How Can Universities be more Sustainable
Humans played a big role in the changes to the earth’s climate over the last century, and scientists predict catastrophic problems if climate change goes unchecked. America is the second largest contributor to carbon dioxide in the world but accounts for only 4.4% of the global population, which means people in the U.S. can make great strides in the fight against climate change with the right tools, information, and resources. College is a great place to start, and there are many opportunities for involvement as a student. See what climate change experts have to say on the matter and learn more about the different ways you can get involved on a sustainability campus and beyond.
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.
Why Should You Care?
Lots of the discussion around climate change is scientific in nature, so we don’t always understand the tangible effects it has on our daily lives. But climate change can impact the planet and, in turn, us in a variety of ways:
Food shortage and/or higher costs
Studies suggest crop productivity in America is declining by 2-4% annually due to climate change. This continued decline could lead to a food shortage (or the need to import things like grains, cereals, vegetables, and meats). It could also mean significantly higher prices on everyday staples like bread, butter, and milk.
Draught and forest fires
California and large portions of the West Coast have experienced severe draught in recent years due to climate change, causing problems with water supplies as well as extremely dry air and soil. And it’s not just the U.S. The New York Times recently reported that Cape Town is less than three months away from “Day Zero”, which is when the city will implement severe water restrictions until rain comes to replenish water supply. Aside from disturbing crop growth, areas affected by draught are at a much higher risk for uncontrollable fires due to the lack of moisture in the atmosphere. And if people lose access to water, as may soon be the case in Cape Town, consequences will be far worse.
The Arabica coffee tree needs a cool mountain slope to grow and thrive, but rising temperatures in areas where coffee grows has pushed farmers further and further up the mountains to find cool enough air. According to a study on Ethiopia, a top producer of coffee beans, the country’s output could decrease by as much as 59% because of climate change by 2100. A coffee shortage wouldn’t only affect avid coffee drinkers – it would also affect the livelihoods of farmers who depend on these export earnings.
Decreased snow fall
If you enjoy winter sports like snowboarding, skiing, snowshoeing, or other activities involving snow, climate change directly affects you. As climates continue warming, snow fall will drop dramatically and potentially stop altogether in some places.
Increased diseases and travel limitations
As waters continue rising from the melting of icecaps, expect more insect-borne diseases like Zika to pop up as well as tick-borne viruses like Lyme disease. As reported cases of these illnesses become known, prepare for limitations on where and when you can travel to certain parts of the world.
Limitations on fishing and hunting
Warming waters from climate change will greatly alter fish distributions in different parts of the world and even make some species extinct. Above the water, changes in habitats and increased use of land as other parts of the country become less inhabitable means lower populations of commonly hunted animals such as deer or boars. Environmental protections for these species are important not just for their longevity, but also for food supplies.
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.
- Environmental degrees
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.
- Sustainable curricula
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.
- Shuttle buses
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.
- Energy supply
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.
The Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System
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.
What commitment(s) did your college make to fight against climate change?
In 2014, Pomona College’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 have a 2020 goal to reduce electricity and gas usage by 30% compared to fiscal year 2014 levels. To keep us on track, we have committed to producing annual reports that check our progress and make recommendations for improvement. We have also committed to leading energy-efficient technologies like installing real-time energy meters in every building on campus and retrofitting our most energy-intensive buildings through a recent $2.5 million grant from the California Energy Commission.
As the land-grant, flagship university of Nebraska, our commitment is to serve as a primary intellectual center, providing leadership across the state through quality education and the generation of new knowledge. Many of the university’s faculty, staff and students from a variety of disciplines engage in teaching and research toward solving societal issues like climate change. Units include the National Drought Mitigation Center, the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute, the High Plains Regional Climate Center and the Institute of Agricultural and Natural Resources. We are committed not only to educating fellow citizens about climate change but also preparing communities from Nebraska to Ethiopia on how to mitigate this change, adapt to the uncertain future and build resilient communities. Research, teaching and service to the community are central to our effort on this front, as well.
Why do colleges play a critical role in tackling climate change and why is it important for schools/students to get involved?
Colleges play a critical role in tackling climate change because we are leaders with the financial and intellectual resources to make a lasting change. We are responsible for cultivating the minds of students who will become the next generation of world leaders. Students who get involved during college will continue to have a positive impact after they graduate.
Education is one of the 17 sustainable development goals developed by the United Nation. Preparing the next generation of climate-literate citizens is part and parcel of our educational system. The university 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, these efforts could be adopted by society at large. This opportunity and responsibility includes researching new technologies and understanding people’s behavior to better equip us for taking action on climate change.
What specific steps are you taking, and what have been the results so far?
Our biggest impact on the climate is our energy consumption. 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 were able to reduce 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 emissions since 2014.
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 have multiple environmental student organizations that work on various projects. These projects aim to implement direct changes in the way that the university operates, as well as educate the community on the importance of climate change and pro-environmental action. For example, one student project conducted by the Environmental Sustainability Committee of our student government led to a ban on the use of Styrofoam not only at our university, but also at the three other universities in our system. Another project led by university students was instrumental in implementing a bike-share program in the city of Lincoln and at the university.
How do you encourage students to get involved?
