Collaboration helps higher ed graduate to a greener future

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Collaboration helps higher ed graduate to a greener future

Graduation cap photo by Stephen Mcsweeny via Shutterstock

"The future ain't what it used to be," Yogi Berra once declared. He wasn't talking about climate disruption, but he could have been. And few institutions are better positioned to provide the leadership required to avoid runaway climate change than higher education.

Indeed, it is hard to see where else the necessary leadership will come from if universities and colleges don't step up to take on this responsibility. Not just any kind of leadership will do the trick, however. It must be collaborative, adopting an ethos of cooperation and mutuality rather than top-down hierarchical structuring.

Universities and colleges in the United States historically have been crucibles of social change and laboratories for new ideas and creative solutions to some of society's toughest problems. What is new is the scale of the problem and the threat it poses to human civilization. Simply providing models of sustainability on campus will not suffice. Universities and colleges can become truly sustainable only if they adopt the perspective of "ecosystem awareness" and work with the communities around them to become sustainable. They must commit to dramatically reducing the carbon footprint of campuses and become examples of ecological integrity, social justice and economic health. Beyond that, they must collaborate with the larger community and, in so doing, enable solutions to be scaled up and replicated.

As Michael Young, president of the University of Washington, argues, higher education must go beyond greening the campus. "For colleges and universities — especially public ones — engaging with our communities is fundamental to our mission," he said. "We all have a responsibility to turn our universities inside out — that is, to take the wealth of ideas percolating on our campuses into our community, whether that community is across the street or across the globe."

TCCPI seeks to lead the way

New York's Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI), at which I am a coordinator, was inspired in particular by similar efforts in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Oberlin, Ohio. It seeks to demonstrate what this kind of collaboration looks like and the impact it can have on a region's economic, social and environmental health. With a population of about 100,000, Tompkins County includes three American College and University President Climate Commitment signatories (which also happen to be among the top employers in the county): Cornell University, Ithaca College and Tompkins Cortland Community College. In addition, the city of Ithaca, the towns of Ithaca, Caroline and Danby and the county all have made formal commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with the county calling for a decrease in emissions of 80 percent by 2050 and establishing an interim goal of 20 percent by 2020.

TCCPI has leveraged these climate action commitments to help mobilize a countywide energy efficiency effort, expand the production of renewable energy and accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy. The coalition, launched in June 2008, currently consists of local leaders from more than 40 organizations, institutions and businesses in the county, organized into five sectors: business, education, local government, nonprofit and youth. Each sector has a representative serving on the steering committee, which tracks the progress of the coalition's projects and sets the agenda for the group's monthly meetings. 

The most immediate way in which TCCPI has adopted a collaborative model of leadership and sought to be a "leader-as-host" is to provide an ongoing forum where local leaders can come together regularly, share their progress and challenges and brainstorm collectively about ideas and solutions. In some cases, it's hard to imagine how the outcomes resulting from these meetings would have emerged without years of building trust and thinking collaboratively. For example, the Tompkins County Planning Department and EcoVillage at Ithaca (EVI) never had worked together in the nearly two decades since EVI was founded. Yet, at a TCCPI meeting in June 2010, the group came up with the notion of the planning department and EVI's joining hands to submit a proposal to the EPA Climate Showcase Community Grant Program, which seeks to highlight community efforts to decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

The grant proposal, submitted the next month, outlined a strategy for disseminating to the larger community the important lessons learned at EVI about shrinking one's carbon footprint and developing ways that the county could incorporate these key principles into its planning for future development. EPA awarded a $375,000 grant and work began in February 2011. Two model developments, one at EVI and another at a pocket neighborhood downtown, already are underway, and the county has proposed a third development near the regional medical center. All are designed to highlight innovative approaches to "creating dense neighborhoods that enhance residents' quality of life while using fewer resources."

Another project growing out of TCCPI discussions is the installation of photovoltaic arrays at numerous sites in the county, including several county government buildings, businesses and higher education institutions. In the area of energy efficiency, TCCPI has worked with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County (CCETC) to support the establishment of the Tompkins County Energy Corps, made up of students from Cornell and Ithaca College who carry out informational energy audits for homeowners, share information with them about state and federal incentives and encourage concrete steps to improve their residences' energy performance. TCCPI also has worked closely with CCETC in rolling out a countywide campaign, "Get Your Greenback Tompkins," to raise awareness about the importance of energy savings. 

In these latter two instances, TCCPI shared its own financial resources to help launch the projects. In other cases, it has lent its social capital to help projects obtain the necessary financial capital. Two original members of the TCCPI steering committee serve on the founding board of Black Oak Wind Farm, an 11.9 megawatt project just outside Ithaca slated to be in production by the summer of 2015.

The first community wind project in the region, Black Oak has raised its seed capital of $1.82 million from about 110 local investors. The TCCPI network provided a crucial resource in reaching out to many of these people and persuading them to invest in the wind farm and purchase power from it.

What's next

TCCPI's latest initiative marks perhaps its most important effort yet to be a "leader-as-host." The coalition is working with downtown Ithaca property owners to form a 2030 District, a public/private partnership in which property owners and managers come together with local government, business and community leaders to provide a model for urban sustainability through collaboration, leveraged financing and shared resources. Across the country, 2030 Districts are being established to meet the energy, water and vehicle emissions targets called for by Architecture 2030 in the 2030 Challenge for Planning.

The bottom line? TCCPI embodies the next logical stage in the higher education sustainability movement. It not only promotes collaboration among the local higher education institutions, but also encourages engagement with the community at large in a democratic process. It seeks to draw together key stakeholders and engage them in a course of action that begins with discovering and making explicit common intention, and ends with collectively creating the kinds of innovation needed to effectively address intractable problems. With its emphasis on campuses and communities partnering to address climate and energy issues, TCCPI — like the Oberlin and Grand Rapids models it was based on — provides a framework for multi-sector collaboration that holds out hope of a brighter future for all. It demonstrates that job creation, energy security, more resilient communities and responsible stewardship of the environment are not mutually exclusive.

There is no silver bullet, no magic wand, which can make the immense problems confronting us go away. A necessary if not sufficient condition, though, is that we move from the old myths of independence and self-reliance and acknowledge the truths of interdependence and mutuality. In an increasingly secular world, universities and colleges are among the few institutions that have the capacity to promote this broader, long-term understanding of where the human experiment must head.

Graduation cap photo by Stephen Mcsweeny via Shutterstock