Colleges and universities have been defined by what happens in academic departments. But the world has problems—serious, knotty, and increasingly interconnected problems—and these generally do not fit neatly into departments.
Climate leadership requires casting climate change as a symptom of a larger set of problems—from poverty to overconsumption and bad design to biodiversity loss—that drive unsustainability and diminish quality of life for all. At Western Michigan University, we recognize that there is a tremendous opportunity to create transformative, system structure change by reimagining formal education and using it to build a culture of sustainability.
Climate leadership is certainly about greenhouse gas reduction. We have reduced ours by 13% from 2008 to 2012 using no offsets, and we started at 12% below the ACUPCC average for doctoral-granting universities. Over the past 17 years WMU increased building square footage by 19% and reduced energy use by 15%, and we just added 235 kW of PV. Climate change leadership is also about behavior change research, water conservation, and green building. We are partnering with Honeywell to explore the potential of electricity dashboards to facilitate consumption reductions. We have reduced water use by 50% over the past decade and are approaching stormwater neutrality. We have followed LEED principles on 14 buildings, require all major new buildings to be LEED Silver Certified at a minimum, and have the first LEED EB Gold building in higher education.
Climate leadership is also about fiscal responsibility and wise, anticipatory administrators who model their sustainability commitments. The Sustainable Endowments Institute has identified WMU as having the oldest documented Quasi-Revolving fund and the one with the second highest return on investment. WMU is a Founding Circle Member of the Billion Dollar Green Challenge, our president serves on the ACUPCC Steering Committee, and we have built sustainability into our mission and Strategic Plan and use STARS as a core framework for evaluating it’s implementation. Climate leadership is about students who have the vision to create a Sustainability Fee (ours was the first in Michigan), engaged faculty (42 faculty from all seven colleges participated in our Sustainability Across Research & Teaching Initiative in year one and we are researching and developing sustainability core competencies), and integrating sustainability into our First Year Seminar (through a video competition).
Finally, climate leadership includes cultivating community engagement. Our Community Sustainability Incubator model is gaining wider recognition as others begin to seek place-based solutions to climate change dilemmas. During the past year community and university partners collaborated to deliver more than 25 major climate change programs. We are leading the City of Kalamazoo’s first GHG inventory and this year’s National Campus Sustainability Day featured a Community Sustainability Roundtable (with nine campus and community leaders, including our president and the mayor) and a Sustainability Slam.
For these and other efforts, the Detroit Free Press recognized WMU as a 2013 Michigan Green Leader. These collective efforts to build a culture of sustainability have begun to inform everything we do; it’s becoming second nature.