Published: Dec. 2, 2022 By

From groundbreaking research to community engagement to optimizing their own operations, universities are positioned to play a leading role in addressing the human rights crisis of climate change – both globally and locally. 

Panelists Philip P. DiStefano (center), University of Colorado Chancellor, discusses the research, innovation, education and public engagement efforts needed to accelerate climate solutions that respond to the needs of individuals and communities, and show respect for human rights.That was the consensus as presidents and chancellors from four Association of American Universities (AAU) member universities took center stage to cap off Day 1 of the Right Here, Right Now Global Climate Summit on Friday evening. The session was part of the related Think Globally, Act Locally Panel Series. 

Chancellor Philip P. DiStefano was joined by University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins, Ohio State University President Kristina M. Johnson and University of Minnesota President Joan T.A. Gabel, with AAU President Barbara R. Snyder moderating. 

In a wide-ranging discussion that covered research, innovation, education and public engagement efforts, here are some key takeaways.

University climate research and solutions are key to making global populations more resilient

DiStefano highlighted the work of CU Boulder faculty member Lori Peek, director of the National Hazards Center, for her research following Hurricane Katrina confirming that race, class, age, disability and income determine which populations are hit hardest and recover the fastest when climate-related disasters strike. The work of Peek and other CU Boulder researchers aiming to increase community resilience in the face of natural disasters and climate change continued earlier this year as they studied the impacts to victims of the Marshall Fire, which destroyed more than 1,000 homes in a single day in the Colorado towns of Louisville and Superior.

DiStefano also highlighted CU Boulder research using technology to detect methane leaks at oil and gas wells and research highlighting that the greatest number of bipartisan climate-related legislative bills passed in states with the greatest political divides.

“Although our universities share similar goals when it comes to climate, we’re all approaching the issue in slightly different ways and bringing different strengths to bear,” DiStefano said. “We can harness that creativity and innovation from our respective campuses to develop new climate solutions and have a strong influence on upholding human rights in the process.”

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a useful structure for universities to track their own sustainability

In crafting its systemwide strategic plan, the University of Minnesota was looking for ways to embed sustainability in ways that it could track its own progress and accountability. It landed on aligning its efforts with the UN SDGs, choosing four of the 17 in particular – zero hunger, good health and wellbeing, climate action and partnerships – on which to focus. 

“The beauty of it is that the way they’ve been constructed, there’s something for every institution of every size,” Gabel said.

As large organizations, universities can make big impacts by optimizing their own operations

All four panelists highlighted numerous ways in which their universities were getting creative and being intentional about reducing their own institutions’ carbon footprints.

The University of Arizona eliminated all scope 2 emissions from campus – with all energy bought from the grid being supplied by wind or solar – through a partnership with Tucson Electric and Power. 

Ohio State used 390 million fewer gallons of potable water in fiscal year 2022 compared to seven years earlier. 

And more than one of the panelists noted that their universities are in the process of crafting Climate Action Plans that will create road maps to carbon neutrality for their universities. 

“As everyone has been emphasizing, we must accelerate our efforts because time is running out,” Robbins said. 

Universities can be catalysts for solutions in their communities when it comes to addressing the human impacts of climate change

At the University of Arizona’s Indigenous Resilience Center, researchers worked with Navajo communities that lacked running water and electricity to install solar nano filtration units to off-grid homes to transform non-potable water into potable water. 

DiStefano highlighted a collaboration CU Boulder is undertaking with the City of Boulder, Via Mobility Services, Xcel Energy, Boulder Valley School District and others to build a sustainable transportation economy in the Boulder region, including a proposal for shared electric fleet charging, repair, maintenance and a workforce training facility. 

He also noted the recent annexation of CU Boulder South, a partnership with the City of Boulder that will provide flood protection for 2,300 downstream residents and attainable housing for CU Boulder students, faculty and staff who might not otherwise have an opportunity to live in the city. 

At Minnesota, the alignment of the strategic plan to the SDGs not only gave the university a tangible way to tell its sustainability story, but also created connection points with local communities. 

“It had this very interesting local impact,” Gabel said. “One would normally assume that if you’re relying on a United Nations metric that you might inadvertently abandon your local community in order to run with a global crowd. But, in fact, what our SDG initiative team tells me with some really beautiful examples is that by using these metrics they’re able to translate this global perspective into very local community action, largely through extension offices and other types of community outreach.” 

Public private partnerships and creative funding models can help universities green their own operations and advance community solutions

Johnson, Ohio State’s president, highlighted a pair of recent initiatives to partner with the private sector and find creative funding models for advancing sustainable solutions.

Last year, the university raised $6 million through a bond offering, with proceeds enabling sustainable design and construction standards for a new Wexner Medical Center Hospital addressing energy and water conservation, as well as waste diversion. 

In 2017, the university sold its energy system to Engie and Axiom for $1.165 billion in a leaseback arrangement that allowed Ohio State to invest proceeds in its endowment, set up the university’s sustainability institute and fund energy efficiency upgrades on the campus. 

Educating students on the impacts of climate change is vital when it comes to shaping future leaders who will champion human rights

DiStefano said sustaining democracy and addressing climate change are “two sides of the same coin, both requiring a commitment by leaders to justice, equity, accountability and vision for the future. 

“We all know that higher education is about more than job preparation,” DiStefano said. “It meets students at a critical time and place where they are discovering and homing in on their personal values. So we have a unique responsibility to help them develop empathy, unity, a sense of justice and compassion (for others). Those characteristics are also needed to sustain climate and democracy.”