This article is currently appearing in Sustainability: A Journal of Record (December, 2014)

The recent White House announcement of a broad reaching United States-China climate policy was surely the single most significant international agreement since the Kyoto Protocol. The two carbon emission leviathans have publicly declared their responsibility and initiated a long and difficult solutions-oriented policy process. Bill McKibben rightfully proclaimed that this announcement may be attributed at least in part to the vocal, persistent, and grass-roots climate action movement. Yet McKibben also emphasized continued vigilance. For sure, the devil is in the details.

If you haven’t yet reviewed the executive summary of this agreement, please do so. It’s impressive.

In short the United States and China have agreed to (1) expand joint clean energy research and development, (2) advance major carbon capture use and storage demonstrations, (3) enhance cooperation on hydrofluorocarbons, (4) launch a climate-smart/low-carbon cities initiative, (5) promote trade in green goods, and (6) demonstrate clean energy on the ground.

What does all of this really mean? None of us can predict how such an agreement will make its way through the halls of Congress, and there will be all kinds of political obstacles along the way. Still, it’s incredibly encouraging, even inspiring, that the leadership of two great powers is finally taking this issue seriously. Perhaps there is a place where global environmental policy commitments and grassroots action may converge. Bill McKibben is right. Such a convergence requires an even greater effort on the part of sustainability practitioners.

In late September (preceding the US-China agreement by about a month), the ACUPCC Climate Action Summit convened in Boston. Of the three hundred plus participants, over fifty were college and university presidents, representing the broadest possible spectrum of American higher education, including minority serving institutions, large state university and college systems, community colleges, large private universities, and small private colleges. I describe the planning process, the sessions, and the goals for the summit in a previous commentary (Journal of Sustainability, August 2014). The conference revolved around five tracks—New Science and Solutions for a Changing Climate, Higher Education’s Climate Leadership Imperative, Creating a Campus Culture of Sustainability, Investment Strategies and Institutional Values, and Corporate Partnerships and Climate Leadership. The full program description is available here.

If there is a single “takeaway” message from the summit, it’s a consensus view that it’s time for all of us to step up. As Wim Wiewel, the president of Portland State university said, “I appreciated the great sense of energy and optimism. There are many people involved in this work that care a great deal about it. There are many opportunities to do things.” Many attendees    expressed similar sentiments. Yet this sense of optimism was buoyed by a pervading restlessness, an acknowledgment that the shifting tides of public policy, the deepening public awareness and concern about climate issues, the seriousness of climate disruption, and the potential for convergent and concerted action all demand new partnerships and possibilities. Indeed, the higher education landscape has changed dramatically in the eight years since the founding of the ACUPCC, and our educational approach must shift accordingly. The United States-China agreement adds to our urgency. And higher education is ready to step up accordingly. 

In this report I’ll review the most prevailing summit themes, as reflected in both the program and the ubiquitous interstitial moments, the buzz in the hallways and restaurants, as well as the post-summit evaluations and responses. I’ll group these themes into six broad, interconnected categories—organizational convergence and specificity, the proliferation of data reporting, resilience planning, civic participation, dynamic partnerships, and social justice approaches.

In the last decade, we’ve seen the emergence of dozens of sustainability and climate related organizations, many of them designed to serve higher education. The ACUPCC summit included presenters and participants from some of the most prominent organizations. Second Nature convened the summit, but worked closely with the leadership of AASHE (Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education), the USGBC (the United States Green Building Council), NCSE (the National Council for Science and the Environment), and EcoAmerica. There is common agreement among these organizations that there are overlaps and gaps in our coverage. In some areas, we have similar initiatives or purviews (curriculum), while there are important initiatives that demand more attention (leadership support and training). How can we work more effectively together to reduce redundancy, develop common initiatives, strengthen our capacity, and broaden our impact and reach? All of these organizations have reached a level of maturity and development enabling them to conceive the possibilities in ways that weren’t quite clear previously. By determining spaces of convergence, these organizations can work together to develop specificity of mission and practice. I expect we’ll see more convenings and conversations in the weeks and months to follow.

