April 20, 2014

SKORTON: Thoughts for Earth Day 2014

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Tomorrow, April 22, is Earth Day, the 44th anniversary of what many consider to be the birth of the environmental movement and an opportunity for all of us to consider the health and prospects of our shared planet and what we can do as individuals and as a university community to live more sustainably and effect positive change.

As someone who on the first Earth Day was driving a bright red “muscle car” with a V8 engine and a hefty appetite for leaded gasoline, I am encouraged by the collective progress we have made since 1970, but also increasingly aware that there is much more to do — and that all of us must help find solutions to safeguard our environment and live in a sustainable way.

Cornell is home to the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, one of the world’s premier centers for research on sustainability and, among many other initiatives, the organizer of the annual Jill and Ken Iscol Distinguished Environmental Lecture. I hope you’ll join me for tomorrow’s Iscol Lecture, featuring Luc Gnacadja, former executive secretary of the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification, and our first Iscol Lecturer from the global south. Mr. Gnacadja will also be participating in several classes and other events during his visit to Cornell.

With each new high-level report, it becomes clearer to me that the greatest challenges of our time are global inequalities, environmental sustainability and the domains where these problems intersect. Scientists are now virtually certain, for example, that human activities are causing climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in a report on global warming released last month, notes that “there is strong evidence of impacts of recent observed climate change on physical, biological and human systems.” Further, the report suggests that while every society is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, poorer communities tend to be more vulnerable to loss of health and life.

And just last week, the same intergovernmental panel found that greenhouse emissions were rising faster than ever, and governments are not doing enough to address the issue.  Moreover, divisions between wealthy and developing countries are making it difficult to complete a global climate treaty by the target date of late 2015, which in turn will make it difficult to achieve the very low carbon pollution levels that scientists think will be necessary by 2050.

A greater understanding of issues related to sustainability is something that all of us need to develop, to act upon during our time at Cornell and to take with us beyond the campus; and there are many resources available on campus to help. Cornell’s minor in climate change is open to any Cornell undergraduate, and we offer more than 430 courses across the university related to sustainability. The breadth of courses across every college helped earn us recognition as the fifth “coolest school” in the Sierra Club magazine’s ratings last year.

The EcoReps Program, additionally, trains 40 to 50 upper-level students each year in peer education and sustainable behaviors through a two-credit CALS capstone course offered each semester. EcoReps work with residence hall directors and resident advisors in nearly all North Campus residence halls to run programs and competitions on recycling, energy conservation, sustainable eating and water conservation.

The Unplugged 2014 energy conservation competition also is currently underway in almost all North Campus residence halls, with living units tracking their energy use on a real-time energy dashboard. The winners will be announced later this month.

The Student Sustainability Guide,  sponsored by the Campus Sustainability Office, Sustainability Hub and Campus Life, offers many ideas for making small changes that can make a big difference on and off the campus — from buying local goods and produce, to adjusting our laptop settings to save energy, to using the free Big Red Bikes bike-share program for getting around campus. In addition, there are currently nearly 30 sustainability-related student organizations on campus that can help us put our good intentions into practice.

Thanks to greater awareness, much of it driven by students, a quarter of all dining hall meals are sourced locally and sustainably; the amount of waste sent to landfills each year has decreased by 700 tons since 2005 (and the compost facility off Stevenson Road has become a new birding hot spot); annual water consumption has dropped by 15 million gallons since 2005 and many more of us are carrying and using refillable water bottles to “Take Back the Tap.” When last I checked, the water bottle filling station outside my office had saved 16,338 plastic bottles from landfills, and water fountains, many with bottle fillers, are located around the campus, including in the dining halls.

While individual actions are essential to creating a sustainable future, institutional initiatives are also critical to reaching our sustainability goals. As some of you know, in 2007, at the urging of the student group KyotoNOW, I was one of the original signers of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, committing the university to strive for carbon neutrality by 2050. Since 2008, we have made major investments in infrastructure and engaged the campus community in actions that have reduced our gross emissions by nearly a third. Continuing our commitment to a low-carbon future, we are building a two-megawatt solar farm near the airport this spring, and there is still time to help us name the facility through a social media contest that is running through the end of April.

Cornell’s Climate Action Plan, developed by faculty, staff and students in 2009 and updated every two years, is our overarching blueprint to move toward carbon neutrality.  Please take the time to read the plan at climateaction.cornell.edu. The latest revision of the plan was approved by the Board of Trustees in March and acknowledges my endorsement of a Faculty Senate resolution calling for us to accelerate our efforts to achieve carbon neutrality. A faculty-administrative working group is currently developing strategies that could help us meet a more aggressive goal of carbon neutrality by 2035, and will report back to me by June 1 with specific recommendations, which I will share with the campus.

In anticipation of the working group’s report, and on the eve of Earth Day 2014, let’s recommit to educating ourselves about environmental sustainability, advancing our knowledge through rigorous research and doing all we can to change our behavior and our priorities to create a more sustainable world.