ACUPCC Committee Publishes Report on Preparing for and Responding to Climate Change

By David A. Caruso, President, Antioch University New England and Member, Higher Education Climate Adaption Committee and Abigail Abrash Walton, Assistant to the President for Sustainability and Social Justice, Antioch University New England

(This article appears in the December, 2011 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer)

As we sat down to write this article, we reflected on the climate change indicators we have witnessed right here in Keene, NH, where Antioch University New England (AUNE) is located.  The most noticeable of these is increased intensity and frequency of storm events.  Indeed, of the 15 largest flood events recorded in New Hampshire since 1934, eight have occurred in just the last five years.  These changes pose compelling challenges for our campus and surrounding communities and have motivated our faculty, students, staff, and community partners to begin to prepare for the risks of climate disruption and to pioneer new models of resiliency.

When the American College & University Presidents’ Commitment (ACUPCC) created a committee to develop a position paper on the role of higher education in climate adaptation, it was recognized that colleges and universities like ours have played a key role in efforts to prevent or mitigate global climate change.  In convening the group of climate experts and institutional leaders that formed the Higher Education Climate Adaptation Committee, the ACUPCC’s Steering Committee emphasized the importance for higher education of taking a new lead: preparing for and responding to impacts and implications of climate change that include unprecedented effects on infrastructure, ecosystems, energy & water supplies, food production, national security, and people’s livelihoods.

From the outset, Committee members adopted the perspective that the role of higher education institutions in climate change adaptation should cut across the three core functions of teaching, research, and community engagement.  The Committee also concluded that institutions must focus on both addressing climate risks to their own operations and engaging in a wide range of initiatives to help society adapt to climate disruption.  In both of these crucial areas, the Committee concluded that, while higher education institutions as a whole have not focused sufficiently on climate adaptation to date, their leadership is essential for successful climate change adaptation in the future.

Last month, the ACUPCC published the Committee’s final report titled Higher Education’s Role in Adapting to a Changing Climate.  The report defines and clarifies key concepts and continuing challenges in the areas of curriculum, research, community engagement, and operations risk management, and provides examples of exciting work already underway at various institutions.  The report concludes with recommendations for action on individual campuses.  As the report makes clear, higher education institutions are well positioned and ready to empower people to rapidly respond, in effective, just and transparent ways, to a changing environment.

At our campus, we ground our climate change adaptation leadership in AUNE’s purpose “to provide transformative education through scholarship, innovation, and community action for a just and sustainable society.”  In July 2010, we completed a 10-year Climate Action Plan (CAP) to achieve AUNE’s goal of attaining carbon neutrality by 2020.  As suggested in Higher Education’s Role in Adapting to a Changing Climate, many of our CAP action steps go beyond mitigation to address climate adaption as well.  For example, our new Sustainable Development and Climate Change concentration within the MS in Environmental Studies integrates courses in climate change adaptation and resiliency, environmental site assessment, sustainable community planning, and building sustainable organizations.

AUNE faculty research and community outreach efforts also focus on climate adaptation. Examples include cutting-edge applied research that addresses adaptation measures to deal with increased stormwater run-off associated with climate change and mental health counseling to first responders in areas devastated by climate-change-associated flooding.

Through community partnerships, AUNE faculty and students have contributed to the development of the City of Keene’s Climate Adaptation Plan, one of the first of its kind in the world, and to the city’s new Comprehensive Master Plan, which explicitly addresses climate change adaptation and community sustainability.

We want to highlight, in particular, the social justice dimension of AUNE’s commitment to climate change adaptation and stress its importance for all higher education institutions.  A central aspect of our approach is the premise that the risks and negative impacts associated with climate change are, and will increasingly, impact low-income communities and communities of color even though they typically have low carbon footprints.  Therefore, we have made an institutional commitment to take leadership in assuring that communities in our region have access to credible, informative science, and that access is extended particularly to communities that are likely to be most impacted by the effects of climate change.

Higher Education’s Role in Adapting to a Changing Climate was prepared under the primary authorship of Georges Dyer of Second Nature and Jennifer Andrews of Clean Air-Cool Planet.  The Higher Education Climate Adaptation Committee provided direction, resources, expertise, and feedback on the development and writing of the report.  The Committee’s ability to play this key role so effectively was in large part because its membership represented community colleges, research universities, liberal arts colleges, and graduate schools and included presidents, academic administrators, sustainability officers, center directors, and faculty members.  The group worked extremely well together to prepare the report on an aggressive timeline.

In commissioning this report, the ACUPCC Steering Committee has expanded its focus beyond its successful model for addressing climate mitigation.  As leaders in higher education consider next steps in relation to climate change adaptation, we now have a thorough analysis and set of recommendations to guide that work.