Why Higher Education Should Engage in Climate Advocacy

On Earth Day campuses and communities will celebrate their many green initiatives: bike share programs, recycling and composting initiatives, green buildings, energy monitoring, food donations, etc.. The list of projects and programs is long and impressive. The marketing is fun, creative, and beautiful. Over the last ten years, sustainability has gone mainstream at most colleges and universities. Once relegated to Environmental Studies programs, sustainability now crosses disciplines and departments and touches every aspect of operations, from human resources to student life. Many schools have climate action plans and conduct regular greenhouse gas inventories that help them keep track of their progress.

Now that so much is in place, it’s time to ask: Has the effort universities have made towards sustainability helped to make our communities better places to live? Has it helped advance legislation and proposals that will lessen the threat of global warming? Are we solving problems that led to our current ecological crises? What’s next?

The answer to the first question, “Has campus sustainability helped to make our communities better places to live?” is yes. In recent years colleges and universities have expanded, improved, upgraded, and greened facilities, often to entice students to enroll. Local food is an option in more dining halls, and green buildings make work and learning more energy efficient and comfortable. The conversations and engagement that happen as a result of sustainability efforts add to the vibrancy of campus life.

As to the other questions, regarding advancing legislation and solving core problems, I will venture to say the answer is no. Despite all the talk of higher education’s leadership on climate change, the money and effort that has been invested in sustainability, the positive changes that have taken place on campuses, higher education has regrettably done very little to advance policies and actions that can actually reduce global warming at the scale and speed at which it needs to happen.

Solutions for Climate Change

To put higher education’s efforts into context, let’s examine the problem of climate change and its solutions. Climate change is the result of excess greenhouse gas emissions from centuries of accelerating industrial activity. Because the cost of CO2 pollution is externalized, there has been no incentive for industry to limit the amount of CO2 they emit.

Reducing carbon emissions is a straightforward directive, and scientists, economists, and policymakers agree that the key to doing so boils down to a few simple commitments:

  • Price carbon: The laws of economics tell us that if you want to discourage a behavior, you make it more expensive. Since time immemorial polluters have paid nothing to pump CO2 into our atmosphere, the main driver of global warming. A price on carbon, set low initially and increasing gradually to reflect the social cost of carbon, internalizes the cost of climate change so that polluters will no longer be able to pollute for free.
  • End fossil fuel subsidies: Scientists say two-thirds of the world’s known fossil-fuel reserves must remain underground in order to keep global temperature rise below 2°C.[1] By spending $37.5 billion annually in fossil fuel subsidies, the US government is literally fueling our addiction to fossil fuels. Internationally, it is estimated that governments provide at least $775 billion to perhaps $1 trillion annually in fossil fuel subsidies.[2]
  • Transition to renewables: The world obviously needs energy, and the technology exists today to provide it from renewables. Countries such as Germany and even China have proven that renewable energy can be deployed on a massive scale. Putting a price on carbon and ending fossil fuel subsidies would easily allow renewables to outcompete fossil fuels. By shifting investments, a rapid transition to renewable energy as our main energy source is entirely possible.
  • Build sustainable communities: Transitioning to a low carbon society means we need to build communities that require less energy. This includes localizing food systems, building walkable communities, investing in mass transit and green buildings, reducing waste, distributing wealth and power more equitably, among other things.
  • Conserve forests: The world’s forests sequester as much as 30% of annual global anthropogenic CO2[3] Maintaining current forestland is crucial for avoiding additional inputs of CO2 in the atmosphere and for ensuring the ability of forests to continue sequestering carbon.

None of these actions require new technologies. Nor do they cost massive amounts of money. And, of course, addressing climate change also has a host of other benefits such as reducing air pollution, mitigating poverty, and making our communities healthier, better places to live.

Yet we have made virtually no progress on any of these items largely because the fossil fuel lobby spends billions of dollars sowing confusion around climate science and lobbying Congress to delay climate action. According to a report by Dr. Justin Farrell of Yale University, the fossil fuel industry gave $125 million to organizations that promote climate denial in just the last three years.[4] During the 2014 midterm elections, the fossil fuel industry spent more than $741 million on lobbying and PR, resulting in a wave of Republicans getting elected and reelected to Congress.[5] In contrast, environmental groups spent about $43 million on the 2014 election.[6] With such intense pressure placed on legislators to continue subsidizing fossil fuels and blocking climate legislation, it is no wonder that progress has been so stagnant in the United States.

