• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


The rubber meets the road, or the face meets the snow

September 15 is fast approaching. On that date, over 200 charter signatories of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment are due to release their respective Climate Action Plans.

September 2, 2009

September 15 is fast approaching. On that date, over 200 charter signatories of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment are due to release their respective Climate Action Plans.

As the text of the PCC makes clear, each CAP needs to address by what date a school intends to become carbon neutral (with milestones along the way), how it intends to make sustainability a part of each student's educational experience, how it plans to increase sustainability-related research, and what mechanism(s) it's going to use to make sure that all those things happen.

The creation and publication of a Climate Action Plan is more challenging to Greenback U (and, I'm sure, to many other institutions) than any previous deliverable under the PCC.

The first thing we had to do, shortly after signing on, was to pick two specific items from a list and, as it happened, there were two things on the list that we were doing anyway. Pretty easy.

The second thing (a year later) was to prepare and file a greenhouse gas inventory. That was a project which could be completed entirely by administrative staff like me. Indeed, some schools (mostly SLACs, by my observation) delegated the whole task to work-studies or similar student laborers. A discrete task to be completed on a best-effort basis, creating a product which isn't particularly subject to audit. Not quite as easy, but not organizationally or managerially complex.

But now comes the Climate Action Plan. Now comes the first real decision-making time. Now a high-flying statement of principles delivered in a resonant mezzo-soprano or baritone voice won't suffice. Now costs come into the equation -- money, time, effort, opportunity. The long engagement period is over, and it's time to get married. In public. For real.

As I feared, Greenback and a number of other schools are getting various strains of "buyer's remorse". If it's time to put up or shut up, a number of campus decision-makers are finding that silence sounds pretty good. To the extent that executives and academic administrators can find a way to weasel out of the University's commitment, they're pretty much willing to take it. Just so long as the resulting embarrassment can be kept to a minimum.

But public embarrassment (or, to sugar-coat it, "moral suasion") is the only enforcement mechanism the PCC has available. Up until now, the overseers of that effort have been loathe to shine a spotlight on institutions who signed, but didn't keep, the commitment. That was probably wise, in that a number of college presidents (I'm guessing here, but I'm pretty confident in my guess) signed on without really understanding what they were getting their schools into. Signing a commitment is taking a risk, and if we want to encourage risk-taking behaviors we need not to punish those who try and fail. Some level of failure is inherent, and the more significant the commitment, the higher the incidence of face-plant.

But for schools who are due to deliver CAPs on the 15th, the time for the bunny slope is over. Universities don't necessarily have to choose the "black diamond" route, but they do need to get on a trail. Some trail. Any trail.

Getting carbon neutral will be a journey of a thousand miles. The first step may be a mis-step. It may be inadequate; it may even point you in the wrong direction. But it needs to be taken because, while a series of wrong steps may not take us where we think we want to get, standing still is even less likely of success.

I'm not sure what the best way to bring the glare of public accountability into play might be. Perhaps some sort of comparative analysis of different plans, with the population segmented based on institutional size, institutional character, institutional wealth. Perhaps just some cursory review of whether each and every plan actually fulfills the stated requirements (ones that skip over student education, or research, or enforcement might be marked non-responsive). Perhaps (if this is the way it sorts out) the identification of a few prominent miscreants for active abuse, or the celebration of all even minimally responsive plans (certain signatories being quite visibly left out).

But there's a danger to the credibility of the PCC (which has been, to date, a significant success) if too many schools, enrolling too many students, fail to perform well on their "CAP" -stone project. Since at least half of PCC signatories have yet to reach their due dates, any laxity with the first cohort of filers could easily be seen as license for all the rest.

And that is something higher ed (and the upper atmosphere) can ill afford.


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