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ACUPCC Presidential Summit on Climate Leadership

Remarks by Dr. Timothy P. White
Chancellor, California State University
ACUPCC Presidential Summit on Climate Leadership
Boston, MA
October 2, 2014

Thank you President Wiewel. It has been a great honor to be involved in the Presidents’ Climate Commitment. And I am grateful for Wim’s leadership going forward.

When I signed onto the Presidents’ Climate Commitment – first as president of the University of Idaho and then as chancellor of the University of California, Riverside – I knew there were significant opportunities and challenges in striving for campus carbon neutrality.

I can tell you that, as a system of 23 campuses, the opportunities and challenges facing the California State University are only magnified.

In almost any way you can measure it, the California State University has a massive footprint.

We are a comprehensive 1,000-mile long, 500-mile wide university stretching from San Diego to Humboldt; from the agricultural Central Valley to the urban Los Angeles Basin and San Francisco Bay area; and from the Desert Studies Center in the Mojave, to the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in Monterey Bay.

The California State University even has a seagoing campus: Cal Maritime’s T.S. Golden Bear.

The university offers bachelor’s, master’s and applied doctorates – in addition to applied research.

  • We have nearly 450,000 students and 50,000 employees.
  • We have 3 million living alumni – adding more than 100,000 graduates per year.
  • And one out of every ten people employed in California earned a Cal State degree.
  • We produce over half of all K-12 teachers in California.
  • Opportunity at scale – to expose students in all disciplines to the multifactorial elements of a sustainable global society, in coursework, majors, campus operations, and research & community engagement.

Our students and graduates represent the fabric of California’s society.

More than one-third are first generation and half are Pell eligible.

Close to 50 percent of the bachelor’s degrees earned by African Americans in California – and more than 60 percent of those earned by Hispanics or Latinos – are from a Cal State campus.

The California State University is a public good, from providing access to a world-class education to facilitating completion of a quality degree that matters to the student, family, and community.

Moral Obligation
Because the university has such a massive influence on California’s economy and society, we have a moral and ethical obligation to lead in combating and preparing for climate change.
This obligation takes three distinct forms: education, development and application.

The California State University has an obligation to educate future leaders, who will go back to their communities and industries with climate smart solutions.

The California State University has an obligation to develop climate solutions on campus through inter- and trans-disciplinary research and collaboration.

And the California State University has an obligation to apply climate smart practices on our campuses.
This May, our Board of Trustees approved an expanded sustainability policy making environmentally conscious living and learning the way of life on campus.

This policy engages students, faculty, staff and administration in the collaborative effort to provide students the training they need to participate, live, work, compete, and prosper in the green marketplace, promote applied research to develop sustainable products and services, and expand employee knowledge and application of sustainable best practices.

The development of the policy involved significant campus input and leadership. Campuses continue to build on the trustee policy, exploring an increasingly diverse array of topics that touch on sustainability.

Living Laboratory
Students, faculty and staff of the California State University are the architects of the future. Sitting in Cal State classrooms today are many who will plan, design and construct tomorrow’s public structures and institutions. And they’ll demand them to be more eco-supportive, the four Rs of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Restore.

Our campuses offer more than 150 environmentally related degrees and certificates that promote pathways from classroom to career through hands-on project-based learning.

These programs range from the Civil and Environmental Engineering master’s at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to the Marine Biology bachelor’s at Cal State Long Beach – a campus affectionately known as “The Beach.”

For environmentally-related programs, our thousand-mile university is an ideal living lab.

In 2013, we established a Campus as a Living Lab Initiative, which partners faculty and facilities management staff by using the campus as a forum for the exploration of sustainability concepts and theories.

Through this small grant program, academic and facilities teams work together to enrich student learning, while improving the environmental effectiveness of their own campus. Fourteen campuses earned up to $12,000 last year.

Demonstrating Leadership
The Campus as a Living Lab Initiative recognizes that universities must lead by example. And here are a couple California State University examples.

To date, campuses have installed 11.5 megawatts of renewable energy generation, exceeding the goal set in the trustees’ policy.

Campuses have also installed 32 megawatts of clean energy cogeneration, and are considering opportunities to install even more.

Two platinum-level Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design buildings were recently completed: the Fullerton Student Housing Complex and the San Diego Student Union.

Campuses have LEED-certified more than 30 new buildings since 2008, and continue work to improve the operation and maintenance of existing buildings.

As noble as our campus efforts are, universities are limited in the impact we can make without thinking beyond our walls. 

Overwhelming Evidence
Climate change is by nature a global challenge. Campuses cannot wall off our climate from that of our neighbor. The climate does not differentiate emissions by city, state or country. Some bear steeper immediate consequences, but in the end climate destabilization threatens all humankind.

In 2007, Jeff Price, at the time a faculty member in the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences at Chico State, shared the Nobel Peace Prize as an author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

The panel’s 2007 report concluded that “most of the observed increase in the globally averaged temperature since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.”

This represents a consensus statement, which I doubt any of us in this room would disagree with.

Indeed, NASA draws from multiple studies to conclude that “ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities.”

The IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) 2013 report went further in stating the consequences of human activity:

“Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.”

The scientific community is uniquely aligned in its views about the cause and seriousness of climate change, yet 30 to 40 percent of the American public still doubt that global climate change exists, or if it exists that human activity is a root cause.