In order to act effectively on climate, ordinary citizens — and organizations that represent them — need to counteract the forces that are heavily invested in the status quo. Higher education is a sector with billions of dollars in assets, employing millions of Americans, and educating tens of millions. Yet the actions that higher education have taken around climate change have been remarkably apolitical, internally focused, and removed from the solutions essential to solving climate change.

The Movement for Campus Sustainability

It is helpful to look at the history of the campus sustainability movement to understand why higher education has responded to climate change the way it has. In the early days, sustainability activities tended to emerge from within Environmental Studies programs whose students championed efforts to improve recycling, raise sustainability funds, and establish campus sustainability offices. Second Nature and AASHE were founded in 1993 and 2005 respectively to support institutions engaged in campus sustainability, and to help build collaboration in a socially and geographically diverse sector.

Things really took off in 2006 when a group of twelve university presidents formed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC). Presidents or Chancellors who sign this commitment agree to set a date for their campus to achieve carbon neutrality, complete a greenhouse gas inventory for their institution within one year, and a climate action plan within two years. Signatory institutions also commit to submitting a progress report every year. The ACUPCC was an ambitious commitment allowing educational institutions to lead by example. Within a few years, more than 600 colleges and universities had signed on.

The ACUPCC galvanized sustainability in higher education and quickly became the centerpiece of its response to climate change. Carbon neutrality provided a concrete and ambitious goal to rally around and, since schools could create their own deadlines, they also could take plenty of time to figure things out. There is no real punishment for failing to meet goals. The ACUPCC set off a frenzy of hiring for sustainability coordinators, conducting greenhouse gas inventories and writing climate action plans. A host of organizations like The Sierra Club and the Princeton Review started taking surveys of sustainability efforts at campuses and ranking them in their publications. The proliferation of these surveys led to the creation of STARS, a reporting system developed by AASHE to help schools track and assess their sustainability efforts. In addition to greenhouse gas reduction, STARS awards points to schools for sustainability education, co-curricular activities, diversity and affordability, and planning and administration. In 2015, the ACUPCC was changed to the Climate Leadership Commitments, with a Climate Resiliency Commitment added to complement the original Carbon Commitment.

To its credit the ACUPCC has done a lot for campus sustainability. It provided a roadmap, support, and a community to help schools become greener. It gave schools publicity for their efforts and helped them keep track of their progress. It incentivized universities to put money into sustainability and created thousands of jobs. It provided support from the top for actions that had previously been championed only by the grassroots. To date, Second Nature reports that 60% of signatories that have submitted two or more GHG inventories have reported a decrease in emissions, with the average gross GHG emission reduction being 21%[7]. The momentum that the ACUPCC created for campus sustainability is transformative.

Now having reached its 10th anniversary, it is possible to assess the shortcomings of the Climate Leadership Commitment (nee ACUPCC). Having grown rapidly in the days when leaders were eager to show their support, the number of new institutions signing the commitments have declined. Many presidents who initially signed the commitment didn’t pass their enthusiasm on to their successors, so in many cases it was neglected or forgotten after a new president was inaugurated. Because schools could set deadlines for achieving carbon neutrality far into the future (the average date is 2045), there was little urgency to do all they could to reduce emissions. Some institutions signed the agreement, hired staff, and created a climate action plan, but provided little funding for implementation, which made their climate action plans little more than PR documents with empty promises. Schools that did take the commitment seriously reduced their emissions substantially, but found it increasingly harder and more costly to continue reductions once the low hanging fruit had been picked. To make up the gap, schools will have to purchase carbon offsets, and only a handful have chosen to do so.[8]

The failure of most schools to follow through with their commitments has made the Climate Leadership Commitments a lot less revolutionary than they set out to be. But the greatest shortcoming of the Climate Leadership Commitments is that they don’t really contribute to the substantive solutions described earlier that are needed to effectively solve climate change. Higher education, unlike cement production or electricity generation, is not a very carbon intensive industry. The growing trend towards online education means that higher ed’s carbon footprint is set to shrink even more. This means that if every college and university in the country were to become carbon neutral today, it really wouldn’t make a huge difference on climate change. By directing all its efforts at carbon neutrality, the ACUPCC cultivates the myth that if schools simply took responsibility for their own emissions, they have done their part to address the climate crisis. As institutions proudly tout their green accomplishments to the world, we continue to have a government that procrastinates on climate action and industries that exploit the earth for profit.

