How Institutions of Higher Education Can Address Climate Change


By Meghna Tare

Keeping kids engaged and active is a challenging job. To keep them away from TV and video games, my family often engages them in board games, and one of our favorites is the The Settlers of Catan, in which Earth’s terrains — forests, fields, mountains, hills and pastures — produce resources essential to winning (not to mention surviving in the real world).

Catan’s philosophy is to deal with a limited amount of resources in a sustainable and responsible way. Resources in the game include lumber, wheat, oil, ore, brick and sheep, all things that players must obtain and trade in order to develop. In Catan: Oil Springs, players can develop faster with the resource, but in doing so pollute and risk disasters associated with climate change. Those who opt to halt oil production get points for being a ‘champion of the environment.’ This game shows the extreme difficulty in prioritizing long-term wellbeing and security when there is so much pressure to maximize short-term growth — an essential lesson in today’s growth-obsessed culture.

As a mom, and an educator for a university campus with over 35,000 students, I feel strongly that the younger generation should be given the chance to understand climate change as early as possible to help them with consumer choices. As their understanding of climate change grows, they will develop new attitudes about what is appropriate and moral. Young people may even grow up in a world where the relationships between nations will shift. As the generation that will face the reality of a changing climate in their own lifetimes, they are the most vulnerable yet potentially also the best placed (and most motivated) to generate an ambitious societal response that will avoid the most dangerous risks of climate change.

Colleges and universities can be climate champions, demonstrating through actions on their campuses what can be done to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, adopt sustainable operations and reduce waste.

Today, most campus sustainability initiatives comprise of cost-savings from the use of long-lasting CFL bulbs or double-paned windows. But economic benefit is not the only force driving change at institutions of higher education. We tap into the “moral imperative,” based on the concept that everything is part of the puzzle.  It is important for us to not only draw the connections between natural ecosystem services and the economy, but also to communicate those connections to students and motivate them to take action. Students attending a university that places high value on issues such as climate change and sustainable growth are more likely to take this mindset to their future places of employment where they can help shape the future of environmentally-friendly companies.

During the build-up to COP21, the Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative ( GRLI) joined hands with a global alliance of universities, colleges and student networks. The partners aimed to inspire and empower students, academics, staff and academic leaders to make their organizations and communities more sustainable, resilient and just. They developed a joint statement and delivered it on Oct. 14 to senior government officials who planned to attend COP21.

This “network of networks” was inspired by the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative (HESI). The initiative was created as a partnership of U.N. entities (UNESCO, UN-DESA, UNEP, Global Compact, and UNU) in the run-up to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20). With a membership of almost 300 universities from around the world, HESI accounts for more than a third of all the voluntary commitments that came out of Rio+20.

The 2015 Global University Climate Forum was organized during COP21 in Paris. Sponsored by the International Alliance of Research Universities (IARU) with support from the International Sustainable Campus Network (ISCN), the Global University Climate Forum is a network of student teams from universities around the world who collaborate on initiatives that promote sustainability at their home institutions and study present innovative sustainability projects on campus. Student projects span disciplines and methods from app-based systems to reduce food waste to behavior-changing campaigns.

The forum embodies the saying “Think globally, act locally” by focusing on tangible, climate-based solutions that ultimately impact the dissemination of student awareness and consciousness about sustainable society.

Climate change and sustainability in the curriculum

The world faces not only a climate change crisis, but also threats to sustainability on all fronts. Thus, it is essential that colleges and universities formally acknowledge these transcendent problems and reorient academic programs to be relevant to the challenges all future graduates will face.

Higher education has an obligation to create campus climate-action plans that address the curricular component of this problem. The Carbon Commitment (formerly the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment or ACUPCC) is a “high-visibility effort” to address climate change by creating a network of colleges and universities that have committed to neutralize their greenhouse gas emissions and accelerate the research and educational efforts of higher education to equip society to re-stabilize the earth’s climate.

The Carbon Commitment seeks to create connections with higher educational institutions in order to carry out two goals: The first is to make an agreement with these colleges and universities that they will commit to eliminate their net greenhouse gas emissions from specified campus operations. The second focuses on education and the institutions’ ability to promote research of sustainability programs and empower the “higher education sector to educate students, create solutions, and provide leadership-by-example for the rest of society.”

Calling climate change a defining issue of our time, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that the opportunity exists “to define our own destiny.” Institutions of higher education have the advantage to shape this destiny by educating the young generation on the impacts of climate change, the actions that they can take in personal and professional life to mitigate the impact, and ways to create a sustainable society where systems thinking is a way of  life. Everything is part of the puzzle.

This post was updated on Feb. 12. An earlier version of this post referred to the Climate Commitment by its former name, the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. 

Image credit: Pixabay

Meghna is the Executive Director, Institute for Sustainability and Global Impact at the University of Texas at Arlington where she works collaboratively to promote sustainability in greening facility operations, promoting innovative research, and supporting and encouraging student initiatives. She recommends policies and strategies to advance the university’s commitment to sustainability. She is a TEDx UTA speaker, holds an MBA in Sustainable Management, was featured as Women in CSR by TriplePundit, and is an active blogger. You can connect with her on LinkedIn follow her on Twitter @meghnatare or visit her website

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