For example, any higher education sustainability practitioner will be quick to share the burden of multiple data reporting schemes. If you are a member of the ACUPCC, AASHE, and follow LEED-building requirements (USGBC), you have to deal with required climate action plans and reports, STARS reporting, and the rigorous LEED points process. These are all important peer-reviewed certification schemes. Higher education institutions have all kinds of accountability and accreditation reports. Add sustainability reporting to the mix, and you have a substantial, even ominous regulatory burden. With the prospects of resilience planning added to the mix, the data reporting requirements will get even more complex. Is it possible to develop a unified, streamlined, yet comprehensive data reporting scheme that serves all the players, contributes to common knowledge and practice, and promotes rigorous objectives? This has gotten the attention of both on-the-ground sustainability managers, their supervisors, and of course the university presidents. Promoting a new approach to data reporting and interpretation is an overriding concern. Expect more conversations on this important challenge.

There is great interest in promoting vibrant and dynamic partnerships. For example, Presidents Steve Knapp (George Washington University) and Neil Kerwin (American University), and their sustainability managers, Meghan Chapple and Chris O’Brien, offered a plenary presentation on the Capital Partners Solar Project. As described at the GW website, “It will provide solar power to the George Washington University (GW), American University (AU) and the George Washington University Hospital (GWUH). It is comprised of 52 megawatts (MW) of solar photovoltaic (PV) power, and it is the largest PV project east of the Mississippi River.” This represents a “scaling up” of renewable energy initiatives that can only be accomplished through partnerships.

There were many other examples of proposed partnerships.

In the corporate realm, representatives from the Xerox Corporation and Altenex met with college presidents to discuss common approaches to research, specifically oriented towards resilience planning, communication and health care needs, financial investment, and how research partnerships and “think tanks” can build new programs and possible collaborations. In the civic realm, Brian Swett the Chief of Environment and Energy from the Boston Mayor’s Office described the various ways that the city is working with regional colleges and universities, suggesting that partnerships of mayor and university presidents presents unparalleled opportunities. There were several workshops emphasizing how statewide university systems can work more closely together. Such institutional partnerships are critical in a time of scarce resources and urgent demands. For example, the California University and State College systems have carbon reduction and sustainability mandates that require collaboration and the sharing of social and intellectual capital. In the track on investment, chief financial officers, board members, presidents, and other staff members met to discuss how investment partnerships can both promote institutional sustainability goals while promoting good financial stewardship.

In all four domains, corporate, civic, institutional, and investment partnerships (many of which are connected) emphasize new forms of collaboration and knowledge sharing. There’s a common understanding that in order to “scale up” we must work together.

This is especially true when it comes to resilience planning. There is growing interest and concern about preparedness in the face of extraordinary weather events. How can a campus plan for such possibilities—from storm surges to heat waves to droughts to unprecedented microbursts? What are the potential health impacts of such possibilities? What’s the role and responsibility of the campus? Doesn’t higher education have a role in educating the public about this challenge? Resilience planning initiatives are complex, multi-sector issues that require the cooperation of government, the private sector, and higher education. At the summit, there was a common understanding that these challenges are crucial to the future of colleges and universities, will inform infrastructure planning, and demand an educational and curricular response as well. These will be ongoing initiatives reflecting some of the new directions for climate action planning and sustainability.

The key to resilience planning is robust civic partnerships. Benjamin Barber, in his book If Mayors Ruled the World (Yale University Press, 2014) suggests that cities are the only civic principalities that can actually get things done, mainly because the politics of cities requires actions and solutions, and cities are less likely to become embroiled in ideological partisanship. If this is true of cities, than surely it is also true for colleges and universities. Indeed, most university presidents are intimately involved in their local and regional communities, understanding their role in the local economy, promoting collaborative initiatives in research and education that are of common interest. Most climate action planning and sustainability initiatives serve much more than the campus as they often impact an entire region. Many summit participants discussed ways that they could further such partnership by virtue of their organizational affiliations. In the case of presidents, it could involve presidential associations and gatherings. For other attendees it might be professional organizations, community associations, and other social networks. The summit involved considerable discussion as to how leadership can mobilize social capital in service of community efforts. 

There is a growing recognition among the attendees that climate leadership will only succeed if it involves multicultural communities, recognizing the powerful social justice challenges linked to human flourishing and sustainability. Higher education faces enormous challenges of access and affordability, all connected to workforce preparation and jobs. Minority serving institutions and community colleges are on the front lines of this challenge, trying to provide educational opportunities in difficult budgetary times. How do these institutions (and others) integrate sustainability concerns as intrinsic to these challenges?

