Higher education’s role in the race to a climate change solution

By   – Director of Public Relations & Community Engagement, Portland Community College

The world has about a decade to get climate change under control, according to a landmark report produced by scientists serving on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. If carbon emissions are not drastically reduced by then, the globe stands to be transformed into something entirely different by 2050.

So, the news last month that the United States – the world’s second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide – was officially pulling out of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, was met with disappointment from many.

“Climate change is a real issue, a global issue, and one that’s not going away,” said Briar Schoon, Portland Community College’s sustainability manager.

“When we look at data reflecting the impact of carbon emissions on the planet, it’s a wake-up call for all of us.”

But where there’s doom and gloom, there exists the potential for opportunity, and it’s in this space that higher education plays a unique and important role.

Environmental shifts have prompted colleges and universities to “green” their curriculum. Students get the knowledge and exposure needed to work in fields being transformed by climate change, like renewable energy and transportation. Employers looking to hire, meanwhile, have access to skilled graduates who can assist them as they change the way their companies do business, moving in sustainable and environmentally friendly directions.


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Sustainability has been a long-time priority for PCC. The college offers 38 sustainability courses, and nearly 80 that feature sustainability across 26 subject areas, including career technical education. Examples are PCC’s HVAC program at its Swan Island Trades Center and its welding partnership with Vigor Industrial, a program that runs in part on donated, recyclable steel.

Award-winning learning gardens at PCC’s campuses and centers emphasize hands-on sustainability education and help address food insecurity among students. The college is certified as a Bee Campus USA affiliate; its Rock Creek campus features an on-campus apiary promoting bee education related to pollinator protection. PCC is also a founding member of the Greater Portland Sustainability Education Network, a United Nations University Regional Center of Expertise on education for sustainable development.

Operationally, PCC has agreed to purchase off-site power through PGE’s new Green Future impact program, which is anticipated to offset energy emissions by 20 percent. The college is committed to LEED Gold certification on new construction, and despite its footprint growth, has reduced energy use per square foot by 51 percent since 2006 due to overall sustainability efforts. Collectively, this contributed to PCC being tapped for the 2017 national Second Nature Climate Leadership Award for two-year colleges.

“We try to take a holistic approach, integrating sustainability throughout all of our systems – academics, operations and administration,” said Schoon. “Our students benefit, and so does the greater Portland community.”

PCC President Mark Mitsui returned this week from Madrid, which hosted the Conference of the Parties 25 as the latest round of U.N. climate negotiations. While there, Mitsui was a session panelist representing American community colleges and the nonprofit Second Nature as part of the “We Are Still In” movement, or WASI, which managed the U.S. Climate Action Center at the conference. WASI is a non-federal, subnational group committed to upholding the Paris Climate Agreement, representing a collective of approximately 3,700 mayors, governors, tribal leaders, CEOs, investors, university and college presidents, and religious establishments from around the U.S.

“Of particular importance is environmental justice,” said Mitsui. “While all nations and peoples are impacted by climate change, some are impacted more than others. Smaller island nations are at greater risk of disappearing altogether. In the U.S. and in other countries, some regions experience a disproportionate negative impact.

“Increasing the visibility of these needs is an important first step, and I appreciated learning of the promising strategies about this at COP 25,” he said.

Despite the U.S. pullout from the Paris Agreement, Schoon sees potential – especially for higher education.

“Our withdrawal may spur increased momentum in the U.S., to mobilize and find a solution to climate change.

“Engaging in best practices, educating the clean tech workforce, raising awareness of sustainable practices across sectors, and developing the next generation of climate action and sustainability leaders are ways higher education demonstrates that we’re still in,” she said.

Learn more about sustainability at Portland Community College at www.pcc.edu.

Portland Community College is the largest post-secondary institution in Oregon and provides training, degree and certificate completion, and lifelong learning to nearly 70,000 full- and part-time students in Multnomah, Washington, Yamhill, Clackamas, and Columbia counties.

Kate Chester, an award-winning writer, serves as PCC’s director of public relations & community engagement. To contact her, visit LinkedIn or email her at [email protected].

Source: Portland Business Journal