Members of prominent on-campus environmental groups have expressed approval and excitement over President Michael Roth’s decision to sign the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment. By agreeing to sign the document, President Roth commits the University to establishing a comprehensive plan that both assesses the University’s greenhouse gas emissions and puts forth a detailed strategy to reduce them.
Roth stressed the communal enthusiasm that led to his decision, and the shared responsibility the decision implies.
“I am very pleased to sign the Presidents Climate Commitment, but even more excited about how students, faculty and staff have joined together to think of ways that Wesleyan can become more environmentally responsible,” Roth wrote, via email. “The institutional commitment is real because our community wants to set an example by becoming more alert to our impact on climate change.”
The president’s enthusiasm has been met with applause by members of both the student-run Environmental Organizer’s Network (EON) and the Sustainable Advisory Group, whose members include students, faculty, and staff. Jacob Mirsky ’08, a member of both organizations, sees Roth’s decision to sign the document as a sign of serious commitment to sustainable practices, a departure from the perhaps less significant actions of the past.
“Wesleyan has agreed to climate pledges in the past but none as detailed or powerful as Presidents Climate Commitment,” Mirsky said. “I think President Roth has really acted in the best interest of Wesleyan to sign onto something as powerful and substantial as the Presidents Climate Commitment.”
Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences Barry Chernoff, a faculty member of the Sustainable Advisory Group, particularly praised Roth’s willingness to carefully consider the Commitment before making a final decision.
“I think he went into it in a very thoughtful way,” Chernoff said. “We should not expect glib responses, especially with regards to something that commits us to standards for building and everything else.”
The Commitment will indeed require the University to evaluate and revamp many of its policies. Besides laying out broader ideals of communal responsibility and global leadership, the Commitment also establishes concrete deadlines that every signatory must adhere to. According to the document, two months after Roth officially signs the Commitment, the University will be required to “create institutional structures to guide the development and implementation of the plan.”
Within one year of signing, the University must have completed a complete inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, and must put forth “an institutional action plan for becoming climate neutral” one year after that.
“The thing actually has teeth, so you actually have to do certain things,” said Sarice Greenstein ’10, a member of both EON and the Sustainable Advisory Group. “There are different steps you have to take. So he can’t just sign it. We actually have to have a plan that’s going to keep us carbon neutral.”
The University will also be required to institute smaller programs on campus, such as requiring all future on-campus construction projects to meet certain environmentally conscious standards and encouraging the use of public transportation. According to Chernoff, encouraging these daily acts of sustainability will prove crucial to the success of any long term sustainability plan on campus.
“When it comes from the top, it’s especially important because it matches what we need to do as individual members of the Wesleyan community to lower our entire ecological footprint,” Chernoff said. “We as individuals also have responsibilities.”
The Climate Commitment itself began in October 2006, when 12 college and university presidents attending a conference at Arizona State University for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education and agreed to spearhead the commitment initiative.
According to the Climate Commitment’s official website, these presidents sent a letter to approximately 400 college and university presidents in December 2006 to invite them to join. By late March, 152 college and university presidents had signed on, and information was sent out to over 3,500 institutions across the country.
The Climate Commitment currently has 424 signatories.
However, the document did not reach the President’s office until early this semester, when members of EON met with Roth, encouraging him to sign the Climate Commitment. Greenstein recalled that, while he did not give a firm answer until last Thursday, Roth’s interest in the issue and willingness to meet made the final decision less than shocking.
“We told him we wanted to meet with him, and we met with him,” Greenstein said. “He always seemed really enthusiastic, so it wasn’t a complete surprise.”
Roth’s decision has been preceded by a number of other initiatives and resolutions on the topic of sustainability by EON and the Sustainable Advisory Group this year. EON drafted the Student Climate Commitment, a document that challenges students to not only support institutional sustainability, but personally pledge to incorporate sustainable practices into their daily lives.
Suggested daily habits include turning off lights when leaving rooms and washing clothes in cold water, small actions that Mirsky sees as educating individuals on the importance of their personal actions for the larger goal of a sustainable campus.
“Every single one of those daily practices that we take for granted is very much responsible for global change,” Mirsky said. “Now that the science is out there, the biggest challenge is applying the science to the people through strong education.”
The Sustainable Advisory Group supported the document, but suggested that it be re-tooled to widen its challenge to every member of the University. Hence, the Student Climate Commitment became the Community Climate Commitment. All University members can access the pledge through a link in their personal portfolios. The Group also unanimously supported Roth’s signing of the Presidents Climate Commitment.
Additionally, the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) recently passed a resolution that urged both Roth to sign the President Climate Challenge and students to sign the Community Climate Commitment. The resolution also called upon WSA members “to find creative ways to make sustainability a part of their decision-making and policies…” WSA President Matt Ball ’08 stressed that he wanted the resolution to be of substance and not simply an empty reflection of other efforts.
“We didn’t want to pass a resolution that was meaningless and just hopping on the bandwagon,” Ball said. “We wanted to do a little more.”
While proponents of on-campus sustainability look forward to the University’s name being added to the Climate Commitment, they also see Roth’s decision as one more step in a continuing process. Mirsky, for one, hopes that Wesleyan places greater emphasis on renewable energy sources. Placing solar panels or wind generators at Long Lane Farm, he says, would be a good start.
Chernoff, meanwhile, has taken to driving between 55 and 60 miles per hour on the highway to conserve gas. He estimates that it takes an extra 45 seconds to get home, a small lifestyle change which he says can contribute that much more to a sustainable lifestyle.
“I mean, I love to drive fast, but I’m not doing it now,” Chernoff said. “I set my cruise control, and then I sit there and relax. I can live with the extra 45 seconds.”