Campus as a Lab Part 3: Serve Students Through Better Faculty/Administration Integration

Source: Rutgers Living Laboratories

The figure at the top is a repeat from the first blog in this series (July 19th). The first two blogs were posted during the summer when I was working from home and traveling in Europe. I am writing this blog at the beginning of the fall semester, and have started to work on implementing the mission the figure illustrates in my own school.

I am focused on three aspects of this attempt: The relationship between faculty, administrators, and students as determined through the governance of the institution, incorporating the concept into my teaching, and integrating the concept of “Living Laboratories” into the mandated sustainability efforts of the school. I’m repeating the figure above based on the premise that all the campus and university personnel that are needed to improve the governance of the school are very busy, and this blog is probably the only document that I have any right to hope that they will read.

As to the examples shown in the figure, I would add the following categories below the overlapping circles of Institutional Sustainability and Living Laboratories: mandated decarbonization, mandated decrease in the use of single-use plastics, and testing of sewage for early detection of viral threats. I would also incorporate efficiently running schools with decreased enrollments—a problem that threatens us all given the declining global population. All these threats (and the ones that I don’t know to include) are components of the correlations between Institutional Sustainability and Living Laboratories shown in the figure.

I teach at the City University of New York (CUNY):

The City University of New York (abbr. CUNY; /ˈkjuːni/, KYOO-nee) is the public university system of New York City. It is the largest urban university system in the United States, comprising 25 campuses: eleven senior colleges, seven community colleges, six professional institutions ,one undergraduate honors college and a University Center headed by the Chancellor. While its constituent colleges date back as far as 1847, CUNY was established in 1961. The university enrolls more than 275,000 students.

The university has one of the most diverse student bodies in the United States, with students hailing from around the world, but mostly from New York City. The black, white and Hispanic undergraduate populations each comprise more than a quarter of the student body, and Asian undergraduates make up 18 percent. Fifty-eight percent are female, and 28 percent are 25 or older.[59] In the 2017–2018 award year, 144,380 CUNY students received the Federal Pell Grant.[60]

CUNY employs 6,700 full-time faculty members and over 10,000 adjunct faculty members.

By necessity, the governance of the university is complicated; it involves not only the overall institution but also the governance of all the individual colleges. All report to the Chancellor, who in turn reports to the Board of Directors. The university’s mandate is anchored in the New York State Educational Law 125, Section 6201.

I teach at Brooklyn College, one of the senior colleges. Within that, I teach at the Honor College, Macaulay, and occasionally in the Graduate Center. I am directly involved in my college’s attempts to reduce its carbon footprint and in the university’s efforts to reduce its single-use plastic. Over the last three years, the focus of my Macaulay class has been to follow our school’s attempts to reduce its carbon footprint. Last year, we focused on the lessons that the COVID-19-triggered shifts to online learning can provide about how to minimize energy use under normal, in-person, conditions. The August 2nd “Campus as a Lab” blog (the second in the series) shows the details and one of the final products that emerged. That work also shows the benefits of a closer relationship of cooperation with the administration, in addition to highlighting some of the difficulties that the complexity of the university structure imposes on meaningful on-campus changes.

The most direct mechanism to minimize carbon emissions would be to change the energy sources that power the campuses. However, the consortia structure of the university means that the University Center purchases the energy and then distributes it to the campuses (granted, if a campus is using less energy than estimated, it is compensated for the saved energy). In addition, the buildings of a campus belong to CUNY, not to the campuses or colleges. So, a campus is not free, on its own to install photovoltaic panels or wind turbines to replace some of its energy sources. Only CUNY can do that. What the individual campuses can do is educate their own students to minimize wasted energy and receive the benefits of their actions. This concept can be generalized for most of the other transitions that campuses are now going through. Almost every one of them has both a top-down and a bottom-up component for implementation.

Incorporating the decarbonization efforts into my course curriculum was a straightforward exercise. It was implemented in a course that was generally labeled as “Science-Forward,” meaning that instructors have the freedom to teach almost anything as long as they incorporate certain essential elements. Almost all of the students came in with a solid background in high school science. My course has always focused on climate change, so it was not difficult to add the research component that relates to the transitions taking place on campus. This year’s experiment is exploring the incorporation of college transition into other disciplines.

The methodology I use in teaching the class is based on Team-Based Learning (TBL): the class is divided into groups that work together. Half of the semester is dedicated to the background, while the other half is spent on research projects. We end with posters that summarize the work done—like the one shown in the August 2nd blog.

The groups are divided into four of the five schools that make up the college’s departmental structure. These schools include Business (4 departments), Education (4), Science (9), and Social Sciences (8 interdisciplinary programs and 12 departments). The students’ research job is not to change any of the offered courses or to add new courses but to identify candidate courses in which aspects of the transitions already in effect in the college could help in the teaching. Once they find the target courses, they approach the relevant teaching faculty and discuss how to implement the changes, including the specific materials (I focus on energy use in my course). Only then can they approach the administration to help faculty in the next steps toward implementation.

Cooperation of students in different disciplines on similar aspects in college changes will encourage interdisciplinary work. This should also result in more cluster hiring, as I mentioned in the July 19th blog.

This is all new but not unique to me or to the institution. I gave some background and activities taking place at other institutions in the first two blogs in this series. The activities that I outline here aim to achieve two complementary objectives: improve the students’ education through the incorporation of practical experiences (hopefully helping them succeed in similar transitions after graduation) and at the same time help prepare the college to lead in the long-term changing realities of the physical environment that engulfs us all.

In most cases, such activities involve budgetary and personnel tensions between present and future needs. Every step taken to improve prospects in the future must consider the price against present needs. We must experiment to achieve the right balance and consider cost-effectiveness in any pilot that we are undertaking. However, the need for such balance is not restricted to academic institutions; it also applies to society at large. That said, society is supporting academic institutions to be the leaders in these existential changes.

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Back from Germany

 A field of dead sunflowers  in Farsleben, Germany

I have described Germany’s energy transition in earlier blogs (December 930, 2014, and October 18, 2019). As I mentioned in last week’s blog, I followed my trip to England, Poland, and France by teaching the first week of classes in Brooklyn before returning to Europe for a few days. I went to Germany for a delayed celebration of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, the concentration camp in which I spent the second half of WWII.

Germany was recently in the middle of the news until recently, when were told about the death of Queen Elizabeth II. The country was bound to return to the news, however, as Russia chokes Europe’s gas supply in advance of the approaching winter. As Paul Krugman wrote in the NYT:

There is, however, one exception, and it’s a doozy: European natural gas.

