The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Universities should lead efforts to slow climate change, if the federal government won’t

The Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at the University of California at Davis, is certified LEED Platinum. In 2017, UC added more than 1.5 million square feet of new LEED certified buildings. (Iwan Baan)
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Weaning humanity off the fuels that have powered our modern civilization has emerged as one of the most urgent issues of our time. As leaders of two of the nation’s largest public higher education systems, we are marshaling our institutions’ unique resources, energy and expertise to help stave off irreparable climate catastrophe.

Greenhouse gases are melting polar ice much faster than previously predicted, causing rising sea levels that threaten coastal cities and island nations, provoking severe droughts and floods, producing food and water insecurity, exacerbating conflicts, and driving mass migrations. The social, economic and environmental repercussions will only intensify if we do not collectively get a grip on our carbon emissions.

As members of the Obama administration, we both were in the thick of this battle.

As secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano recognized natural disasters provoked by climate change as one of our nation’s most significant security issues.

As undersecretary of Energy, Kristina Johnson led the creation of the Strategic Technology Energy Plan, a realistic road map toward an 80 percent reduction of carbon emissions nationwide, and awarded more than $35 billion in Recovery Act funds to help double America’s renewable energy production. Our work, and that of many other public servants, culminated in the 2015 Paris climate accord, which President Trump has decided to exit.

This retreat on the federal level does not mean, however, that coordinated action is no longer possible.

We both work with governors, Andrew Cuomo of New York and Jerry Brown of California, who have set aggressive state climate targets and who together have spearheaded the creation of the U.S. Climate Alliance: 16 states and Puerto Rico, which represent more than 40 percent of the U.S. population, have pledged to honor the Paris targets. Mayors and businesses have similarly joined forces.

Now, 18 North American universities — including the two systems we lead — have formed the University Climate Change Coalition to offer our expertise to those local businesses and governments and accelerate climate action.

With some 20 million college students nationwide, the impact the higher education sector could have by decarbonizing its own operations, and by educating the next generation to wean the world off fossil fuels, is significant.

As the nation’s most important performers of basic research, universities are also likely to generate the discoveries and innovations required to turn things around. The link between chlorofluorocarbons and damage to the ozone layer, for example, was first proposed by future Nobel laureates Mario Molina and Sherwood Roland at UC Irvine.

And at SUNY Fredonia, Sherri Mason has done extensive research on plastic pollution in the Great Lakes that led to the U.S. ban on the sale of products that contain microbeads. With good public policy informed by science, we can mitigate immense environmental challenges.

Today, at SUNY Binghamton and SUNY Stony Brook, professors Stanley Whittingham and Esther Takeuchi are pioneering research on lithium ion batteries to enable the mass deployment of electrical vehicles and widespread use of renewable energy. At the University of California, researchers have developed a way to more accurately forecast nitrogen’s effects on the climate cycle, a finding that is helping to refine global climate change projection models.

Given in-house expertise such as this, as well as our university communities’ passionate commitment to sustainability, we have the opportunity to use our own large operations as testbeds.

At The State University of New York, for example, we have a goal of sourcing 100 percent of our electricity from net zero carbon sources, including renewables plus storage. All new building designs in the system will be net zero carbon going forward, and we are retrofitting our existing buildings, which comprise 40 percent of New York’s owned and operated facilities.

The University of California has set an equally bold yet achievable goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2025. UC has expanded on-site solar power production at all 10 of its campuses, and helped bring online two new solar farms that generate 80 megawatts of electricity, the largest solar purchase to date by an American university.

Moreover, by sharing with local and regional businesses and governments the best practices we develop on our own trajectory toward carbon neutrality, we have it within our power to trigger a ripple effect on climate action.

This year, University Climate Change Coalition members have been bringing preeminent experts from diverse fields such as agriculture and technology to focus on climate change strategy. Member universities hosted events tackling climate issues, including a forum focused on reducing the carbon footprint of the construction industry at the University of Washington, and a Boston University summit of 150 mayors from around the globe dedicated to improving their cities’ climate resiliency.

These examples of what universities are doing and others will be included during the Global Climate Action Summit this week in San Francisco.

Time is running out. If the world is going to prevent a climate catastrophe, colleges and universities must lead. We owe it to our university communities, our states, nation, and world — and to generations to come.