Powerful Ripples In The Environment: The Effects Of University Sustainability Action
Gregory P. Crawford is President of Miami University of Ohio.
Damage from climate change respects no geographic, political or cultural boundaries. These dangers demand a unified global response, as the latest reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change remind us. Climate change also thwarts progress on the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals.
I believe long-term solutions to these threats must happen locally, one ecosystem at a time. We must identify specific problems and solutions, overcome obstacles, leverage resources and elevate public awareness and trust for implementing solutions, from reducing carbon footprints to expanding zero-waste initiatives.
I’ve observed industries advancing sustainability through innovation, investment and company culture. Many cities and towns are pursuing carbon neutrality and resiliency by committing to the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy. Similarly, college and university presidents and chancellors are signing the Presidents’ Climate Leadership Commitments to accelerate climate action. Industries, cities and universities are finding ways to collaborate to broaden their reach and advance impact.
As a university president myself, I believe universities are in a critical position to address both global and local issues. They can mold diverse individual mindsets, strengthen scientific and technical expertise, and develop opportunities for implementing leading-edge practices. As such, universities should make sustainability central to all deliberating, planning and acting across campuses because their mission to serve students, society and stakeholders demand it.
Rising generations know the threat of climate change in their lifetimes. Some will seek careers in a field like climate tech, which has already surpassed $613 billion in market size and is expected to reach $1.1 trillion by 2027, according to Statista. Others will work in large companies, startups, governments, not-for-profits and organizations that have adopted a triple-bottom-line approach with concern for the planet, people and marketplace success. From my perspective, sustainability excellence, like inclusive excellence, will make some universities especially sought-after by students who seek a purposeful education, career and life and by outside partners who seek leading-edge expertise and experience in the field.
Universities are at the forefront of three foundational areas: teaching and learning, research and scholarship, and real-time implementation as living laboratories for experimentation and progress.
Learning For A Lifetime
Universities gather bright, passionate, optimistic students seeking to make a difference in the world, whatever their particular area of interest. Education leaders can empower students for a lifetime of advancing sustainability no matter where they live or work. Environmental threats and their solutions involve not only scientific and technical fields but also social sciences, humanities and the arts. Some students major in fields that directly address climate change and its effects; some pursue paths more remotely connected. Students who gain an understanding of the issues will become citizens who make personal choices and support policies that aim at equitable solutions.
Sustainability excellence means every student in every major should receive a fundamental education that empowers them to act effectively in this critical area. For example, that might include an education in liberal arts such as ethics, philosophy, psychology and sociology so they will consider a full range of questions about how their decisions and actions impact others. They can discern not just whether they can do something but also whether they should.
The approach illuminates the links between environmental sustainability and equity: Environmental protections must elevate everyone, not exacerbate divisions. Such preparation is indispensable to the mission of higher education. The millions of students who graduate yearly from U.S. colleges and universities can become practitioners and advocates of sustainability, ever-widening the impact their education had on them.
Universities are a natural locus for research and scholarship, often transcending disciplinary boundaries on myriad issues surrounding environmental sustainability, basic and translational science, public policy, ethics and effective implementation. This is particularly true with the advent of Industry 4.0 and opportunities emerging in artificial intelligence and data analytics.
University research is usually long-term with a focus on the future and a goal to create new knowledge and technologies that undergird best practices. Sustainability excellence means these laboratories should become “sandboxes” seeking innovative solutions; engaging faculty and staff in diverse collaborations with undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral associates; and collaborating with government, industry, non-governmental organizations, academic colleagues in other fields and institutions and anyone else who can contribute to progress. Participants will carry that model into their own circles, spreading both knowledge and passion.
The university campus is a semi-enclosed ecosystem with its own day-to-day requirements for energy, transportation, housing, food and other sustainability-impacting resources, as well as a human population whose quality of life depends on the quality of their environment. The university’s flourishing is also tied to the well-being of its neighboring community, where it often has a large footprint. Universities often have access to leading-edge solutions through research and partnerships and connectivity to many stakeholders and industries. They can implement best practices as a living laboratory, providing a direct experience for students and a model of success for other institutions.
Sustainability excellence means the university practices what it teaches and implements what it learns in its own infrastructure, policies, statements and activities. Students who live on sustainable campuses that work toward carbon neutrality, use technology to reduce carbon footprints, promote walkability and bicycling, build green buildings, practice responsible food service and waste disposal, and ensure the quality of life of each person will take that experience and expectation into the world along with their degree. I believe success could radiate into neighboring communities that might build bike paths to businesses or welcome student projects seeking local solutions.
Universities have a unique opportunity to significantly impact climate and climate resiliency. We are a place where a diverse collection of disciplines, people and interests intersect, with opportunities for transdisciplinary research, teaching and innovation. We engage in partnerships with business, industry, government and not-for-profits. Our students will be the leaders of the future. As part of universities’ sustained engagement with sustainability research and practice, students will carry the education, experience and mindsets from campuses. Sustainable excellence will ripple around the world and well into the future. This is our responsibility.