Unlike the markets for oil and wheat, the market for gas isn’t fully global. The cheapest way to ship gas is normally via pipelines, which breaks the world into separate regional markets defined by where the pipelines run. The main alternative is to ship gas in liquefied form, which is how it gets to markets not served by pipelines, but this requires specially designed shipping and terminals, which can’t be added rapidly in a crisis.

Germany is Europe’s largest economy and, as I’ve mentioned in earlier blogs, it was among the leaders of the shift to a more sustainable energy mix. Not only did it reduce its dependence on coal but it also made attempts to eliminate its dependence on nuclear power after the Fukushima accident in Japan in 2011. As I mentioned in those earlier blogs, Germany decided to replace these with enhanced development of sustainable energy sources such as solar and wind. Its alternative sources also included low-cost natural gas imported from Russia (see the February 8, 2022 blog on Petrostates), thus opening the country to energy blackmail from Russia. We saw this come into play after Germany tried to help Ukraine fight a Russian takeover following the February 24th invasion.

Since energy prices tend to be international and largely based on supply and demand, Germany, along with most of Europe, the US, Japan, and others found itself confronting the other aspect (besides carbonization of the atmosphere) of the energy transition: resilience. Nobody can live without an affordable energy supply.

While all of this takes place, the heating of the planet continues to accelerate. As I have mentioned repeatedly (put water in the search box), one of the most important consequences of the temperature rise has been water cycle vulnerabilities, including water stress caused by prolonged droughts and major floods caused by major downpours, snow melting, or a rise in sea level. The prolonged droughts in Europe, California, and China, and the devastating floods in Pakistan that are now hitting the planet are early signs of what we can expect for the future:

Severe droughts across the Northern Hemisphere—stretching from the farms of California to waterways in Europe and China—are further snarling supply chains and driving up the prices of food and energy, adding pressure to a global trade system already under stress.

Parts of China are experiencing their longest sustained heat wave since record-keeping began in 1961, according to China’s National Climate Center, leading to manufacturing shutdowns owing to lack of hydropower. The drought affecting Spain, Portugal, France and Italy is on track to be the worst in 500 years, according to Andrea Toreti, a climate scientist at the European Commission’s Joint Research Center.

The dead sunflowers at the top of this blog, which I encountered during my visit to Germany, serve as a visual example of the phenomenon’s impact. The drought in Europe has an additional negative impact on its energy supply: it has greatly affected the operation of the many dams that generate hydropower and has had negative consequences for nuclear power stations, which depend on river flow for cooling.

The biggest worry is the expectation of scarcity of heating during the coming winter. Since most energy prices are based on supply and demand, such scarcity likely means very high prices that the rich can afford but the less wealthy cannot:

European energy prices surged after Russia shut down natural-gas flows through a major pipeline, threatening to add to economic woes for businesses and households across the continent.

Natural-gas futures in northwest Europe, which reflect the cost of fuel in the wholesale market, jumped more than 30% in early trading Monday. They remain below the all-time high recorded in late August.

State-controlled Gazprom PJSC extended a halt to flows through Nord Stream late Friday. Moscow blamed the suspension on technical problems. European governments described it as an economic attack in retaliation for their support of Ukraine.

Over the weekend, governments in Sweden and Finland offered billions of dollars of guarantees to utilities to prevent a meltdown in energy trading. Officials fear the loss of imports through Nord Stream could lead to a further leap in power prices and saddle utilities with cash payments to energy trading exchanges that they may struggle to meet. A wave of failed payments could undermine financial stability, officials said.

“This has had the ingredients for a kind of a Lehman Brothers of energy industry,” Finland’s Economic Affairs Minister Mika Lintilä said Sunday.

Another variant on the same topic is that governments will likely have to intervene.

The Days of Energy Deregulation Are Over in Europe

After decades of promoting a free-market approach to the electricity and natural gas industries, European governments are taking back control of these vital functions. Record-high energy prices, partly the result of Russia’s throttling of gas supplies, are prompting lawmakers to discard economic orthodoxy and undo years of painstaking deregulation.

Britain, perhaps the most market-oriented of the large European countries, is taking one of the biggest steps in this direction. Prime Minister Liz Truss, on her third day in office on Thursday, announced a plan to, in effect, freeze energy bills for two years for consumers and six months for business.

The intervention, with an estimated cost to the government of as much as 150 billion pounds ($172 billion), would prevent household energy bills from rising about 80 percent next month, potentially slowing the country’s double-digit inflation rate. In recent years, Britain has had a regulated price cap on energy for households, but there is growing political consensus that it is not up to dealing with the extremes of current markets, where prices for natural gas and electricity have reached several times their norms.

At the same time, the European Union has proposed a cap on Russian gas prices and negotiations with Norway, another large, but friendly, gas supplier. Because natural gas-fired power plants usually set electric power prices, Brussels wants to impose a tax on generators from non-gas sources, like wind and nuclear, whose operating costs are lower, and use that revenue to help people and companies struggling with energy costs.

Everyone agrees that the best solution to the shortages and the high energy prices is to use less energy to produce the same outputs (collectively, measured in GDP). This means reducing the energy intensity, defined as energy/GDP (see the May 7, 2019 blog). Major steps are being taken in this direction, however, most of them are in the form of “recommendations” not mandates. In Germany, these include reduced temperatures for heating and increased temperatures for air-conditioned cooling. They also turn off streetlights and the illumination of monuments. Everywhere, you see increased availability and use of bikes and scooters. Significantly, in Germany, the recommendations for saving energy don’t include reducing speed on the autobahns.

The proposed price intervention by governments is controversial because of the belief by many economists that high prices reduce use, while lower prices encourage it. The subsidized energy use reminds all of the practices of many poor countries: even under more “normal” conditions, people in such countries can’t afford to buy fuel. Now, the high prices are basically determined by a conflict between two blocs of rich countries. Protests in Indonesia have come to remind us of this asymmetry.

The shape of the world that will be left after the conflict between Russia and the West is settled, is yet to be determined.

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Back from Europe

As I have mentioned in previous blogs, after three years of COVID-19 hibernation, my wife and I just came home from visiting friends and family in England, Poland, and France. I will spend a few days teaching the first week of classes, then return for a few days to Germany for a delayed celebration of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, the concentration camp in which I spent the second half of WWII. This opportunity to visit Europe at the tail-end of summer enables me to have a look at how the continent is trying to adapt to the ever-increasing climate change that is heating it. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has accelerated the energy transition under which these efforts take place. Additionally, most European countries, and many others, are working to help Ukraine defend itself.

