Campus-Community Collaboration in the Age of Climate Distruption

Few institutions are better positioned to provide the leadership required to avoid runaway climate change than higher education. Indeed, it is hard to see where else the necessary leadership will come from if universities and colleges don’t step up to take on this responsibility. Not just any kind of leadership will do the trick, however. It must be collaborative, adopting an ethos of cooperation and mutuality rather than top-down hierarchical structuring.

Universities and colleges in the United States historically have been crucibles of social change and laboratories for new ideas and creative solutions to some of society’s toughest problems. What is new is the scale of the problem and the threat it poses to human civilization. Simply providing models of sustainability on campus will not suffice. Universities and colleges can become truly sustainable only if they adopt the perspective of “ecosystem awareness” and work with the communities around them to become sustainable. They must commit to dramatically reducing the carbon footprint of campuses and become examples of ecological integrity, social justice and economic health. Beyond that, they must collaborate with the larger community and, in so doing, enable solutions to be scaled up and replicated.

As Michael Young, president of the University of Washington, argues, higher education must go beyond greening the campus. “For colleges and universities — especially public ones — engaging with our communities is fundamental to our mission,” he said. “We all have a responsibility to turn our universities inside out — that is, to take the wealth of ideas percolating on our campuses into our community, whether that community is across the street or across the globe.”

TCCPI seeks to lead the way

New York’s Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI), at which I am a coordinator, was inspired in particular by similar efforts in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Oberlin, Ohio. It seeks to demonstrate what this kind of collaboration looks like and the impact it can have on a region’s economic, social and environmental health. With a population of about 100,000, Tompkins County includes three American College and University President Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) signatories (which also happen to be among the top employers in the county): Cornell University, Ithaca College and Tompkins Cortland Community College. In addition, the city of Ithaca, the towns of Ithaca, Caroline and Danby and the county all have made formal commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with the county calling for a decrease in emissions of 80 percent by 2050 and establishing an interim goal of 20 percent by 2020.

TCCPI has leveraged these climate action commitments to help mobilize a countywide energy efficiency effort, expand the production of renewable energy and accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy. The coalition, launched in June 2008, currently consists of local leaders from more than 40 organizations, institutions and businesses in the county, organized into five sectors: business, education, local government, nonprofit and youth. Each sector has a representative serving on the steering committee, which tracks the progress of the coalition’s projects and sets the agenda for the group’s monthly meetings.

The most immediate way in which TCCPI has adopted a collaborative model of leadership and sought to be a “leader-as-host” is to provide an ongoing forum where local leaders can come together regularly, share their progress and challenges and brainstorm collectively about ideas and solutions. In some cases, it’s hard to imagine how the outcomes resulting from these meetings would have emerged without years of building trust and thinking collaboratively. For example, the Tompkins County Planning Department and EcoVillage at Ithaca (EVI) never had worked together in the nearly two decades since EVI was founded. Yet, at a TCCPI meeting in June 2010, the group came up with the notion of the planning department and EVI’s joining hands to submit a proposal to the EPA Climate Showcase Community Grant Program, which seeks to highlight community efforts to decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

The grant proposal, submitted the next month, outlined a strategy for disseminating to the larger community the important lessons learned at EVI about shrinking one’s carbon footprint and developing ways that the county could incorporate these key principles into its planning for future development. EPA awarded a $375,000 grant and work began in February 2011. Two model developments, one at EVI and another at a pocket neighborhood downtown, already are underway, and the county has proposed a third development near the regional medical center. All are designed to highlight innovative approaches to “creating dense neighborhoods that enhance residents’ quality of life while using fewer resources.”

Another project growing out of TCCPI discussions is the installation of photovoltaic arrays at numerous sites in the county, including several county government buildings, businesses and higher education institutions. In the area of energy efficiency, TCCPI has worked with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County (CCETC) to support the establishment of the Tompkins County Energy Corps, made up of students from Cornell and Ithaca College who carry out informational energy audits for homeowners, share information with them about state and federal incentives and encourage concrete steps to improve their residences’ energy performance. TCCPI also has worked closely with CCETC in rolling out a countywide campaign, “Get Your Greenback Tompkins,” to raise awareness about the importance of energy savings.

In these latter two instances, TCCPI shared its own financial resources to help launch the projects. In other cases, it has lent its social capital to help projects obtain the necessary financial capital. Two original members of the TCCPI steering committee serve on the founding board of Black Oak Wind Farm, an 11.9 megawatt project just outside Ithaca slated to be in production by the summer of 2015.

The first community wind project in the region, Black Oak has raised its seed capital of $1.82 million from about 110 local investors. The TCCPI network provided a crucial resource in reaching out to many of these people and persuading them to invest in the wind farm and purchase power from it.

What’s next

TCCPI’s latest initiative marks perhaps its most important effort yet to be a “leader-as-host.” The coalition is working with downtown Ithaca property owners to form a 2030 District, a public/private partnership in which property owners and managers come together with local government, business and community leaders to provide a model for urban sustainability through collaboration, leveraged financing and shared resources. Across the country, 2030 Districts are being established to meet the energy, water and vehicle emissions targets called for by Architecture 2030 in the 2030 Challenge for Planning.

