experiences as you develop ideas for your own college campus.


  • Q. What commitment(s) did your college make to fight against climate change?

    Reyes
    In 2014, Pomona’s president and board of trustees pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2030 (CN2030). Our latest sustainability action plan, SAVE, outlines specific strategies and metrics for achieving CN2030. For example, because two-thirds of our carbon footprint comes from energy usage, we aimed to reduce electricity and gas usage by 30% in 2020 compared to fiscal year 2014 levels.

    To keep us on track, we produce annual reports and make recommendations for improvement. We have also committed to leading energy-efficient technologies like installing real-time energy meters in every campus building and retrofitting our most energy-intensive buildings through a $2.5 million grant from the California Energy Commission.

    Shrestha
    As Nebraska’s land-grant, flagship university, UNL serves as a primary intellectual center, providing leadership through quality education and the generation of new knowledge. Many of the university’s faculty, staff, and students engage in teaching and research regarding societal issues like climate change.

    We are committed not only to educating fellow citizens about climate change but also preparing communities around the world to mitigate this change, adapt to the uncertain future, and build resilient communities. Research, teaching, and community service are central to our effort on this front.


  • Q. Why do colleges play a critical role in tackling climate change, and why is it important for schools/students to get involved?

    Reyes
    Colleges play a critical role in tackling climate change because they are leaders with the financial and intellectual resources to make a lasting change. Colleges are responsible for cultivating the minds of students who will become the next generation of world leaders. Students who get involved during college often continue to make a positive impact after they graduate.

    Shrestha
    Education is one of the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals. Preparing the next generation of climate-literate citizens is part and parcel of our educational system. UNL is doing its part to meet the United Nations’ goals by pursuing opportunities to operate as a “living lab” that tests new ideas, programs, and processes.

    If successful, society could adopt these efforts. This opportunity and responsibility includes researching new technologies and understanding people’s behavior to take better action on climate change.


  • Q. What specific steps are you taking, and what have been the results so far?

    Reyes
    Our energy consumption makes the biggest impact on the climate. We’re in the process of installing multiple smart meters in every major campus building so that we can analyze energy usage in real-time, identify any inefficiencies, and make quick improvements. We started this process in 2016, and after one year, we reduced consumption by 12%. This is equivalent to taking over 350 cars off the road for a year or growing 43,000 tree seedlings for 10 years.

    Transportation makes up the other one-third of our carbon footprint. We promote an eco-friendly transportation culture through programs like our free student-run bike rental shop, discounted EV charging stations, free bus passes, and a $2 bonus for every day faculty and staff commute to campus sustainably. All of these programs combined have led to a 17% decrease in total CO2e, or carbon dioxide equivalent, emissions since 2014.

    Shrestha
    As part of a submission to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, the university’s Office of Sustainability found that 31% of our faculty and staff are engaged in sustainability research; 51% of our academic departments conduct sustainability research; 41% of academic departments offer sustainability courses; and 89% of our students graduate from programs that have adopted at least one sustainability learning outcome.

    We continue to test ideas that focus on fostering student engagement with environmental action in order to develop future environmental leaders. We also offer multiple environmental student organizations that work on projects that aim to implement direct changes in how the university operates and educate the community on the importance of climate change and pro-environmental action.

    One student project conducted by our student government’s Environmental Sustainability Committee led to a ban on the use of plastic foam not only at our university, but also at our system’s three other universities. Another student-led project was instrumental in implementing a bike-share program at UNL and in the city of Lincoln.


  • Q. How do you encourage students to get involved?

    Reyes
    Pomona’s Sustainability Office employs over 75 students annually to work on sustainability programs and projects. We also have an $8,000 President’s Sustainability Fund that supports student-led campus sustainability projects. Pomona encourages involvement by providing funds so students can pursue unpaid or low-paying summer internships.

    Students are also heavily involved in campus clubs and political engagement. A group of students worked with Citizens’ Climate Lobby to launch the Know Tomorrow conference that attracted hundreds of people across the region. The Know Tomorrow documentary series featured one of our students.

    Shrestha
    Many of our faculty and staff partner to create sustainability-oriented class projects in a variety of courses that encourage interdisciplinary action on sustainability efforts. We also encourage involvement through our academic programming. For example, students majoring in environmental studies must complete an internship relating to sustainability and conduct research to write a thesis.

    Multiple student organizations focus on different aspects of sustainability, which allows students to tailor their involvement based on their interests. For example, one student organization works to implement operational changes while another runs grassroots advocacy campaigns to educate the student body.

    The university’s Office of Sustainability serves as the clearinghouse for all sustainability-related campus activities. This office facilitates relationships with students, faculty, and staff to drive the university forward in all sustainability aspects. The office also hosts an annual sustainability summit that allows students to learn about what the university is doing and to participate in workshops to further their understanding on various topics.

    Additionally, student government collects a student fee and manages a “green fund,” which contains approximately $50,000 to support annual sustainability-related student projects.


  • Q. What can students do daily to fight climate change?

    Reyes
    One easy way is to examine your personal carbon footprint and think about how your small actions are collectively significant. This can be something as simple as dressing for the weather so that you use less heat and air conditioning, air-drying your clothes, riding your bike instead of driving, or eating vegan meals a couple times a week.

