2019 Higher Education Climate Leadership Summit: Reflections on Action and Impact

After a year of alarming evidence on the urgency of climate change – from direct experience with extreme weather events to the latest findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – over 300 cross-sector leaders convened in Tempe, Arizona, February 10-12 for the 2019 Higher Education Climate Leadership Summit. This year’s gathering, co-convened by Second Nature and the Intentional Endowments Network (IEN), was an interactive, outcome-oriented Summit, focused on the theme of “Local Action. Global Impact.”

As the largest annual gathering of higher education climate leaders, this year’s participating presidents, trustees, CFOs, endowment/foundation officers, and sustainability directors from over 130 colleges and universities, and their partners in the business, nonprofit, philanthropic and government sectors are all well placed to take local action across the U.S. and catalyze truly global impact.

Tim Carter, President of Second Nature, and Georges Dyer, Co-founder and Principal of IEN, kick off the 2019 Higher Education Climate Leadership Summit

Getting There in Time

In his opening keynote remarks, respected investment manager Jeremy Grantham, co-founder and chief investment strategist of GMO, LLC, made the business case for urgent action on climate change. Investing in sustainability in time and at a scale to change the trajectory of climate change is not, he said, a matter of philanthropy; it’s a matter of survival. Grantham pointed to a tipping point in public awareness on climate, acknowledging the work of scientists and higher education leaders whose willingness to “tell it like it is” – in a way anyone can understand – will remain crucial to accelerating further action.

From left: Mark Mitsui, President of Portland Community College, Mustafa Santiago Ali, Senior VP of Hip Hop Caucus, Diana Liverman, Co-Director of the Institute of the Environment, and Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University

One of the leaders in that effort, Co-Director of the University of Arizona’s Institute of the Environment and IPCC special report co-author Diana Liverman, reminded the audience that true communication involves universities both conveying information in new ways, and also listening to their communities and students; and true partnership means taking joint action together.

Throughout the Summit program, innovative thinkers from across sectors returned to the keynote theme of acting in time, and brought in new perspectives and examples for how to act locally in ways that build stronger, more sustainable communities and have a lasting global impact. Highlights included:

  • Living up to Higher Education’s Mission: Hip Hop Caucus Senior VP Mustafa Santiago Ali kicked off our discussions with a reminder about our shared mission, noting that climate leadership is about people – and therefore “we can win on climate change, but we have to anchor it in people’s living.” Before turning to action-oriented reflection in small groups of participants, Arizona State University President Michael Crow pointed out why sustainability needs to be incorporated across the full mission of higher ed: while universities may represent only 2-3 percent of their country’s carbon footprint, “we represent 100% of our [higher ed] student footprint,” and can lead transformation not only through operations, but also education, research, and investments that change markets and policies at a larger scale. Workshops and small-group conversations delved deeper into what achieving a “just transition” to a climate-friendly economy and society could really look like.

  • A Call to Action: At the Summit, over 20 university presidents released a Call to Action for Higher Education Leadership with eight guiding principles for accelerating equitable and just climate solutions. These principles were reflected in the Summit program, with brainstorms, panels, and small-group action planning focused on the nuts and bolts of how to be an effective anchor institution driving local sustainability, how to align endowment investments with institutions’ full ambition for a just transition to a low-carbon economy, and how to work effectively with other sectors – including by being a convener of more inclusive decision-making on sustainability.

Building Networks to Accelerate Action

In addition to sharing real-world lessons and making action plans, participants in the Summit continued to build the networks that will sustain and accelerate momentum. A panel of presidents across the spectrum of higher education models, from Truckee Meadows Community College, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, the University of California system, and Bennington College, shared how they have come together with other schools (for example, the large public research institutions whose  University Climate Change Coalition launched at the 2018 Higher Education Climate Leadership Summit), local government, and business partners to tackle challenges at scale. Those examples of collaboration were borne out in real time, with business leaders and policy advocates also taking the stage and joining conversations at the Summit.

From left: Mariko Silver, President of Bennington College, Karin Hilgersom, President of Truckee Meadows Community College, Janet Napolitano, President of the University of California, and Tim Carter, President of Second Nature

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse shared a timely message with higher ed leaders encouraging increased engagement in policies that support transformative climate solutions and align efforts across sectors. An awareness for what policies are needed at state and federal levels, and how higher ed leaders can help drive their enactment will be vital to support campus climate action goals and help society “get there in time.” Higher education will not only need to work collectively across institutions, but also with the public sector to leverage every tool available to help inform and support the creation of policies that touch on climate, the environment and the economy for comprehensive policy solutions that will be the most beneficial for current communities and future generations.

The Summit also provided space for participants to connect with each others’ experiences, with workshops and side meetings including a Women’s Leadership breakfast, a workshop on increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion both within and through endowment investing, a workshop on the role of faith-based institutions in climate action, and a workshop on the role of anchor institutions in advancing a just transition. Smaller groups of participants dove deeper into concrete options for leading on campus operations and infrastructure, curriculum, endowment investing, community engagement, resilience and preparedness, and more.

Taking the Next Steps on Climate Leadership

Participants left the Summit inspired to take further action, individually and together. The Summit generated a list of specific next steps, including activities higher ed leaders will need to stop doing if we want to accelerate impact, activities to start doing (by far the largest list), and activities to continue or scale up.

Participants encouraged each other to stop settling for small or disconnected action, start taking bolder action on environmental justice and creating silo-busting partnerships, and accelerate the experimentation and thought leadership that students and Higher Ed communities are generating. The full list of ideas posted on the Summit’s activity wall is available here. Our networks will reconnect throughout the year to advance these goals, and reconvene for the 2020 Higher Education Climate Leadership Summit in Atlanta, GA February 23-25, 2020.