Within the three weeks that I spent in Europe, we had one rainy afternoon in Krakow, Poland. The rest of the time was sunny days with visible drought, especially in London. I am starting to write this blog a day after returning to New York, where heavy rain issued a warm welcome. For two days–one in London and one in Warsaw–the high temperature exceeded 90oF. Other days were hovering in the mid-80s. To a New Yorker, this doesn’t seem like a heat wave; in the places that I visited in Europe, it seemed hot mainly because of the lack of air-conditioned spaces to escape to. The hotels that we stayed in were air-conditioned. However, most days we stayed with family and friends. With one exception, none of these private residences had air-conditioning, although fans are starting to be installed. Socioeconomic conditions were not an obstacle to adaptation in the places that I visited. As we will see below, people are starting to adapt. In Paris, I used to go to the area of the Notre Dame cathedral to have my ice cream. Now, the best ice creams that I ever tested are spread across the city. The use of bikes and scooters is expanding. As we will see below, the energy transition is not yet directly hitting but fear of approaching consequences for consumers is widespread. This fear is based on estimates of the pricing of energy use. In most cases, the last estimate came out before the Russian invasion. Everybody is expecting a sharp price jump for the next estimate (see England below, which has just issued its newest estimate). All of these are by necessity limited personal observations. The rest of the blog will examine how my observations fit into more general, published observations:

One can find a good survey of the situation in some of the European countries on Business Insider:

The European energy crisis set into motion by the Russian invasion of Ukraine shows no signs of abating and looks to deepen further in coming weeks as record heatwaves hit the continent.

In France, the crisis is so bad that power stations are being permitted to break environmental rules to stay open as the country struggles to maintain national energy supplies, according to a report from Bloomberg.

The French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) granted a temporary waiver allowing five nuclear plants across the country to dispense more than the authorized amount of hot water into rivers, the news agency reported.

In France, rivers and waterways are used to cool power plants. Under the current environmental rules, nuclear plants must reduce or stop output when river temperatures reach a point at which use by the plants may harm the environment, per Bloomberg. That provision is being temporarily halted.

Europe’s prolonged high temperatures are putting further pressure on the bloc’s already strained energy supplies.

The River Rhine, one of the continent’s most important rivers, is drying up amid the record-breaking summer heatwaves, Insider reported last month. The river is currently at its lowest level in at least 15 years, making moving goods — including coal and gas — in container ships down the river a challenge.

Northwest and central Europe are set for even more hot weather in the coming weeks. Temperatures in the UK, France, and Germany are expected to soar on Friday, with some estimates predicting highs of 96.8 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the week.

You can find additional coverage on ABC:

In Germany, falling water levels of the River Rhine have left it impassable to many boats.

Further south, Spain is facing its worst drought on record, with research suggesting the Iberian Peninsula could be the driest it has been for more than 1,000 years.

Its drought has also led to the emergence of a prehistoric stone circle dubbed the “Spanish Stonehenge”, which has only been fully visible four times since 1963.

Neighboring France is experiencing its worst drought since records began in 1958, its national weather agency says.

On average, less than 1cm of rain fell across France in July and scores of villages have been left to rely on deliveries from water trucks as taps run dry.

Italy’s worst drought in decades has reduced Lake Garda — the country’s largest lake — to near its lowest level ever recorded, exposing expanses of previously underwater rocks.

Water levels in many of Switzerland’s rivers and lakes have also fallen to very low levels.

The water scarcity resulting from these heat waves extends beyond Europe:

Water is a scarce commodity and has been for a long time. And often it is a contested one. A 4,500-year-old stone from Mesopotamia, in today’s Iraq, is on display in the Louvre museum in Paris. Engraved on it are scenes of battle and war the kings of Lagash and Umma fought, in part over water.

Since then, the value of water has multiplied. Eight billion people now live on earth and they all need drinking water. But above all, agriculture and industry, consume gigantic quantities of water. At the same time, climate change is upsetting the rhythm of rain and drought.

When Ethiopia builds a dam on the upper reaches of the Nile, Sudan and Egypt fear for their lifelines. The Ilisu Dam in Turkey, dams the waters of the Tigris River — which means that less water arrives in Iraq. The Euphrates River is dammed in several locations. In 2018, a study conducted on orders of the EU Commission identified eight rivers where the risk of conflict over the use of increasingly scarce water is particularly high: The Nile, Euphrates, and Tigris, as well as the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Indus, and Colorado Rivers.

Energy Costs: Britain’s latest announcement is grim

For months, a tsunami of high energy costs has borne down on Europe. On Friday, the first big waves crashed ashore in Britain, with the news that household gas and electricity bills will nearly double in October.

The announcement, by Britain’s energy regulator, raised the specter of a humanitarian crisis in one of the world’s richest countries: Millions of Britons might not be able to afford to heat or light their homes this winter, unless the government steps in on an enormous scale to cushion them from the vagaries of the market.

Here’s how the rest of Europe is currently faring:

European gas and power prices surged as panic over Russian supplies gripped markets and politicians warned citizens to brace for a tough winter ahead.

Benchmark gas settled at a record high, while German power surged to above 700 euros ($696) a megawatt-hour for the first time. Russia said it will stop its key Nord Stream gas pipeline for three days of repairs on Aug. 31, again raising concerns it won’t return after the work. Europe has been on tenterhooks about shipments through the link for weeks, with flows resuming only at very low levels after it was shut for works last month.

Adaptation: One of the first things we think about to deal with the heat is air conditioning:

In the US:

Three-quarters of all homes in the United States have air conditioners. Air conditioners use about 6% of all the electricity produced in the United States, at an annual cost of about $29 billion to homeowners. As a result, roughly 117 million metric tons of carbon dioxide are released into the air each year. To learn more about air conditions, explore our Energy Saver 101 infographic on home cooling.

In Europe, on the other hand:

The energy-intensive cooling system used widely across the United States has grown increasingly attractive to Britons and other Europeans now dealing with brutal summer temperatures caused in part by human-induced climate change. In recent days, extreme heat has scorched much of Western Europe, kindling wildfires in France, Greece and Italy and causing the deaths of more than 1,000 people in Portugal alone.

Sales of portable air-conditioning units rose 2,420 percent in a week, British retailer Sainsbury’s said Monday. And a surge in demand for centralized AC units in London has some installation companies booked through the fall.

But why weren’t European households already equipped with air conditioning? And will Europe fall victim to a “U.S.-style addiction to AC,” as climate control researcher Stan Cox has warned? 

