The fight to protect the environment and address the adverse impacts of climate change has to go beyond the classroom.
Although climate change first emerged as a topic in the 1970s today climate change is one of the most discussed topics in our country and around the globe. The topic is politically polarizing nationally from a voting perspective with approximately 50% of voters indicating it impacts their decision on what candidate to choose and the other 50% saying it doesn’t. That said, among college students, climate change is less polarizing with most students believing it is a priority. A recent survey of students in the United Kingdom may be indicative of the sentiment of U.S. college students. That survey found that “over three quarters of students (76%) say that their feelings around climate change will now influence the career they plan to pursue in some way.”
Student climate activism
Therefore, it is not surprising that climate activism has become far more common on college campuses. Schools are embracing this trend by adding fields of study related to impacting climate change. According to an article in May of this year in Best Colleges, “At universities worldwide, many fields of study directly impacted by climate, like STEM and the natural sciences, have already centered climate literacy in the coursework. They have also used the intersection between a given field and climate change to inform hybrid programs. Colleges including Washington State University and Vanderbilt University offer environmental sociology programs that focus not only on the science of climate change but on how to take action to combat it.”
Activism and the bottom line
There is an opportunity to embrace this activism to the benefit of the environment, college enrollment and retention, and the college’s bottom line. Improving energy efficiency is one of the easiest ways to address climate change. By incorporating energy efficiency initiatives into the college's capital and facility maintenance plans and including students as part of the evaluation and implementation processes of these plans, colleges can take advantage of that opportunity. While colleges and universities often promote a new or remodeled facility to prospective students as a reason to attend, some colleges defer maintenance on the existing aging infrastructure and miss out on the opportunity to implement energy-saving measures. Why not turn student activism for climate change inward toward campus operations?
Headed in the right Direction
Some schools are already heading in this direction. In a post on Great Value Colleges institutions of higher education are described as “naturally forward-thinking institutions”. The post identifies 30 colleges that are leaders in fighting for the environment.
The time is right
Whether it is a new academic building, athletic field, or a renovated dormitory, administrators, alumni, and donors take great pride in new structures….and they should. The focus of college capital campaigns is almost always centered around the new asset and that is logical. That said, investments in solar panels, geothermal heating and cooling systems, replacing classroom lights, replacing older windows, and implementing an energy management system are all examples of improvements that can pay for themselves over time with savings in energy costs and rebates. Having students participate in making these upgrades allows both the college and the student to meet their respective goals. The most logical first step is a commercial energy audit which will inform decision-makers of how, where, and when energy is being consumed on campus. With the current high cost of energy and the energy demonstrated by students to address climate change, campus energy efficiency should be a top priority.