A President's Reflections

Stepping Up Our Game: Climate Change Urgency Heats Up

Posted on September 4, 2019

SNHU MFA graduate Elizabeth Rush is a Pulitzer finalist for her book Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore. It’s a carefully observed survey of America’s vulnerable coasts and the looming (already here) impact of climate change and sea levels on our coastal eco-systems and, disproportionally, on our most vulnerable communities. It also reads as part memoir, elegy, and horror story. That last bit for the way it captures a growing dread (and anxiety and depression) that climate change is worse than we knew, here now, and we are losing the battle.

With unprecedented wild fires raging in the Amazon and the Arctic, record heat waves, major cities about to run out of water (Chennai and Cape Town among them), and climate science deniers in positions of political and regulatory power, it’s hard to feel optimistic.

It’s got me to thinking about my personal choices, my spheres of influence (leading a large organization, for example), and what SNHU can do for its part. Here’s the thing – in article after article, there is a theme that success does not require us all to go to extremes in our daily practices. If we all changed our daily practices just X%, we could have real impact. Three examples in the recent news:

  1. If we drove 10% less than we do today, it would be the equivalent of taking 28 coal-fired power plants off line. Ten percent feels doable to me.
  2. One trip from NYC to London produces 0.67 tons of CO2, an amount equivalent to about 10% of the annual CO2 production or impact of someone living in England (and more than a year’s impact for someone living in Ghana – the developed world is terrible for the environment). It raises the question: can I fly less often?
  3. An alarming UN report on the impact of agriculture on the climate (and the shocking amount of food that we waste every year, thus wasting all the water, labor, land, and resources used to produce it) included this observation: “The WRI estimates that if people in the U.S. and other heavy meat-eating countries reduced their consumption of beef (and other meat from ruminants) to about 1.5 burgers per person, per week, it would ‘nearly eliminate the need for additional agricultural expansion (and associated deforestation), even in a world with 10 billion people.’ “

And we’d all be a helluva lot more healthy, by the way.

The heartening thought I had reading these articles is that I can work on all three of those items and more. I can figure out how to drive less (electric bike, here we come!), to take fewer plane trips, and to move to a more plant-based diet (my family physician will be pleased).

Climate change can feel so overwhelming that one simply stops reading, blocks it out, and trades depression or denial for actual action – a form of surrender. One can also go to the other extreme, translating urgency into only wearing rope sandals, vacationing only in places to which one can walk (anyone know of a great vacation rental in Goffstown?), and eating turnips in winter. The point of the aforementioned articles is that rather than get extreme, if we all could simply be more thoughtful and reasonable, we could actually stabilize things and give the planet some hope. And it’s getting easier. We are seeing more hybrids and now electrical vehicles (EV) on the market, the cost of solar is coming down and is more of a success story nationally than people often recognize, there is now a genuine market for “green” products and they are getting better.

We have an old house in Maine and by adding solar, we reduced our monthly electric bill to just $29 and that’s for the connection to the grid. My hybrid vehicle allows me to do up to 18 miles per day on a charge, which means that on most days I don’t have to use fuel. I love to cook and now I compost – it’s not that hard and the garden loves it. There’s nothing righteous in any of that effort – it’s hardly effort at all – and I need to do so much more. So I’m going to set some goals for myself:

  • I fly a lot – both for work and for pleasure – and I am going to try to reduce that by at least 25 percent. I’ve counted my domestic and international flights last year and a rough count (recognizing that a single trip often includes multiple flights and connections) suggests something like 60 flights (a number of them exceeding ten hours in length). I can do better.
  • I’m going for the plant-based diet thing. I do love a good burger and if the UN says I can have one now and then, I won’t feel guilty for partaking.
  • Our next car will be an EV and we’ll move to solar panels on our house in Manchester. This fall for the latter.
  • There are a lot of small things that are pretty easy – turns out that it’s easy to wash out a plastic sandwich bag and reuse it, to get a Dunks reusable cup for my iced coffee, to pass on using a plastic straw (I have my metal one when I remember), and to replace the lawn with more interesting and native landscaping (that bees would welcome).

I’ll keep working on my list and I know I won’t be nearly as good at this as some of my friends and family members. I’ll still insist on an occasional family vacation to someplace strange and far away and an In-and-Out burger when in California, but my goal is not absolutism, my goal is to cut back on my carbon footprint, to do my part. As SNHU’s president, I want our organization to also do its part.

Which is why I am going to challenge SNHU’s leadership team to develop an analysis of what it would take to make SNHU carbon neutral within five years. We’ve already made a lot of progress. We have for years had a large renewable energy purchasing plan. We are starting to switch our fleet to EV. We are taking down old, inefficient buildings. I want us to look at our facilities, but also to look at our travel and explore linking our national locations with higher-end video conferencing. We once explored a massive solar array for campus and the cost and technology at the time were not great – let’s revisit that idea. I’m sure there are small, everyday things for which we could do better and we should, but I think there are some really big wins available to us.

I’ve asked Mary Dukakis, our Vice President for Facilities and Operational Services, and Steve Johnson, our Dean of The School of Arts and Sciences, to co-chair a Task Force to outline the road map for what it would take to be fully carbon neutral by 2025. There is also a Sustainability Planning Group, being supported by the Sandbox team, that is working on developing a sustainability plan for the University, beyond carbon neutrality. In other words, we are upping the ante. I will make available to them whatever resources they need and I suspect they will have many volunteers to join in the work.

Most of our employees and a majority of our students have kids. Many have grandkids (all Pat and I have on that front so far is a malamute and while we love Sam, could someone talk to our kids…). We’d all sacrifice anything, do anything, for the safety and welfare of our kids and grandkids. If we don’t get climate change addressed — and quickly – our kids and grandkids will live not only in an unfriendly world, but one that might not sustain life. Chunks of the planet are rapidly getting there now, faster than earlier models predicted. It’s a terrifying vision. We can despair or we can do something. We will do something.

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