Meanwhile, the EU seems to be saving energy overall:

Figure 1 Primary energy consumption in the EU (Source: Eurostat)

Most of the decrease in energy consumption shown in Figure 1 originates from the pandemic. Europe has tried to support Ukraine’s attempts to defend itself against invasion. In response, as “punishment,” Russia has disrupted its energy supply. So far, it’s too early (at least in my searches) to quantify the related impact of deliberate energy-saving efforts. Another contributor to carbon emissions is transportation:

Another contributor to carbon emissions is transportation:

If people around the world were as enthusiastic cyclers as they are in the Netherlands, we could cut an impressive amount of planet-heating pollution. The Dutch use bicycles to get around more than folks in any other country, cycling about 2.6 kilometers (1.62 miles) a day.

If that was the trend across the world, it would slash 686 million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution a year, according to the authors of a new study published this week in the journal Communications Earth & Environment. That’s enormous — roughly equivalent to erasing one-fifth of CO2 emissions from passenger cars globally in 2015.

In the meantime, during our absence, the energy transition in the US got a big boost with the passage of the “Inflation Reduction Act.” I will return to the impact of this development after my trip to Germany.

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Vacation Notice

This week I am taking a break from the blog, so there will be no post. Please do come back next Tuesday, when I promise to continue our discussions.

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Can we Advance the Transition to a More Sustainable Future?

Where are we now and how can we advance or accelerate the energy transition to a more sustainable future?

I am now in Europe, and this is the last blog that I wrote before I left. In fact, I started to write this on Tuesday, July 26th. Figure 1 summarizes where we are in the transition to net-zero carbon sourcing for our energy supply; Figure 2 summarizes the state of the transition to a reduction in carbon emissions by developed countries or entities. Figure 1 shows that in terms of commitments to net-zero carbon emissions, we are still globally in the “word” stage: we are talking about it but have not committed to action. Most of us have made promises—some as oral declarations (words), some in document form. None of us has yet achieved (on a country basis) net-zero carbon emissions in our energy supply and only 14% of the countries on Earth have included such a commitment in their laws.

Figure 1Where countries stand on net-zero emissions energy goals (Source: Fostering Effective Energy Transition 2022 via World Economic Forum)

Figure 2, on the other hand, shows the progress/setbacks in actually reducing emissions from 1990 to 2019. The population and GDP of all five “entities” (the EU is not a country) grew over this period, however, only the emissions of the EU significantly decreased over this period. Those of Japan and the US didn’t change but those of Canada and Australia increased considerably.

graph of Changes in carbon emissions since 1990

Figure 2Changes in carbon emissions since 1990 (Source: Climate Action Tracker By The New York Times)

What can we do to accelerate the transition?

One obvious obstacle that the transition faces is that energy is not only about emissions, but also (or mainly) about availability, including resilience to shortages. Just look at the Venn diagram in the August 4, 2020 blog. For instance, the Russian invasion of Ukraine makes resilience a major consideration because people need energy and the war stands in the way of the energy transition to non-carbon sources. Energy resilience is now a much bigger issue for Europe than it is for the US because of Europe’s larger dependence on energy imports from Russia (see February 8, 2022 blog).

Psychology might be of help here. The classical definition of climate change reads as follows:

Climate change refers to significant changes in global temperature, precipitation, wind patterns and other measures of climate that occur over several decades or longer.

Because of the four last words in this definition, attribution of weather events to climate change has become a big issue; the science is difficult to follow. We can use the example of trying to explain the threat of forest destruction to two-year-old kids:

Efforts to conserve the carbon stored in tropical forests would be enhanced by linking the work to the charismatic, threatened primates that live there, Oregon State University ecologists assert today in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Most kids at this age don’t, as yet, conceptualize the forest but they do conceptualize lions, tigers, monkeys, and elephants, even if they have only seen them in the zoo. It is through that pathway that we can illustrate what’s going on.

Efforts to conserve the carbon stored in tropical forests would be enhanced by linking the work to the charismatic, threatened primates that live there, Oregon State University ecologists assert today in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Integrating the concept of weather and climate with “observable” entities can help in mobilizing public opinion and accelerate the energy transition:

News outlets have long cited extreme weather events as examples of how greenhouse gas emissions affect the climate. In response, experts typically would emphasize the distinction between weather and climate, warning that any given hurricane or heat wave cannot be attributed to long-term changes in average temperatures. But it turns out that climatologists and meteorologists sometimes can establish such causal relationships.

“First of all, it’s important to highlight that every climate extreme weather event has multiple causes,” Friederike Otto, an Oxford University climate researcher associated with the World Weather Attribution (WWA) collaboration, told MIT Technology Review in 2020. “So the question of the role of climate change will never be a yes or no question. It will always be, ‘Did climate change make it more likely or less likely, or did climate change not play a role?’”

These may be difficult questions to answer but that comes with the territory: the future, as with all abstract thinking, always has a large degree of uncertainty.

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Back to ESG

ESG (Environmental Social & Governance) is back at the forefront of discussion as an investment tool. Put ESG into this blog’s search box and you will get a few entries. The May 24, 2022 blog provides some details and connections to the IPAT identity, and both the January 8th and March 5, 2019 blogs provide some information about using the Bloomberg Terminals to be able to estimate the entries. The table below, from the site of an investment advisor with the associate reference, provides a summary of the topics that are included in the concept.

ESG (Source: Leonard Rickey)

I will try to put the discussion here on a solid footing by quoting the corresponding Wikipedia entry about the history of the concept:

In the 1960s and 1970s, Milton Friedman, in direct response to the prevailing mood of philanthropy argued that social responsibility adversely affects a firm’s financial performance and that regulation and interference from “big government” will always damage the macro economy.[13] His contention that the valuation of a company or asset should be predicated almost exclusively on the pure bottom line (with the costs incurred by social responsibility being deemed non-essential), underwrote the belief prevalent for most of the 20th century (see Friedman doctrine). Towards the end of the century, however, a contrary theory began to gain ground. In 1988 James S. Coleman wrote an article in the American Journal of Sociology titled Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital, the article challenged the dominance of the concept of ‘self-interest’ in economics and introduced the concept of social capital into the measurement of value.[8]

There has been uncertainty and debate as to what to call the inclusion of intangible factors relating to the sustainability and ethical impact of investments. Names have ranged from the early use of buzz words such as “green” and “eco”, to the wide array of possible descriptions for the types of investment analysis—”responsible investment”, “socially responsible investment” (SRI), “ethical”, “extra-financial”, “long horizon investment” (LHI), “enhanced business”, “corporate health”, “non-traditional”, and others. But the predominance of the term ESG has now become fairly widely accepted. A survey of 350 global investment professionals conducted by Axa Investment Managers and AQ Research in 2008 concluded the vast majority of professionals preferred the term ESG to describe such data.