The United States-China agreement sets important targets for climate mitigation and solutions-oriented approaches. However, it will be up to the private sector, colleges and universities, and state and local governments to do the heavy lifting. In the last ten years, higher education has played a prominent leadership role. At the ACUPCC Summit, there was a common recognition that we’ve entered a new phase of our work—scaling up and working together. This will demand new forms of collaboration, revitalized institutional relationships, and the maximization of social capital. These are the prerequisites for climate leadership in the weeks and months ahead. Climate action is both a practical response to an urgent problem and a powerful social movement. Colleges and universities are an incubator for their convergence, especially when they are the platform for emerging partnerships and collaborations. As we work together, this can be a very hopeful time.


Mitch Thomashow

Thomashow devotes his life and work to promoting ecological awareness, sustainable living, creative learning, improvisational thinking, social networking, and organizational excellence. Currently he is engaged in teaching, writing, and executive consulting, cultivating opportunities and exchanges that transform how people engage with sustainability and ecological learning. In August, 2011 Thomashow became Director of the Second Nature Presidential Fellows Program. This new program is designed to assist the executive leadership of colleges and universities in promoting a comprehensive sustainability agenda on their campuses. Fellows provide executive consulting on climate action planning, long-range financial planning, organizational leadership, curricular implementation, and community investment. From 2006-2011, Thomashow was the president of Unity College in Maine. With his management team, he integrated concepts of ecology, sustainability, natural history, wellness, participatory governance, and community service into all aspects of college and community life. This included construction of The Unity House, the first LEED Platinum President’s Residence in North America, and the TeraHaus, a passive house student residence, as well as comprehensive campus energy planning, an integrated approach to growing food on campus, and a new academic master plan. Previously from 1976-2006, Thomashow was the Chair of the Environmental Studies program at Antioch University New England. He founded an interdisciplinary environmental studies doctoral program and worked collaboratively to grow and nourish a suite of engaging Masters programs, geared to working adults. Thomashow is the founder of Whole Terrain, an environmental literary publication, originating at Antioch University New England, and “Hawk and Handsaw,” a journal of creative sustainability, published at Unity College. He serves on the boards of Orion Magazine and The Coalition on Environmental and Jewish Life (COEJL). Thomashow is a founding organizer of the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors (CEDD), a national organization that supports interdisciplinary environmental studies in higher education. He provides ongoing consultation to the Sustainable Endowments Institute and their new Billion Dollar Green Challenge program. His two books have significantly influenced environmental studies education. Ecological Identity: Becoming a Reflective Environmentalist (The MIT Press, 1995) offers an approach to teaching environmental education based on reflective practice—a guide to teachers, educators and concerned citizens that incorporates issues of citizenship, ecological identity, and civic responsibility within the framework of environmental studies. Bringing the Biosphere Home, (The MIT Press, 2001) is a guide for learning how to perceive global environmental change. It shows readers that through a blend of local natural history observations, global change science, the use of imagination and memory, and philosophical contemplation, you can learn how to broaden your spatial and temporal view so that it encompasses the entire biosphere. His essay (2010), “The Gaian Generation: A New Approach to Environmental Learning” provides provocative new concepts for teaching about global environmental change. Another essay (2012) “Where You At 2.0” reasserts the relevance of bioregionalism for digital age learners. A recent essay (2013),“Sustainability as Turnaround” is a case study of his work as president at Unity College. with mandolin.png His new book, The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus (The MIT Press) provides a framework for advancing sustainable living and teaching in a variety of campus environments. It will be available in January, 2014. Thomashow is currently working on two writing, networking, and teaching projects. Improvisational Excellence suggests that improvisation emulates the patterns and processes of the biosphere. It’s a series of essays linking play, music, and observing nature to the paths of everyday living. It is the philosophical basis for Thomashow’s workshops on global environmental change, music and nature, and ecological perception. Wilson’s Library is a series of prose poems depicting extraordinary moments during the history of life on earth. Thomashow lives in the hill country of southwest New Hampshire in the shadow of Mount Monadnock. He loves to explore the fields, forests, wetlands, hills, and lakes of Northern New England where you can often find him on his bicycle. His recreational interests include basketball, baseball, board games, jazz piano, electronic keyboards, musical composition and recording, guitars, hiking, and lake swimming.