Having energy efficient, ecologically operated universities does not change the fact that climate change is a systemic problem caused primarily by the failure of governments to regulate carbon pollution. Actions such as insulating buildings, bike sharing and installing low-flow shower heads — as lovely as they are — will not lead to putting a price on carbon, the end of fossil fuel subsidies, a national renewable energy program, region-wide mass transit, or any of the other systemic solutions we know are necessary to solve climate change. At best, greening campus operations creates “ecovillages” modeling a sustainable society.  For example, at Unity College in Maine, students can live in net zero residences and eat organic food grown from their own greenhouses. But creating an ecovillage is not the same as changing the rules of our carbon intensive economy. In “If Campus Climate Neutrality Is the Answer, What Was the Question?” Mark Trexler states,

“The practical reality is that voluntary climate neutrality, even if done well, is an almost purely symbolic act in the face of climate change. Making a material difference on climate change requires large-scale policy-based action that internalizes the carbon emissions externality, nudges fossil fuels out of the energy mix, and drives low-carbon technology development.”[9]

The real tragedy of the Climate Leadership Commitments and the whole campus sustainability movement is that it misses a golden opportunity to organize a collective response to climate change that would propel climate policy at the national and international level at a moment when it is critical to do so. It spreads the dangerous illusion that all we need to do to save the world is recycle, plant trees, and change lightbulbs. Meanwhile the “other side” is actively engaged in manipulating political power to thwart the implementation of meaningful solutions. Instead of counteracting them with our own advocacy, we have relinquished the exercise of our civic power and opted instead for the laudable but narrow goal of minimizing our own footprint. It is a strategy that even the fossil fuel industry itself would endorse because it poses no threat to their political influence.

The Role of Advocacy in Higher Education

However, higher education is not powerless. As a sector it is the economic bedrock of many communities and as influential in shaping public opinion as religion. Nationally there are well over 7,000 postsecondary institutions employing nearly three million full time staff. This breaks down to over 16 colleges within each Congressional district, employing on average 6000 residents and spending over a billion dollars in each one.[10] Remarking on the importance of higher education as a constituent, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said, “If five or six college presidents came to me and said, ‘Senator Alexander, may we have a 30 minute appointment with you while you’re home next month?’, I’ll do it in a minute. So will every other Senator.” To a gathering of college presidents he added, ‘You have the credibility to go to that member of Congress and say, “Will you please vote for this? Will you cosponsor the legislation? Will you support it? Will you encourage the president to sign it?’ Odds are, if you do that they will. It’s about that simple.”[11]

Some say that lobbying has no place in higher education because its role is to educate. However, higher education does lobby, both for its own interests and the interests of its students and faculty. In 2015 education associations spent $39 million lobbying Congress, more than half of what the oil and gas companies spent on lobbying ($64 million) in the same year.[12] One organization, the Association of American Medical Colleges, represents thousands of medical institutions that they mobilize to support or oppose particular policies.[14] Another organization, New York State United Teachers, lobbies on behalf of teachers and professors in the state of New York. Higher education has been successful in lobbying Congress for increases to federal Pell grants and subsidized loans. More recently, traditional colleges and universities lobbied alongside for-profit institutions against new regulation that would increase accountability for for-profit institutions.[13]

Colleges, universities, and higher education associations also generate considerable commentary on proposed legislation, publishing articles in prominent newspapers and journals and powerfully shaping public opinion.[15] In an age where people are less inclined to find community in religious and civic organizations, higher education has more influence than ever in engaging and mobilizing large swaths of loyal constituents.

Others argue that while higher education might advocate on behalf of itself or issues directly related to education, it shouldn’t advocate for special interests such as climate change. If the issue was Free Tibet or the rights of transgendered people, these might be considered special interests because they affect a small percentage of the population. Climate change, however, affects everybody, especially students who will see dramatic changes in their lifetimes due to global warming. Schools in vulnerable areas such as coastlines will not be able to operate if their campuses are flooded by rising sea levels or devastated by hurricanes. Without a livable climate, higher education, as well as all human endeavors, are irrelevant. Therefore if higher education can advocate for more funding, then it can and should advocate for a livable climate, which is even more fundamental for its continuation.