In January 2016, the PRIUNEP FI and The Generation Foundation launched a three-year project to end the debate on whether fiduciary duty is a legitimate barrier to the integration of environmental, social, and governance issues in investment practice and decision-making.

This follows the publication in September 2015 of Fiduciary Duty in the 21st Century by the PRI, UNEP FI, UNEP Inquiry and UN Global Compact. The report concluded that “Failing to consider all long-term investment value drivers, including ESG issues, is a failure of fiduciary duty”. It also acknowledged that despite significant progress, many investors have yet to fully integrate ESG issues into their investment decision-making processes. In 2021, several organizations were working to make ESG compliance a better understood process in order to establish standards between rating agencies, amongst industries, and across jurisdictions. This included companies like Workiva working from a technology tool standpoint; agencies like the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) developing common themes in certain industries; and governmental regulations like the EU’s Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation (SFDR).

More recent discussions reflect the political polarization that I described in last week’s blog, starting with the suggestion that the concept should be reduced to a simple measure of emissions:

If you are the type of person who is loth to invest in firms that pollute the planet, mistreat workers and stuff their boards with cronies, you will no doubt be aware of one of the hottest trends in finance: environmental, social and governance (esg) investing. It is an attempt to make capitalism work better and deal with the grave threat posed by climate change. It has ballooned in recent years; the titans of investment management claim that more than a third of their assets, or $35trn in total, are monitored through one esg lens or another. It is on the lips of bosses and officials everywhere.

You might hope that big things would come from this. You would be wrong. Sadly those three letters have morphed into shorthand for hype and controversy. Right-wing American politicians blame a “climate cartel” for soaring prices at the petrol pump. Whistleblowers accuse the industry of “greenwashing” by deceiving its clients. Firms from Goldman Sachs to Deutsche Bank face regulatory probes. As our special report this week concludes, although esg is often well-meaning it is deeply flawed. It risks setting conflicting goals for firms, fleecing savers and distracting from the vital task of tackling climate change. It is an unholy mess that needs to be ruthlessly streamlined.

The alternative view advocates that everything should be kept except the environmental considerations:

ESG investing has been a boon for the industry. Fund managers have often promised investors higher returns while doing good with their money. However, ESG is a slippery concept, without widely accepted definitions, criteria, and metrics. Infamously, a single company’s ESG rating can vary widely between credible credit-rating firms.

That variance isn’t unreasonable. There are many ways to combine the three criteria into one score, and for any single one there can be honest disagreement about what good or bad actually looks like. For example, some might rank Shell highly on “E” because it has a plan to decarbonize its business, or poorly because it sells oil and plans to sell natural gas for years.

However, the scope for variance in environmental ratings is starting to narrow. European officials have set new rules for different categories of sustainable investments and are working on definitions of what is and isn’t green. The SEC is also working on its own set of rules. While the standards increase the compliance burden on fund managers, they should also help ensure investors are getting what they were promised, rather than just a lot of hot air.

Concerns about greenwashing—in which reality falls short of green claims—are widespread and recent events are only fanning the flames. The SEC recently fined Bank of New York Mellon $1.5 million for misleading claims about ESG funds. DWS reported far lower “ESG assets” in its most recent annual report than “ESG integrated” assets in the prior year. A whistleblower alleged last year that its disclosure was misleading. It will now be up to a new boss to draw a thicker line under the affair.

The concept of ESG is now starting to penetrate the global market. Especially important here is its context within the Chinese market:

A new set of voluntary guidelines for Chinese companies to report environmental, social and governance metrics take effect Wednesday, offering a glimpse of what mandatory disclosures might eventually look like in the country.

Developed by China’s biggest companies and government-backed think tanks, the standards list more than 100 metrics that generally align with the global benchmark of draft rules issued by the International Sustainability Standards Board. The differences are they’re more simplistic and add “Chinese characteristics” that measure things like corporate charity.

Below is a summary in the form of advice from the Harvard Business Review:

With the rush of money into ESG investment funds — more than $1 trillion in the last two years — it’s easy to think everyone clearly sees the business value of sustainability. But many leaders still see an inherent trade-off between choosing a more sustainable future and achieving business growth and profit. They see ESG-related spending — a capital expense to reduce energy use, opting for renewable energy, paying living wages, and so on — as purely cost, not investment. With little resistance, CEO’s will spend money on IT, training, new factories, R&D, and more; but when it comes to investing in the future of the business and humanity, they hesitate.

They shouldn’t.

Go to the original publications and form your own opinion!

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Politics and Approval Ratings

*Note: This is a pre-written blog and may not reflect current events.

If everything goes well, by the time this blog is posted, I will already be in Europe. I am writing it before I leave so that it reflects my reality in the US. I won’t be surprised if that means some of what I say ends up being somewhat out of date by the time it goes up.

In my July 12th posting, I gave a few details about my trip to Europe. A few days after that, my wife and I both tested positive for COVID-19; I had some semi-serious symptoms for a day but after a full round of Paxlovid and isolation, I retested negative. My wife didn’t have any serious symptoms, so she didn’t take the drug. She is still weakly positive (as I write this blog) but without symptoms. Our experience was not very different from what many others are experiencing, including President Biden, whose age is somewhere between mine and my that of my wife:

WASHINGTON, July 21 (Reuters) – Joe Biden, the oldest person ever to serve as president of the United States, has tested positive for COVID-19, is experiencing mild symptoms and will continue working but in isolation, the White House said on Thursday.

Biden, 79, has a runny nose, fatigue and an occasional dry cough, symptoms which he began to experience late on Wednesday, White House physician Kevin O’Connor said in a note released on Thursday. Biden has begun taking the antiviral treatment Paxlovid, O’Connor said.

This blog summarizes the political polarization toward the end of July. As I mentioned in my July 12th blog, if everything goes as planned, I will return from Europe on August 26th to teach for a week, before traveling back to Europe on September 1st for the delayed memorial celebration of my concentration-camp’s liberation. On Tuesday, August 30th, I will post a short blog summing up some of my travel experiences.

The most often repeated story that I read about the political polarization in the US is about how unpopular President Biden is  and what a disaster the Democrats will face in the 2022 mid-term election and the 2024 Presidential election.

Figure 1 shows the job approval vs. disapproval rates of President Biden’s leadership.

Figure 1– Source: Ipsos

Meanwhile, Figure 2 shows the approval rate of Congress, while Figures 3 and 4 show the approval rates for the governors of the two largest US states—one Republican-controlled and one Democrat-controlled. All four graphs show relatively similar disapproval rates for those who control major parts of our public life, regardless of the politicians’ party affiliation.