The Pomona College Sustainability Office employs over 75 students a year to work on sustainability programs and projects. We also have a $8,000 President’s Sustainability Fund that supports student-led campus sustainability projects. Pomona College also encourages involvement by providing funds so students can pursue summer internships that are unpaid or where resources are limited. Students are also heavily involved in campus clubs and political engagement. A group of students worked with Citizen’s Climate Lobby to launch the Know Tomorrow conference that attracted hundreds of people across the region. One of our students was even featured in the Know Tomorrow documentary series.
We encourage student involvement through various channels. As previously mentioned, the essence of this is to develop the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as a living laboratory. Many of our faculty and staff partner to create sustainability-oriented class projects in a wide 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 have 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. One student organization, for instance, works to implement operational changes, while another one runs grass-roots advocacy campaigns to educate the student body. The university’s Office of Sustainability serves as the clearinghouse for all sustainability-related activities on campus. That office facilitates relationships with students, faculty and staff to drive the university forward in all aspects of sustainability, whether economic, social or environmental. It also hosts an annual sustainability summit that gives students an opportunity 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 annually support sustainability-related student projects.
What can students do daily to fight climate change?
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, and these efforts become exponential. I also encourage you to make institutional change. This can mean writing to your congressional representatives, volunteering for a local non-profit or government agency, and advocating for programs in your college. These changes influence culture, which has a huge, lasting impact.
Students should 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, for example. They can also advocate for pro-environmental policy and implementation of programs and changes at their residences and workplaces.
Where/how can students who don't know much about climate change get involved?
I personally learn a lot from documentaries. I recommend finding a documentary that engages a specific sub-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 those issues. I also recommend taking a class in your college’s environmental program to learn the breadth and depth of climate change. Lastly, I recommend traveling and/or volunteering with global organizations so that you can experience the impacts and potential threats of climate change first-hand. Having this perspective makes it personal and very powerfully inspires you to make change.
Mona Becker of McDaniel College offers additional advice for students who want to get involved:
What are some ways individual students can do their part in going green?
Students can join an environmental group on campus or form one if it doesn’t exist! Here at McDaniel, our Green Life club has sparked interest in environmental issues on campus and even started a “turn it off Tuesday” campaign to make sure that lights were off in offices when not in use. Offices were awarded “energy stars” and this was a visual reminder for people to make good decisions regarding the environment.
Individual students can also make sure they always recycle, are careful about their water use and are not wasteful, and can educate others about the importance of these issues. If students are aware of the choices they make, they can make a big difference.
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 that ball rolling themselves?
The first is to partner with like-minded students at their college to form an environmental student group. It is important to address only one or two issues at a time, though, and keep it reasonable. McDaniel’s Green Life club started with recycling as their issue to tackle.
Also, students should not be afraid to approach their administration. Students involved in the Green Life club at McDaniel work closely with the environmental studies department faculty, as well as finance, physical plant, 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.
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 when they occur. One of the best-selling points to college administration for changes in sustainability is the return on investment (ROI), so if your proposed change has cost savings built into it for the college, use that to your advantage as a selling point. Not only are you helping the institution to become more sustainable, but you are also saving money.
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.
- Climate Sciences
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.
Climate Change Terms You Should Know
When it comes to climate change, a lot of terms are used to discuss issues and solutions. These are some of the more common terms that might be tossed around when discussing environmental issues on campus and beyond.
Climate Change & Sustainability Resources
A roundup of resources to help you learn more about climate change and sustainability, and where and how to get involved as a change-maker:
- America Recycles Day
Each year on November 15, thousands of college students host recycling days on their college campuses. If you want to host one at your school, ARD can help you organize and register an event.
- How to Become a Climate Change Activist
This 2015 interview with the Director of Programs at the National Resources Defense Council is a must-read for any student looking to make a difference on their campus and in the world.
- Campus EcoLeader Certification
The National Wildlife Federation provides a comprehensive training and certification program for students who want to take concrete steps in addressing the issue of climate change on their campus.
- International Student Environmental Coalition
ISEC is a network of students from 30 countries who work together to unite students in the battle against climate change, mobilize others, and challenge the notion that sustainability can only happen when the government acts.
- Make It a Reality Toolkit
The Climate Reality Project provides this action kit for students who want to teach others about the basics of climate change, be able to answer common questions, engage leaders, and leverage social media to bring awareness.
- Student Activism Resource Center
The Education Action Board offers a range of tools and resources to help train students on how to be activists. The organization also has an active student affairs forum where learners can compare notes and encourage one another.
- Student Project on Changing Campus Culture
Graduate students at the University of Utah decided to take it on themselves to research and develop a plan to help their fellow students take small steps to mitigate climate change. Their findings and conclusions are a great read for anyone looking to change campus culture.
- Student Groups on Campus
Lots of colleges now have student groups focused on issues like sustainability, climate change, and recycling and provide numerous opportunities to enact change at school. Harvard University provides just one example of the types of clubs a student might encounter.
- Global Climate Change Week
Taking place during the second week of October each year, this is a great opportunity to get involved and encourage others to do the same. The group offers a whole page devoted to students, with helpful ideas of things to plan around campus. Examples include petitions, movie nights, public panels, and divestment campaigns.
- Go Fossil Free
This national organization provides a toolkit for students who want to hold a divestment campaign at their college or university.