The bottom line? TCCPI embodies the next logical stage in the higher education sustainability movement. It not only promotes collaboration among the local higher education institutions, but also encourages engagement with the community at large in a democratic process. It seeks to draw together key stakeholders and engage them in a course of action that begins with discovering and making explicit common intention, and ends with collectively creating the kinds of innovation needed to effectively address intractable problems. With its emphasis on campuses and communities partnering to address climate and energy issues, TCCPI — like the Oberlin and Grand Rapids models it was based on — provides a framework for multi-sector collaboration that holds out hope of a brighter future for all. It demonstrates that job creation, energy security, more resilient communities and responsible stewardship of the environment are not mutually exclusive.

There is no silver bullet, no magic wand, which can make the immense problems confronting us go away. A necessary if not sufficient condition, though, is that we move from the old myths of independence and self-reliance and acknowledge the truths of interdependence and mutuality. In an increasingly secular world, universities and colleges are among the few institutions that have the capacity to promote this broader, long-term understanding of where the human experiment must head.

Note: This piece was orginally published by GreenBiz.com and can be found here.

Creating New Spaces for Connecting in New Ways

As more than one study has determined, we have the means at our disposal to move into a clean energy world in which the power of the wind, sun, water, tides, and other renewable sources is tapped and runaway climate change is averted.  The latest of these reports comes from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which earlier this month released an investigation surveying the already existing technologies that, in combination, could make this happen.  The critical missing components are the necessary policies that would drive change in this direction and the political will to implement them.

I get up every day and do the work that I do because I want to help create the public pressure and culture of collaboration that will make these changes occur.  I get up every day and do the work that I do because I believe each one of us has the responsibility to be a subject in history and not just an object of history.  I get up every day and do the work that I do because there is no silver bullet, no magic wand, that can make the immense problems confronting us go away.  The only thing that will work is to escape from the old myths of independence and self-reliance and embrace the truths of interdependence and mutuality.

Understanding these truths and harnessing the power of the network is at the heart of what makes Second Nature so effective.  The American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) and Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) are both products of this approach to change. They are collaborative efforts to create the conditions for the emergence of a new paradigm, one that involves a shift from the mechanistic, atomistic solutions of the industrial age to the organic, interconnected web of the digital age.  They are part of the largest social movement in all human history, what Paul Hawken calls “the blessed unrest.”

The overturning of the old paradigm will only happen if we intentionally and strategically create what Gibrán Rivera refers to as “the spaces for connection.”  Collaboration, inclusivity, and mutual respect make it possible for us to move upstream, where the real solutions are.  As Rivera puts it, “By re-inventing the ways in which we come together we begin to live in the world we are trying to build.”  Second Nature, together with the generous support of the Park Foundation, have provided me with the invaluable space not only for connection but also experimentation, the opportunity to reinvent myself as a social entrepreneur and explore new models of partnership and change such as the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI).  And for that I will always be grateful.

Note: This post originally appeared in Second Nature’s blog here.

Tompkins County at Forefront of New Clean Energy, Climate Plans

Recent events have underscored the slow and uneven pace of progress at the national level regarding clean energy and climate change policies.  In this light, it’s also clear that in the immediate future, most real work on these fronts will occur at the local, state, and regional levels.

As early as 2002, the Tompkins County Legislature committed to a 20 percent reduction in the county government’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2008 compared to 1998 levels. Mayor Carolyn Peterson was one of the original signatories of the 2005 U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, and the Ithaca Common Council in 2006 adopted a goal to lower greenhouse gas emissions to 20 percent below 2001 levels by 2016.

Cornell University and Ithaca College in 2007 signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), whose long-term goal is to achieve climate neutrality. Tompkins Cortland Community College became a signatory the following year, and the three institutions have since invested significant effort towards fulfilling this promise.  Cornell’s climate action plan earned it a leadership award last month from Second Nature, which launched the ACUPCC and oversees its operations.

The Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI), beginning in 2008, has built on this impressive foundation to forge a coalition of local community leaders who are committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and accelerating the transition to an efficient, clean energy economy. With generous support from the Park Foundation, TCCPI has brought together Cornell, IC, and TC3, Tompkins County Cornell Cooperative Extension, the County Legislature and Planning Department and nonprofits such as the Cayuga Medical Center, Museum of the Earth, Tompkins Community Action, and Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services. Key business organizations such as the Ithaca Downtown Alliance, Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce, Tompkins County Area Development, and Landlords Association of Tompkins County round out the coalition.

The Energy and Greenhouse Gas Emissions (EGGE) element, adopted as part of the 2004 Tompkins County Comprehensive Plan in 2008, provides the guiding framework for TCCPI. The EEGE element calls for an 80 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, with an annual goal of 2 percent of 2008 level over the next four decades to achieve that reduction. County planners recently secured the support of the County Legislature for an energy action plan that would lead to a 20 percent reduction in the county’s carbon footprint by 2020.

Besides facilitating the implementation of a common strategy, target, and timetable for achieving significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, TCCPI’s networks are exploring potential financing strategies for purchasing and investing, and new tools that will allow us to monitor our progress through effective data collection and analysis. In the process, by creating a culture of collaboration, we hope to become a model for other communities throughout the nation seeking to adopt efficient, clean energy and effective climate protection.

Note: This piece appeared originally in the Ithaca Journal, December 6, 2010.