Figure 2 – Source: Statista 2022

Figure 3– Source: The Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin

Figure 4 – More Californians approve of Newsom than they do of the CA Legislature Source: Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC)

In terms of climate change, it almost became a non-issue:

Joe Manchin’s rejection of a compromise climate bill tells a familiar story: Voters and politicians put a higher premium on immediate issues, such as inflation and the economy, giving politicians a pass on global warming.

It’s fascinating that our planet continues to cook while climate stalls as a political issue. However, trying to assign responsibilities to separate governmental powers shows a similar attitude: politicians wanting to shift responsibility away from themselves:

It’ll take some time to understand how Americans view last week’s [July 2022] collapse of climate legislation in Congress, but previous data holds some clues. When asked which elected officials should do more on climate, Americans point to Congress, according to recent surveys by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Analysis of public opinion on who should do more revealed the following responses:

Congress – 61%

State governor – 57%

President – 52%

I will discuss this attitude in more detail in the future. It’s no surprise that outlets such as FOX news are focused on only their favorite part of this spectrum:

Delay is the New Denial: The Latest Republican Tactic to Block Climate Action

WASHINGTON — One hundred million Americans from Arizona to Boston are under heat emergency warnings, and the drought in the West is nearing Dust Bowl proportions. Britain declared a national emergency as temperatures soared above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and parts of blistering Europe are ablaze.

But on Capitol Hill this week, Republicans were warning against rash action in response to the burning planet.

“I don’t want to be lectured about what we need to do to destroy our economy in the name of climate change,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina.

If we now move to the recent Supreme Court decisions, the results are not much different, at least in terms of attitude about the decision makers:

Public Approval of Supreme Court Falls to 38% After Roe v. Wade Ruling

Public approval of the US Supreme Court after its historic ruling eliminating federal abortion rights is down to 38%, compared with 60% about a year ago, a poll found.

The national survey by Marquette University Law School, the first since the June 24 decision overturning Roe v. Wade, shows a sharp split by party and ideology. Among Democrats, those who approve of how the high court is doing its job cratered to 15% from 52% in March, while Republican approval increased modestly to 67% from 64% during the same period.

Politics, independent of issue or arm of government, seems to be frozen. The most productive election strategy seems to be not to promote new ideas but rather to use negative campaigning to belittle opponents.

Good luck to all of us.

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Campus as a Lab: Part 2

My July 12th blog summarized why laboratory training has been found to be essential in teaching STEM (except for Mathematics) and for that reason, why teaching science is more expensive than teaching other disciplines. I based my arguments there on an 1886 Harvard report that is as valid today as it was then. A more detailed argument was published somewhat more recently (in 1990):

Shulman and Tamir, in the Second Handbook of Research on Teaching (Travers, ed., 1973), listed five groups of objectives that may be achieved through the use of the laboratory in science classes:

  1. skills – manipulative, inquiry, investigative, organizational, communicative

  2. concepts – for example, hypothesis, theoretical model, taxonomic category

  3. cognitive abilities – critical thinking, problem solving, application, analysis, synthesis

  4. understanding the nature of science – scientific enterprise, scientists and how they work, existence of a multiplicity of scientific methods, interrelationships between science and technology and among the various disciplines of science

  5. attitudes – for example, curiosity, interest, risk taking, objectivity, precision,confidence, perseverance, satisfaction, responsibility, consensus, collaboration, and liking science (1973, p.1119).

What this list is missing is that—in most cases—laboratory experience is also an early opportunity for students to practice working in teams. I described this in a previous blog (December 19, 2017), where I covered my own experience in team-based learning (TBL) within exclusively lecture-based teaching settings. Because of the expense associated with laboratories, in most schools, the number of available experimental setups is smaller than the number of students that take the class. Therefore, teamwork has necessarily become the norm. Often, this translates to reports that include both individually and collectively gathered data.

Other schools and academic institutions generate equivalent laboratory experiences for their students. Schools of Education use real classroom environments to ensure that students don’t only learn “about” teaching but also practice it in various settings, with plenty of opportunities to learn on the job (from both their students and their teachers). Likewise, Art schools have plenty of opportunities for students to learn through doing, both collectively and individually.

This leaves Humanities and Social Studies. Recently, with the advance in computation as one of the main tools that social scientists use, and the advance in data analysis, laboratories have also started to spring up in Social Sciences in various forms.

Columbia University is one example:

The Columbia Experimental Laboratory for the Social Sciences (CELSS) has opened at Columbia. CELSS resides on the 5th floor of the International Affairs Building and is an interdisciplinary venue for researchers in Economics, Political Science, Sociology, SIPA and the Business School. It has 24 computers for participants and one computer for the experimenter. The goal is to enable students and faculty to run laboratory experiments in a controlled setting.

Cornell University can serve as an example of an institution that offers “laboratories,” for a long list of topics. They are especially known for introducing labs as a method or opportunity to study real issues that are likely to confront graduates once they enter the job market.

The Social Sciences that are probably ahead of most in this context are Business and Economics. The Bloomberg Terminals that I discussed in some earlier blogs (see March 5, 2019) are a useful tool that has become available to many institutions. They often serve the purpose of allowing students to learn through direct work on real problems.

Now we are being offered new opportunities that are not based on perceived future needs but instead, represent campus-mandated societal and institutional transitions in various areas. I have experimented with my students, investigating various examples, and written about them in previous blogs, including campus decarbonization (see June 18, 2019). An example of a single poster made by a group of my students is shown below (see it larger here). You can see broader examples and a collection of more posters here.

In the coming semester, I will use similar settings and ask my students to develop their own curriculum that takes advantage of the process.

I am starting now to get involved in my school’s effort to reduce the use of single-use plastics (SUP) (see April 5, 2022 blog), and I will try to explore how we can construct courses from which students can learn by participating in the efforts that their campus is pursuing.

Taking from the decarbonization example, a typical structure of the first half of such a course is targeted at the background of climate change, using TBL (team-based learning methodology). This also provides the necessary prerequisites, which are especially helpful because some of these students have never taken any Chemistry or Physics classes. After the midterm exam, we start to work on the class projects, for which the campus serves as our laboratory. The administration agreed to share with me the details of our campus energy use, including the energy use of individual buildings. I don’t share all of this data with my students. We discuss what information the students need to carry out their individual projects and I transfer that specific data to the students for further analysis.

Since the course, in which I am experimenting with these approaches, consists of honor students who come from majors in different disciplines, it allows me to experiment with interdisciplinary work, one of the greatest attractions of the Campus-as-a-Lab (CAL) project.

As I mentioned in the July 12th blog, there is a range of topics that seem to be fertile for CAL, including other projects that investigate college transitions. Other projects include investigations of the campus sewage for virus identification and finding ways to successfully run a campus with a declining student population, etc.