Another objection is that educators should remain neutral and foster balanced discussions instead of taking a side. To such detractors I’d like to say that, with moral issues, there is no such thing as being neutral. If we have balanced discussions about whether or not slavery should be allowed then we are clearly of the position that we think there is a possibility that it is a good thing. Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is caused by humans.[16] To remain “neutral” in the face of such overwhelming consensus is not balanced at all.

One might also argue that since the mission of higher education is not to protect the environment it doesn’t need to engage in climate advocacy. However, lots of organizations whose mission isn’t environmental are making the connection and advocating for climate action. Religious organizations, for example, have recognized that climate change is a moral issue and are becoming increasingly vocal advocates. Pope Francis, perhaps the most influential religious figure in the world, made climate change a central issue of his papacy and spoke powerfully to legislators and the public about the need to respond to climate change. Other religious leaders that advocate on climate include Unitarians, the Dalai Lama, Southern Baptist Environmental and Climate Initiative and The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.

Businesses are stepping up as well. IKEA, the Swedish home goods company, has been lobbying policy makers throughout Europe for ambitious, legally-binding targets for carbon dioxide emissions, renewable power and energy efficiency.[17] The Oregon based Business Leaders for Climate Solutions brings together business leaders throughout the Northwest to advocate for strong legislative action to reduce global warming pollution and a transition to a clean and energy-efficient economy. Their members include companies such as Nike, Waste Management, eBay, and many others.[18] Even the entertainment industry, usually concerned with fluffier matters, saw a prominent representative, Leonardo Dicaprio, address the UN Climate Summit and march in the streets of New York with concerned citizens.[19] None of these entities would say that climate change is central to their mission, but that does not stop them from being advocates.

Some people find advocacy distasteful because they think it means protesting in the streets. Demonstrating is the most visible form of advocacy, but the majority of advocacy involves having conversations, writing letters, and conducting outreach and education.  Citizen’s Climate Lobby, which mobilizes thousands of volunteers in advocacy, emphasizes finding common ground, negotiation, and building consensus. Their method has garnered success in getting Democrats and Republicans in Congress to support bipartisan climate resolutions. CCL also builds political will by gathering endorsements from community leaders, publishing letters to the editor, and spreading education about their carbon fee and dividend proposal.

It is elitist to say that academia should educate (meaning talk about problems around seminar tables) while leaving the dirty work of advocacy to other groups. Those who have the privilege of being in academic positions are the ones who should be engaged in advocacy instead leaving it to the disadvantaged communities who are suffering on the frontlines of climate change. If the people who are most knowledgeable about issues, who spend their life producing research that support climate action, do not become advocates, then who should?

Americans want to see Congress act on climate change. In a 2016 poll conducted by Monmouth University, 60% of respondents said that they consider climate change to be a “very” or “somewhat” serious problem. Three quarters of younger adults polled said that they want climate action from our leaders.[20] I don’t know of a poll just for people in higher education but I’m certain the response in favor of climate legislation would surpass that of the general public. Higher education has a responsibility to respond to its constituents on climate change through advocacy as much as it already advocates for concerns such as making higher education more affordable to more people.

As institutions dedicated to truth, justice, and human flourishing, higher education has all the justification it needs to be the most vocal advocate for climate change at all levels of decision making. Higher education is politically powerful. Nearly all Americans participate in higher education at some point in their lives. Its connection with people, its economic influence, its enormous intellectual and human capital, could easily make higher education the most effective advocate for climate change in Congress.

So what’s next? The campus sustainability movement has made climate change an issue that higher education recognizes it should address, it is up to us to build on that momentum and advocate for the solutions that can make a real difference. We know the right side of this issue, so let us take a stand. The students of today and tomorrow will thank us.


[1] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-01-07/fossil-fuels-must-stay-in-ground-to-stop-warming-scientists-say

[2] http://priceofoil.org/fossil-fuel-subsidies/

[3] http://www.nature.com/news/carbon-sequestration-managing-forests-in-uncertain-times-1.14687

[4] http://www.desmogblog.com/2015/06/20/dark-money-funding-climate-change-denial

[5] http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/12/23/3606630/fossil-fuel-spending-midterm-elections/

[6] http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/12/23/3606630/fossil-fuel-spending-midterm-elections/

[7] http://annualreport.secondnature.org/2014/

[8] https://www.universitybusiness.com/article/colby-biggest-college-yet-go-carbon-neutral

[9] http://sustainability.psu.edu/fieldguide/if-campus-climate-neutrality-is-the-answer-what-was-the-question/

