We recently had the privilege of joining college and university presidents, students, and other invited guests to a White House roundtable for the American Campuses Act on Climate day. This gathering provided a rich forum for hearing passion and dedication from leading institutions working to create climate solutions leading up to the Convention on Climate Change in Paris. Second Nature assisted the White House with the event by asking signatories to submit “ephemeral pledges” of support prior to that day and encouraging presidential attendance at the event. The power of the Climate Leadership Network was in full effect as nearly all the presidents in attendance at the event represented signatory schools. We represented!

The Climate Leadership Commitments have undoubtedly played a pivotal role driving higher education’s action on climate. Our Commitments have rigor – clear timelines, progress tracking and assessment, public accountability, data system and technical support, and consequences for inaction. All characteristics essential for them to drive long-lasting change. This is by design. To borrow from Teddy Roosevelt, the Commitments cause campuses to “dare greatly”.

The question then becomes: What role do other pledges and declarations serve that don’t share this rigor? Are they distractions? Or do they complement efforts?

We believe they are complementary in two main ways: Awareness and Agency.

  1. Awareness. Campaigns designed to be short-lived draw attention to issues and events in ways that support the sustained, long-term work. When the campaign energy dies down, the residue can then settle over a lasting framework.
  2. Agency. Knowing you can take small steps towards change can be empowering and encouraging in the face of the daunting global climate challenge. These incremental steps, joined together as a part of a larger initiative, can be powerful.

In light of this, we were thrilled to connect the Climate Leadership Network with both Awareness and Agency initiatives on the day we were at the White House. This included the White House’s “American Campus Act on Climate Pledge” and the “Defend our Future” campaign run by the Environmental Defense Fund.

For the White House’s pledge, higher education institutions were asked to raise climate awareness in advance of Paris through identifying campus actions that “accelerate the transition to low-carbon energy while enhancing sustainable and resilient practices across our campus.” This broad language allowed many campuses to sign on, and interestingly, nearly 80% of the 218 schools that signed the pledge were already a part of the Climate Leadership Network. Many of those in the pledge identified the Climate Leadership Commitments as a key action they had taken that set a framework for their ongoing activities.

The connection to the Defend our Future campaign is a bit less explicit, but no less important. This campaign contains a series of student challenges (e.g. start a bike share, use a reusable water bottle) and that gives everyone an opportunity to do their part to minimize climate impacts. Personal empowerment is key to driving cultural change and although there are limitations to movements that rely solely on technology to spread the word, anchoring the campaign with long-term scaled institutional action of the Climate Leadership Commitments ensures long-term success.

The landscape of commitments, pledges, and declarations can appear cluttered, so it can help to distinguish the functional and complementary roles that exist. The Climate Leadership Commitments serve as the key underlying framework for awareness and agency campaigns to flourish. Without that infrastructure, campuses can be left with little to sustain itself beyond the hype of the moment. Without the invigorating energy of campaigns, it’s easy for the grind of sustained action to lose momentum. Designing them to complement one another is the best recipe for success.