Smart and Sustainable Campuses: Colleges Must Consider Adapting to a Changing Climate

When it comes to dealing with climate change, some people are looking for a silver bullet. Perhaps instead they should load up on “silver buckshot” — trying a whole bunch of ideas and solutions, says Matthias Ruth, professor of natural economics and director of the Center for Integrative Environmental Research at the University of Maryland.

Mr. Ruth spoke at the Smart and Sustainable Campuses conference at the University of Maryland at College Park on Tuesday, where climate change — and colleges’ role in addressing it — was of course a big topic of conversation. The conference was sponsored by the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

Mr. Ruth said that much of the campus discussion about climate change focuses on mitigation — reducing carbon emissions, and so on. But he pointed out that even if all carbon emissions stopped tomorrow, climate change would continue to occur well into the future. “We should start thinking about adaptation” to climate change, he said. “We haven’t really thought through what adaptation means on campuses.”

When it comes to addressing climate change, Mr. Ruth said, the technological fixes are relatively easy. Changing behaviors is a lot tougher, but those changes often come with quality-of-life benefits with values that are frequently overlooked. And on the topic of money, he said colleges often feature professors or others who have experience using microfinance programs to lift up the developing world; why not use microfinance models to support climate-change and sustainability projects right on campus?

He warned against a tendency among colleges to count efforts they are already doing as “achievements” in addressing climate change. And he said that colleges should be careful how they measure carbon emissions, because under some measurements they can make the numbers tell any story they want.

Finally, he said, it is important to talk about sustainability with sympathetic people on campus. “There is nothing wrong with preaching to the choir,” he said. “The better organized your choir, the more people will hum along.”

More Conference Coverage

Xarissa Holdaway, of the National Wildlife Federation, is blogging other sessions from Smart and Sustainable Campuses conference. She details the perspectives in a session on sustainable food, dining halls, and food-composting efforts, which featured speakers from Ithaca College and Clark University.

Ms. Holdaway also relates details from a session that featured Dale McGirr, formerly of the University of Cincinnati, who talked about “shadow campuses”: “Historically, campus investments haven’t done much to develop the towns surrounding them, which leads to shiny new university buildings surrounded by dilapidated historical districts. Less than 30 percent of students nationwide actually lives on campus, which means that 70 percent lives in the shadow campus, which most students will tell you is dingy, often unsafe, and sometimes resentful of student presence.” Mr. McGirr said that “campuses should get away from the idea that off-campus affairs are not important unless the university wants a patch of land.”

The crew at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education has hit a bunch of sessions on its blog. A session on “tuning into your institution for campus greening” focused on how to get started on the road toward sustainability. Another session featuring Dedee DeLongpre-Johnston of the University of Florida focused on how to continue with sustainability efforts after all the low-hanging fruit has been picked. Yet another session, led by sustainability officials from Arizona State University, discussed turning a campus into a living laboratory for sustainability. —Scott Carlson

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