    When you encourage two friends to join you, and those two friends invite two more and so on, these efforts become exponential. I also encourage you to make institutional change. This can mean writing to your congressional representatives, volunteering for a local nonprofit, or advocating for programs in your college. These changes influence culture, which has a huge, lasting impact.

    Shrestha
    Students can start by becoming aware of the implications their behavior has on the natural environment. Next, they can strive to adopt behavioral changes relating to their energy and water use, waste-management practices, and transportation behavior. They can also advocate for pro-environmental policy and implementation of programs and changes at their residences and workplaces.


  • Q. Where and how can students who don't know much about climate change get involved?

    Reyes
    I recommend finding a documentary that engages a specific interest of yours. Climate change is intersectional in that if you care about oceans, animals, waste, food, or people, you can find a powerful and impactful documentary that connects these issues.

    I also recommend taking a class in your college’s environmental program to learn the breadth and depth of climate change. Lastly, I suggest traveling or volunteering with global organizations so that you can experience the impacts and potential threats of climate change first-hand. Gaining this perspective makes it personal.


Mona Becker of McDaniel College offers additional advice for students who want to get involved:


  • Q. What are some ways individual students can do their part in going green?

    Students can join or form a campus environmental group. McDaniel’s Green Life Club started a “turn it off Tuesday” campaign to make sure that lights were off in offices when not in use. Offices received “energy stars” that served as visual reminders for people to make good decisions regarding the environment.

    Students can also make sure they always recycle, stay mindful about their water use, and educate others on these issues. If students are aware of the choices they make, they can make a big difference.


  • Q. Let's assume that a student attends a college that doesn't seem interested in sustainability or environmental issues. What can a student do to get the ball rolling themselves?

    The first step is for students to partner with like-minded students at their college to form an environmental student group. I recommend addressing only one or two issues at a time. For example, the Green Life Club started by tackling recycling.

    Also, students should not be afraid to approach their administration. Students involved in the Green Life Club work closely with the environmental studies department faculty, as well as finance, physical plant, and grounds and housekeeping staff regarding environmental issues. Using social media has also been a powerful way to accomplish change and garner interest in environmental initiatives.


  • Q. Anything else you might like to add about going green on college campuses?

    Change doesn’t happen fast, especially when trying to implement college-wide initiatives that may need board or division approval. Be persistent but also celebrate small victories. Keep in mind that college administration wants to know the ROI. If your proposed change has cost-savings built into it for the college, use that to your advantage. Not only are you helping the institution become more sustainable, but you are also saving money.


Getting Involved Beyond Campus



College students can get involved beyond campus and play a role in larger policy initiatives. Climate change groups, coalitions, and climate campaigns welcome young adults seeking change.

Participate in Climate Change Groups
Students can join dozens of different climate change groups to amplify their voice. For example, the international organization 350.org unites people to end the fossil fuel industry and transition to renewable energy. The Power Shift Network connects young people who want to mitigate climate change and build a just, clean energy future.
Join a Coalition
Joining a coalition connects students with activists and promotes important causes related to climate change. For example, the Blue Green Alliance unites labor unions and environmental organizations committed to meeting environmental challenges in ways that create quality jobs. The Apollo Alliance connects environmental and labor activists to encourage renewable energy.
Attend Climate Reality Presentations
In 2019, 38% of Americans said climate change was not affecting their community, according to the Pew Research Center. Attending climate reality presentations helps educate students on the impact of climate change. The Climate Reality Project hosts presentations and encourages students to create their own presentations.
Take Part in a Climate Campaign
Many organizations encourage climate-focused political and social activism. For example, the Environmental Defense Fund encourages students to use their voice to shape policies. The Sierra Club also provides resources on taking action through its campaigns to influence policy decisions. Students can also support climate campaigns by donating their time or money.

Climate Change and Sustainability Resources



College students can access many climate change and sustainability resources on campus. In addition, the following resources help students learn about climate change and commit to sustainability.


  • America Recycles Day This program educates people on recycling, consumption, and incorporating recycling into their lives. This national day promotes and celebrates recycling.
  • Campus EcoLeader Certification The National Wildlife Federation offers an EcoLeader certification for college students. The certification and the resources offered through the EcoLeader program help college students make a difference and explore green career options.
  • Go Fossil Free Fossil Free unites communities to eliminate fossil fuels. The organization offers tools and tactics to make a change locally and fight against the fossil fuel industry. Fossil Free also supports renewable energy.
  • How to Become a Climate Change Activist In this article, Susan Casey-Lefkowitz shares how she became a major player in climate change activism. Casey-Lefkowitz, the director of programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, discusses activism around sustainability.
  • Student Activism Resource Center Offered by the EAB, an organization that partners with education leaders, this center offers tools for student activists and institutions that want to encourage and support activism.

Portrait of Genevieve Carlton

Genevieve Carlton

Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University and earned tenure as a history professor at the University of Louisville. An award-winning historian and writer, Genevieve has published multiple scholarly articles and a book with the University of Chicago Press. She currently works as a freelance writer and consultant.

See articles by Genevieve

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