Higher Education Paves a Way Forward on Climate Change


Kelly Henderson, Climate Center Program Assistant, Washington, D.C.

These days, it’s tough to be an environmentalist on the national level. The current “Right-heavy” House pays little to no attention to the health impacts related to air pollution and is too focused on tying EPA’s hands when it comes to regulating toxics and other air pollutants from prominent sources such as power plants. Those Representatives mindlessly claim that supporting the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would kill jobs and cause further harm to an already weakened economy – parroting unproven rhetoric. If you do much of any related reading, you’d know they’re wrong. As a youth advocate for living sustainably and helping to curb the effects of climate change, it can be an especially frustrating and challenging situation as you may feel your voice is not being heard on the Hill. Many students and members of the millennial generation are facing this challenge every day.

Even though the federal government is in complete disagreement over how to progress with enacting legislation that would help ease the effects of climate change and allow for more sustainable initiatives throughout the country, there is still hope! Some state and local governments have grabbed the reins and decided to enact their own Climate Change Action Plans (CCAP). A CCAP lays out a strategy, including specific policy recommendations that a local government will use to address climate change and reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.” Many of these plans anticipate similar outcomes including but not limited to: increasing water and energy efficiency, improving air quality and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, setting standards for renewable vehicles percentages and an overall “greening” of the specific city, county or district.

What’s even more exciting is that many of these cities that have established their own CCAP are fueled by the energy of thousands of environmentally passionate students at large, sustainably-committed universities in those very same cities. The American College and University President’s Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) is a method that is leading the way for several hundred colleges and universities across the country to become more sustainable by eliminating net greenhouse gas emissions and promoting educational strides in an effort to address global warming and climate change. To read more about what exactly the commitment is, what it does and to see a full list of college presidents who have signed it, read my previous blog here.

Let’s take a brief look at the CCAP in five cities across that country and the universities that are located in those cities who have signed the President’s Climate Commitment:

 1.       Pima County, Arizona: home to ACUPCC Signatory Arizona State University and over 70,440 green-minded students.

Pima County’s Board of Supervisors unanimously adopted a sustainability initiative on May 1, 2007 which set specific goals to be achieved on set deadlines on everything from alternative-fuel vehicles to green building to land and water management and conservation to waste reduction. All of these sustainability goals are set on a five year action plan with incremental changes marked for each fiscal year.

In addition to Pima County’s initiatives, Arizona State University has taken the lead on advancing an unparalleled effort to install nearly 20MW of solar power across its four campuses by 2014. 

2.       Los Angeles, California: home of UCLA, California State University and over 73,010 green-minded students.

 The city of Los Angeles released its climate action plan, Green LA: An Action Plan to Lead the Nation in Fighting Global Warming, in May 2007. The Plan sets forth a goal of reducing the City’s greenhouse gas emissions to 35% below 1990 levels by the year 2030, one of the most aggressive goals of any big city in the U.S. 

In addition to Los Angeles’ Green LA program, students at UCLA have a Green Initiative Fund (TGIF) that raises $200,000 per year for UCLA sustainability projects. Additionally, starting in 2009, all new construction and major renovations at UCLA must be certified LEED Silver or higher.

photo courtesy of environment.ucla.edu  

3.     Worcester, Massachusetts: home of Clark University, Worcester State University and over 8,648 green-minded students.

 In October 2003, Mayor Timothy Murray proposed a resolution to the City Council and Worcester became the 19th city in Massachusetts to join the Cities for Climate Protection (CCP) Campaign – a campaign run by ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability.

In addition to the city of Worcester, Clark University is on track to meet and exceed its interim goal of a 20 percent reduction over 2005 emissions levels by 2015, and therefore closer to the ultimate goal of climate neutrality.


4.      Chicago, Illinois: home of University of Illinois- Chicago, Robert Morris University and over 31,651 green-minded students.

Over 15 years ago, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley began Chicago’s transformation into one of the world’s most greenest and livable cities. The ever present threat of climate change and the role that cities are playing in it is what prompted Daly to create a multi-stakeholder task force to produce Chicago’s Climate Action Plan.

Additionally, UIC’s sustainability initiatives are focused on improvements to campus-wide recycling, active transportation options, and energy efficiency; all of which are strategies in UIC’s first Climate Action Plan.


5.       New York, New York: home of NYU, Bard College, 12 SUNY Locations and over 483,827 green-minded students.

New York University developed its Climate Action Plan as a strategic planning tool to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as effectively and rapidly as possible and as a communications platform for conveying a long-term goal to become a climate-positive institution. As a member of the ACUPCC, NYU plans to fulfill the net-zero emissions “climate neutrality” commitment by FY 2040.

New York City’s plan has more specific targets including but not limited to: energy efficient vehicle fleets, water and air targets and green building.

photo courtesy of scps.nyu.edu/

At a time when the federal government can’t seem to get its act together to make decisions that would help bring the Earth towards carbon neutrality, cleaner air and more sustainable practices, localized CCAPs are the key to moving forward. These five are only five of hundreds of local plans that not only towns and cities have developed, but even more importantly, colleges and universities. Bringing sustainability to the classroom and in individual living spaces is teaching students lifelong lessons in leading sustainable lives and also developing environmental ethics they can carry with them forever and share with friends and family.

Here’s a startling yet crucial statistic: by 2016, one third of the eligible voting population will be the millennial generation. The millennials- the current college students and recent graduates- are the ones who are going to carry the U.S. through the changes needed to bring us away from our fossil fuel dependence, and the education they receive at the university level will serve as the empowering tool to bring us there.

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