Higher Education

OPINION: Why higher ed must counteract Trump’s move to exit the climate pact

College of the Atlantic’s president on institutional responsibility, teachable moments and the “we are still in” letter

President Trump may have decided to remove the U.S. from the 194-nation Paris Climate Agreement, but on our campus – and on many others across the nation – we’ll be working harder than ever to advance energy sustainability.

It’s true that college campuses themselves have a relatively modest carbon footprint compared to businesses or cities.

However, we have both a special responsibility, because of our nonprofit stature, philanthropic support and influence on the next generation’s education, and a definite advantage, because of our mission and structure, to be powerful laboratories of public good where energy sustainability is concerned — through both teaching and research.

At College of the Atlantic we are proud to be among more than 300 colleges and universities that have joined with over 1,000 cities, states, businesses, and investors in signing the “We Are Still In” statement pledging to sustain and expand efforts to mitigate climate change.

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Working with our faculty, students, and local partners we can make progress – despite what happens in Washington – if we remain committed to entrepreneurship, creativity, and cooperation.

At COA we’ve been doing this for a long time. Our commitment to the environment is part of our DNA. Founded In 1969, we were the first college in the country to focus on the relationship between humans and the environment.

Our curriculum is based on experiential, interdisciplinary problem-solving where we engage students and faculty mentors in solutions to real world problems. For example, students Grace Burchard and Anita Van Dam are making waves with their business startup, [Re]Produce, that addresses food waste in Maine by creating market value for “imperfect” vegetables that would have been diverted to compost or animal feed.

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Our institutional actions have also reflected that strong commitment. More than a decade ago, we pioneered the use of carbon offsets on college campuses, becoming the first college in the country to reach carbon neutral status. However, we realized quickly that that wasn’t enough. This year we finalized the College of the Atlantic Energy Framework that will eliminate fossil fuels from our heating, electricity, and transport sectors by 2030.

We could probably reach our goals more quickly, but the longer time frame is strategic. It allows us to engage our students every step of the way. After all, as an educational institution we measure our success by how well we enable our students to use what they learn to influence the world of today and tomorrow. If we eliminated fossil fuels from our campus but students took nothing away from the process, we would not have moved the needle very much at all.

As an alumnus of the college (’92), I have an intimate understanding of the passion that drives our students on big, perplexing issues like global climate change. When President Trump announced his withdrawal from the Paris accords, I immediately went to our students to test my own thoughts.

Jenna Farineau ’18, who has served as a delegate to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) and other international conferences, said that while symbolically it was great to have the U.S. signed on to the agreement, the commitment from this country, which has historically been the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, was never enough to make any real difference.

“Because of its non-binding nature and failure to ignite ambitious commitments, the Paris Agreement would not have gotten us the emission reductions that the world currently needs to survive climate change,” she said. “It is a symbol, but one that will continue to move the world to talk more seriously about climate change.”

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Spencer Gray ’17, who runs our Community Energy Center, pointed out that the booming renewable energy marketplace employs more people than coal, oil, and gas. He criticized the president for “failing to move us in a direction that takes advantage of this growth and our country’s future job market.”

Finally, I spoke with Aneesa Khan ’17, a leader of COA’s Earth in Brackets, a climate cooperative that is involved with international environmental politics. Khan, who has served as a delegate to the UNFCC for the past three years, called the Trump decision “awful,” but also argued that, “the U.S. has never been a leader in the climate negotiations or when it comes to making fair commitments to working on climate change.”

Might the president’s decision end up inspiring local rebellions that could give businesses, cities, states, and higher education a platform for leapfrogging the federal government and engaging directly with the global community?

Maybe. What we do know is that it is more important than ever for higher education to counteract the negative message that has been sent. Climate change has an impact on the individual, family, town, city, state, nation, and planet. We need to operate at all of those levels.

Since 2009, COA has sponsored a group of our students to participate in the UNFCC negotiations as communicators, artists, activists, and – most importantly – as delegates.

They’ve learned about and worked across the climate change spectrum, tackling projects related to business, technology, local planning, the law, and the international goals of the UNFCC. When the students return from those conferences, many say they are frustrated by the glacial pace and “messy” process. But they are also inspired to be part of something truly global, where – as with the Antarctic Treaty or the Law of the Sea – the world comes together to take care of everyone at a planetary scale.

While the president’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord may be a thumb in the eye to such idealism, young people like our students won’t be deterred. With the right blend of experience, knowledge, and passion, they have the potential to get us where we need to be on climate change. It is our responsibility to make it so.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Darron Collins is president of the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine.

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Darron Collins

Darron Collins is president of the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. See Archive

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