To be productive, all these topics must be intensively interdisciplinary and work in full cooperation with the administration of the college.

Stay tuned.

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Creation

My plan was to write a continuation of the previous blog about Campus as a Lab (CAL) (July 19, 2022) but as usual, reality interfered in a big way! I got a Facebook message from a friend that included the picture below. My friend is a lawyer; he has been instrumental in helping me to uncover my early history and, to my knowledge, has nothing to do with science. The picture in his Facebook message came with a Hebrew “caption” shown above the figure, taken from Chapter 1 of the book of Genesis. I am also including the English translation of the Bible here:

וְהָאָרֶץ, הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ, וְחֹשֶׁךְ, עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם; וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, מְרַחֶפֶת עַל-פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם

The Book of Genesis, Chapter 1: “And the Earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”

This landscape of “mountains” and “valleys” speckled with glittering stars is actually the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region called NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals for the first time previously invisible areas of star birth. (Source: NASA)

I also included the original NASA caption below the photograph. The image has become a well-known example of data from the new James Webb Telescope. I teach cosmology, so I had obviously seen this photograph before. The key word in the Hebrew caption was “Tohu-Vavohu.” The English Bible translated it as, “without form, void” but Wikipedia gives a much broader interpretation of the concept. The original translation, in my opinion, shouldn’t even be included in the broad interpretation because it directly implies absolute void, which Tohu-Vavohu doesn’t cover. My preferred translation is complete chaos. The interpretation that I took from my friend’s posting was that NASA was finally able to take a photograph of the world’s chaos before the spirit of God flew above water to put some order in the universe.

My response was that—actually, normalized to size, our little inhabited planet is much more chaotic than the universe around us, a statement supported by science.

To make progress, it helps to have some background information about the Webb Telescope, again from Wikipedia:

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is a space telescope designed primarily to conduct infrared astronomy. As the largest optical telescope in space, its greatly improved infrared resolution and sensitivity allow it to view objects too old, distant, or faint for the Hubble Space Telescope. This is expected to enable a broad range of investigations across the fields of astronomy and cosmology, such as observation of the first stars and the formation of the first galaxies, and detailed atmospheric characterization of potentially habitable exoplanets.

The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) led JWST’s development in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). The NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Maryland managed telescope development, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore on the Homewood Campus of Johns Hopkins University operates JWST, and the prime contractor was Northrop Grumman. The telescope is named after James E. Webb, who was the administrator of NASA from 1961 to 1968 during the MercuryGemini, and Apollo programs.

The James Webb Space Telescope was launched on 25 December 2021 on an Ariane 5 rocket from KourouFrench Guiana, and arrived at the Sun–Earth L2 Lagrange point in January 2022. The first image from JWST was released to the public via a press conference on 11 July 2022.[8] The telescope is the successor of the Hubble as NASA’s flagship mission in astrophysics.

The Wikipedia entry is much longer than the three paragraphs above and includes the history of the development of the JWST. The concept started in the 1980s, with some serious planning in the 1990s. The initial budget of 1 billion US$ mushroomed to more than $10 billion. Those who are now part of our past were looking at an uncertain future. The picture that we see and the few others that came with it show how well those efforts worked. All of us are justifiably very proud.

Let me now shift to the content of the picture. The NASA caption tells us that it covers a star-forming region called NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula, a part of our Milky Way. Star-forming regions have always been the most fascinating products of major telescopes. Just search Google Images for “star birth” and you will be exposed to the most fascinating collection of cosmological photographs—most of them from well before the JWST. “Our” photograph is part of this collection.

Meanwhile, Wikipedia can give us a short description of the Carina Nebula:

The Carina Nebula[7] or Eta Carinae Nebula[8] (catalogued as NGC 3372; also known as the Great Carina Nebula[9]) is a large, complex area of bright and dark nebulosity in the constellation Carina, located in the Carina–Sagittarius Arm of the Milky Way galaxy. The nebula is approximately 8,500 light-years (2,600 pc) from Earth.

The nebula has within its boundaries the large Carina OB1 association and several related open clusters, including numerous O-type stars and several Wolf–Rayet stars. Carina OB1 encompasses the star clusters Trumpler 14 and Trumpler 16. Trumpler 14 is one of the youngest known star clusters at half a million years old. Trumpler 16 is the home of WR 25, currently the most luminous star known in our Milky Way galaxy, together with the less luminous but more massive and famous Eta Carinae star system and the O2 supergiant HD 93129A. Trumpler 15, Collinder 228, Collinder 232, NGC 3324, and NGC 3293 are also considered members of the association. NGC 3293 is the oldest and furthest from Trumpler 14, indicating sequential and ongoing star formation.

The most important indicator of any cosmological observation is the object’s distance from us (or the telescope that now sits about 1.5 million km from Earth). The Wikipedia entry tells us that this Nebula is 8,500 light years away from the telescope. While a light-year sounds more like a unit of time and not distance, it refers to the distance that light can travel in a year, in free space. The speed of light is the fastest speed that can be attained in our universe. It amounts to 300 million meters/sec or 300,000 km/sec or 186,000 miles/sec. We can multiply this number by the number of seconds in a year (365 x 24 x 60 x 60 = 31,536,000) to find that one light year amounts to 9.46 trillion km. So, the distance of the Carina Nebula from us is 9.46 x 8500 = 80,410 trillion km = 80.4 quadrillion km. Most science uses the metric system but if you prefer it in miles, just multiply this number by 0.62.

The interesting part is what light JWAT “saw” from the nebula. It took light 8,500 years to travel from the nebula to the telescope. The picture that the JWAT saw is not how the nebula looks now but how it looked 8,500 years ago.

How did Earth look 8,500 years ago? To get back to the message that my friend sent to me with the Hebrew caption, when did Judaism actually start?

The origins of Judaism date back more than 3500 years. This religion is rooted in the ancient near eastern region of Canaan (which today constitutes Israel and the Palestinian territories). Judaism emerged from the beliefs and practices of the people known as “Israel”. What is considered classical, or rabbinical, Judaism did not emerge until the 1st century CE.

For all we know, the Carina Nebula, and all the fascinating structures in the JWAT photographs, might even not exist today but we are able to monitor the distant past now because of the perseverance that NASA showed in its push forward in the face of an uncertain future.