How does such a disparity persist?

Fact and Truth
Part of the problem is that climate change is often treated as just another political issue.

Broad participatory democracy is an incredible advancement in human society. It is the cornerstone of many of the benefits you and I enjoy today. Much of it is birthed right here in Boston.

However, politics can have a distorting effect on issues. The complex tends to be simplified and the simple tends to be complicated.

Politics has simplified the discussion of climate change into a single curious question: “Do you believe in man-made global warming?”

“Do you believe…” is an odd question to ask about a topic of scientific inquiry. It’s like asking my son if he still believes in Santa Claus.

“Do you believe…” is abstract. It asks for a leap of faith. And it is divisive.

I’m reminded of a quote from Indiana Jones: “Archaeology is the search for fact... not truth. If its truth you're looking for, Dr. Tyree's philosophy class is right down the hall.”

The scientific community does not deal in truth, we deal in fact.

The scientific community is confident that global climate change is occurring and human activity is the first cause. We are confident because it is the best fit model of the world we observe. It best explains the millions upon millions of data points.

I don’t need to believe in the abstract, because I have confidence in the data.

SO if someone were to ask me: “Are you confident that man-made Global Climate Change is occurring?” My answer is “YES! And here is why…”

Data collected from land-based instruments and other methods – including ice cores – conclusively show a dramatic increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial age.

Data on average world temperature have risen in tandem with those measurements.

And data on man-made production of greenhouse gases are consistent with the observed changes in atmospheric concentrations.

This can be directly tied to the stores of carbon dioxide and other gases released into the atmosphere through deforestation and the burning of prehistoric carbon sinks.

This is not a simple answer, but it is an answer that is rooted in scientific data – not in political rhetoric.

Political Will
In terms of finding climate change solutions, politics has complicated the simple – by spreading the belief that we need new tools in order to solve the crisis.

Don’t get me wrong, I am hopeful for new solutions that will provide cheaper, more effective and more efficient options. We have nanotechnology labs at Cal State Northridge and elsewhere exploring many new possibilities.

But, society does not need new solutions to act. As a species, we have the technology today needed to respond to climate change.

We have energy alternatives in wind, water, solar, geothermal and even nuclear power. We have models in workable public transportation and we have examples of sustainable supply chains.

The science is not tripping us up; the will to act is missing.

Just last week, more than 300,000 peaceful protesters demonstrated in New York to call for leadership from the world’s largest economies in the build up to the UN Climate Summit. All of this activity is leading to Paris and a revisiting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change next year.

It is not unreasonable to expect leadership from our world leaders. And true multi-national action can make a significant difference, such as the elimination of ozone-depleting CFCs through the Montreal Protocol.

Now is the time to be vigilant, not complacent on the international level and locally. But, we need to redouble our efforts to make a positive case for climate action.

Long-Term Ends; Short-Term Benefits
Last week, The Economist published an article that made this point that “policies to slow down warming may be more attractive if framed as ways of speeding up growth.”

In many ways, the threats of global climate change is the perfect storm. It is a crisis where the negative consequences for inaction are distant and poorly understood by the public writ large.

Part of the perception problem highlighted in The Economist article is a strategy that relies on persuading, cajoling or scaring governments and people.

The case for climate change action is overwhelming stated in the negative. And a feeling of hopelessness is pushing otherwise receptive people into a state of denial.

We need to break the cycle of hopelessness.

Universities and colleges are key to educating and creating knowledge.  We can create hope and opportunity for the future.

A start would be to focus on the short-term benefits of actions that will benefit the climate in the long-term:

  • Renewable and sustainable forests
  • Clean air vehicles on roads and ports
  • Healthy, local food
  • Reliable and energy-smart infrastructure
  • Livable cities

These are all short-term gains from many policies that are climate smart in the long-term.

These climate smart policies are all transdisciplinary in nature. The search for sustainable climate solutions cannot be limited to the School of Natural Sciences, by whatever name.

Sustainability touches every program, from the Humanities and Social Sciences to Business and Health Sciences – and even Dr. Tyree's philosophy class.

Our solutions will be richer, and our influence on the national dialogue greater, if we include voices from the entire campus community.

This is a conversation that the campus president can enable and channel to external audiences – including policymakers. But ultimately the campus will speak with thousands of voices, and these voices are our students who become alumni.

Are those voices being empowered to speak with authority and give the positive argument for sustainability?

Showing the Way
That question brings me back to the idea of a campus as a living lab. Many of our institutions resemble small cities.

We provide 24 hour utility services for people who learn, eat, sleep, work and play on our campuses. We sustain a microcosm of our surrounding communities. And we deal with the same infrastructure challenges.

But we have one unique advantage, the creative community concentrated in a university setting. That community exercises tremendous potential to shape a future that improves upon the present.

If we are to further influence the national dialogue, we do so by showing the way on our campuses:

  • showing the way to educate broad segments of society for the challenges and opportunities ahead,
  • showing the way to develop solutions through science, research and testing,
  • and, showing the way to apply practices and build institutions that stand the test of time.

I believe strongly that by educating our own campus communities to be fluent on climate change – and be prepared to make a positive case for climate action, the world will become a better and habitable place for the long run.