Tom Richard & Justin Schwartz: Universities must lead on climate solutions |
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Tom Richard & Justin Schwartz: Universities must lead on climate solutions


Headlines from around the world increasingly reinforce a sobering point: Climate change is the defining crisis of our time. A new poll shows the number of Americans who see climate change as a crisis is growing — just after the strongest hurricane on record.

For the sake of the planet and its future inhabitants — our children and grandchildren — reversing global warming must be our priority.

University researchers have played a critical role in identifying this crisis. But research isn’t enough. It’s not lost on us that the recommendations are at times confusing and also difficult to understand. The unmet need is at times incomprehensible. For example, how does increasing soil carbon on farmland compare with preserving an acre of rainforest? And what about solar panels? A hybrid car getting 60 miles per gallon? A 2,000 calorie per day diet? How do we prioritize among so many wildly different options?

Universities must step up by preparing the next generation and through direct outreach. As science-based entities with an eye on the social good, we are uniquely positioned to be connectors and conveners of policymakers, researchers, investors, business and industry, NGOs and community members, to bring decisionmakers together — in a nonpartisan, research-focused way.

Change, even for the better, requires acceptance from all stakeholders and a unified effort. Cultural transformation must be the ultimate goal of institutions of higher education.

Take energy-efficient buildings: Three decades ago, a “tight” house might have meant mold in the walls and allergies for the occupants. But today architects and engineers can design not only a much more efficient building, but with indoor air that can be cleaner than outside air, especially in cities where most people live. With most Americans now spending more than 80% of their time indoors, this allows for improved quality of life. In Pennsylvania, our public housing authority is learning that the costs of these high-performance buildings are within 2% of traditional construction, and can reduce energy consumption by more than 80%. Outcomes prove success.

Last week, we welcomed leading scientists along with business, government and organizational leaders to Pennsylvania for the first international conference on the science of Project Drawdown to discuss and analyze the realizable solutions for greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. With its emphasis on wide-ranging, achievable and interrelated solutions, a focus on drawdown is a natural fit for large research institutions, particularly public land-grant universities whose mission from inception was to foster practical innovation to benefit society.

At the core of a university’s efforts is its educational mission: preparing the next generation not just for individual success, but also for bringing fresh perspective and energy to societal challenges.

As the first generation to live with climate change as an existential threat, today’s students are acutely aware of the danger, and the urgency of action. Yet, they remain optimistic and determined to make a difference. Our students, and the professionals they will become, will also be the first generation to develop and apply carbon accounting systems for every sector of the economy, from agriculture and forestry to manufacturing, housing, food and transportation. We need to help them.

Our grand challenge — the challenge of our youth — is global implementation, and universities should be on the forefront of change. As leaders at major research institutions, we must be today’s connector and empower tomorrow’s citizen leaders with the knowledge and skills to create lasting climate solutions. We call on our counterparts and peers — now is the time to step forward.

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