Let us now move to the present and ask ourselves: are we capable now of showing the same perseverance in striving for a safe future? Our collective existence depends upon our doing so. To probe that, I will shift our attention to a recent speech by the secretary general of the United Nations, given at the Petersberg Climate Dialogue in Berlin earlier this month:

The United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, issued a dire warning on Monday to representatives from 40 countries at the Petersberg Climate Dialogue, calling for more concrete action to tackle what he called a “climate emergency.”

“We have a choice,” Mr. Guterres said in a video message. “Collective action or collective suicide. It is in our hands.”

Mr. Guterres did not directly address the heat wave punishing much of Europe, but his comments came as swaths of the continent faced dangerously high temperatures on Monday, spurring wildfires in some areas.

Well, Mr. Guterres is a native of Portugal. He is fully aware that the number of heat deaths from the recent heat wave in Spain and Portugal approached 2,000. He gave us a choice between collective action and collective suicide—the same one that I have posed since the beginning of this blog. This is almost equivalent, if we go back to a biblical scale, to the idea that the absence of collective action indicates that a flag is rising to invite us all to hell. I will obviously return to this issue in future blogs.

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Campus as a Lab: Part 1

diagram of connections between campus operations, research, curriculum, institutional sustainability, and living laboratoriesSource: Rutgers Living Laboratories

Campus as a lab (CAL) is becoming a teaching and organizational tool across campuses. I am including a schematic diagram of the dynamics of the concept, taken from the Rutgers University site, above. If you Google “Campus as a Lab,” you will get a handful of results but if you Google “College as a Lab,” you’ll only get a single entry. I am using the two terms interchangeably for reasons that I will elaborate on next week. In this blog, I will summarize aspects of the efforts taken at a few randomly selected campuses; next week, I will summarize some of my thoughts about its implementation elsewhere.

Here’s the general concept, taken from Campus as Living Lab.org:

The Campus as Living Lab Framework provides a systematic description of innovation projects combining campus and local/regional sustainability, research mobilization, student learning, civil society towards societal challenges.

The Framework is developed for practitioners setting up or managing Living Labs in and around University Campuses, such as Sustainability Coordination Officers (SCOs). Initial Living Labs for Sustainability can be set up and handled as projects, as they have a beginning and most probably as well a clear end of financial resources but as engagement- and empowerment processes are time consuming processes and are based on trust, they have to be considered as well as continuously ongoing processes. In co-creation meetings ideas have to be developed and research questions defined out of them, with changing participants and stakeholders. With this understanding the once started process has a big potential but demands as well responsible interacting and tailored communication plans to provide and share information with each stakeholder to keep the empowerment process ongoing.

A list of Columbia University’s individual offerings, based on its past efforts, is given below. The website includes descriptions of each project:

  • Proposing Offsets and Standards for Columbia’s Transportation Emissions
  • Advancing Sustainability at Faculty House
  • Water Exploratory to Inform Sustainability Planning
  • Campaign to Reduce Columbia-related Travel
  • Quantifying GHG Emissions from Air Travel
  • Commute and Fleet Emissions Data Analysis
  • Intercampus Shuttle Opportunities for Efficiency and Service Improvements
  • Break the Ice
  • SIPA Zero Waste & Sustain-a-Bottle
  • Cup It
  • Pedal 2 Power
  • Columbia Watermark Initiative

Not surprisingly, the Columbia task list, like most other campuses’ efforts, reads more like an advertisement for how well their campuses do at making schools more sustainable. Students, faculty, and administrators are involved in the efforts but an element that is missing is an evaluation of what students are learning from their participation in the effort.

Meanwhile, Duke University provides examples of the sites that it uses for CAL:

What are examples of CAL sites?

Duke University is home to a wide variety of buildings, ecosystems, and other spaces on campus that provide opportunities for students to apply what is learned in the classroom in the real world. Examples of these on-campus sites that are exemplary models of the Campus as Lab program ethos include the Duke Forest, Duke’s Reclamation Pond, a wide variety of sustainable buildings on campus (e.g. Student Wellness Center and Environment Hall), the Duke Campus Farm, and many more. These sites are a representation of the CAL program’s goal to bridge on-campus issues and their solutions with the global issues they represent. The CAL program hopes that by tying world issues to a tangible on-campus site that students will be able to connect their course learnings and campus experiences to better understand world issues. A CAL-endorsed site serves as an excellent starting point to learn about global problems, to be inspired to complete a CAL project, or to even appreciate the Duke campus a little more.

Princeton’s action plan includes details for projects to:

It also provides a detailed plan for 2026 and beyond.

All of this sounds good. Much of this is student-driven because many students are at an age when they want to contribute to making the world a better place. I am taking part in some similar initiatives focused on fighting climate change and decreasing the use of single-use plastics (SUP). However, almost by their nature, these programs are designed to change the schools, not necessarily to educate the students. Most academic institutions are proud to have rules that restrict academic decisions to faculty councils and committees. Administrators always have a say on such issues because, among other considerations, they involve budgetary issues. However, they don’t get a vote in these academic decisions.

I wrote before about the intricacies of academic politics (December 28, 2021). In that blog, I described my long experience in co-creating and running the Environmental Studies Program, which resembles many aspects of CAL use. I also previously discussed (June 18, 2019) the CAL program in the context of the mandated decarbonization of energy use in my school. One constant criticism that has been directed at the Environmental Studies Program and other interdisciplinary programs is that they would function better if students selected their primary discipline of study before faculty incorporated other interdisciplinary issues. This attitude is now shifting a bit due to new practices of collectively hiring faculty from different disciplines who will (hopefully) work together on interdisciplinary issues. Such hiring is now labeled “cluster hiring”:

Many universities now recognize interdisciplinary research and collaboration as the means to address grand challenges facing our society. University leaders also recognize the value of diversity in higher education and have expanded their definitions of diversity to incorporate multiple perspectives, methodologies, and worldviews. An inclusive campus climate that values diversity is one of the determinants of institutional excellence, and leaders seek strategies to further develop and improve the climate at their institutions.

Faculty cluster hiring is an emerging practice in higher education and involves hiring faculty into multiple departments or colleges around interdisciplinary research topics, or “clusters.” Some cluster hiring programs also aim to increase faculty diversity or address other aspects of institutional excellence, including faculty career success, collaboration across disciplines, the teaching and learning environment, and community engagement.

In a previous blog (January 19, 2022), I also described the NSF’s (National Science Foundation) new emphasis on funding interdisciplinary educational opportunities. As I mentioned in that blog, one of the conditions for getting new funding for such initiatives is that they must be new. Unfortunately, this means that none of us know how to structure them, and it would be presumptuous for us to suggest revolutionizing a college curriculum based on some scheme that none of us has experience with. In next week’s blog, I will outline my thinking on this issue and suggest how my school can start constructing a trial in this direction.

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