[10]  http://universityventures.com/industry_overview.php

[11] http://www.edcentral.org/the-higher-education-industry/

[12] http://www.edcentral.org/the-higher-education-industry/

[13] https://www.propublica.org/article/higher-ed-lobby-quietly-joins-for-profit-schools-to-roll-back-tighter-rules

[14] http://www.edcentral.org/the-higher-education-industry/

[15] http://www.edcentral.org/the-higher-education-industry/

[16] http://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/

[17] http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/corporate-lobbying-climate-change-business

[18] http://climatesolutions.org/blcs

[19] http://www.theguardian.com/environment/video/2014/sep/23/leonardo-dicaprio-un-climate-change-summit-speech-video

[20] http://www.commondreams.org/news/2016/01/06/poll-majority-americans-believe-climate-change-and-want-action






One thought on “Why Higher Education Should Engage in Climate Advocacy

  1. Hi Clara,

    Overall this is a very thoughtful post. I will repeat here what I’ve just posted on the GTN Discussion list, in reply to your post which referenced the essay above. What you wrote is in quotes.

    “Climate change, however, is a systems problem, primarily the result of the government’s failure to regulate carbon pollution. Greening business operations does not do anything to change policies at the national level, or change the way that the market operates. The incentive is still to consume and pollute, using the cheapest means possible.”

    Exactly. The key word here is “incentive.”

    “Solutions such as ending fossil fuel subsidies, implementing a carbon tax, transitioning to renewables, and building green communities require collective action, changes to policy, and large scale investments.”

    This raises the question, how can we best encourage that action? How can we overcome the resistance to change that is blocking technical solutions like renewable energy? Internationally, we just saw considerable amounts of that resistance at the 2015 climate change summit in Paris. Nationally, in the US we see strong change resistance from the republican party to solving the climate change problem. We even see denial the problem exists.

    “So far higher education has been largely absent from advocating for the solutions that we need. Therefore, in addition to changing the curriculum, and reducing the influence of the market on higher education, I propose that higher education should teach and engage in advocacy for the policies and solutions that we want.”

    May I suggest that just advocacy may not be enough to solve the problem. The advocacy approach has long been tried by environmental NGOs, including Tellus. It has led to small solutions, such as campus greening and many sustainability initiatives. But it has not led to the grand transformation needed. In fact, we appear to be back sliding. The best the Paris summit could reach agreement on was voluntary pledges, no timetable, and no specific country goals, when what’s needed is binding commitments to hard deadlines with specific country goals. This was in the Kyoto Protocol.

    Why is this? I, like you, feel it lies in the incentives built into the system. “The incentive is still to consume and pollute, using the cheapest means possible.” Thus rather than an advocacy role, higher education could engage in research and dialog about why the system has the wrong systemic incentives and how those can be changed.

    Now about the above thoughtful and forceful essay. The essay turns on the observation that:

    “None of these actions require new technologies. Nor do they cost massive amounts of money. … Yet we have made virtually no progress on any of these items largely because the fossil fuel lobby spends billions of dollars sowing confusion around climate science and lobbying Congress to delay climate action.”

    Yes. I could not agree more. And then you wrote:

    “Having energy efficient, ecologically operated universities does not change the fact that climate change is a systemic problem caused primarily by the failure of governments to regulate carbon pollution. Actions such as insulating buildings, bike sharing and installing low-flow shower heads — as lovely as they are — will not lead to putting a price on carbon, the end of fossil fuel subsidies, a national renewable energy program, region-wide mass transit, or any of the other systemic solutions we know are necessary to solve climate change. At best, greening campus operations creates “ecovillages” modeling a sustainable society.”

    (Beautiful writing, by the way.)

    Let’s take a closer look at “climate change is a systemic problem caused primarily by the failure of governments to regulate carbon pollution.” Doesn’t this suggest, when combined with your above observation that “the fossil fuel lobby spends billions of dollars sowing confusion around climate science and lobbying Congress to delay climate action”, that some sort of systemic change resistance to solving the problem exists? Won’t those billions of dollars overwhelm anything one more advocacy group, like higher education, could bring to the lobbying struggle?

    This leads me to repeat what I wrote earlier: “Thus rather than an advocacy role, higher education could engage in research and dialog about why the system has the wrong systemic incentives and how those can be changed.”

    Work at this level would be a higher leverage point.

    Thanks for all your fine work here!

    Jack Harich
    Systems Engineer

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