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News & Events for the Smith College Community
Sustainability March 2, 2017

New Plan Supports Climate Action in All Aspects of Campus Life

Night Photo of the MacLeish Field Station’s Bechtel Environmetnal Classroom
Photo of the MacLeish Field Station’s Bechtel Environmetnal Classroom by James Lowenthal, Professor of Astronomy.

The Smith College Study Group on Climate Change has released a report that recommends harnessing Smith’s unique strengths to address the complexities of climate change.

The result of a yearlong process of study and community engagement, the report makes recommendations for how to embed sustainable development in all aspects of college life—from campus operations to academics to financial investments. The report also supports specific targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and a focus on climate justice, including a yearlong initiative on women and climate change.

The board of trustees received the report and endorsed its core principle: “Climate change is an urgent, complex problem. Human activities are pushing the climate beyond the range of conditions experienced over the last few million years and toward abrupt, unpredictable, highly damaging and potentially irreversible impacts. Effective responses will require ambitious, multifaceted plans of action.”

The study group’s recommendations offer action steps in five major areas:

  • Academics Create new academic offerings and further infuse climate change and sustainable development concepts across the curriculum, while enhancing experiential learning opportunities for students.
  • Campus Programming Expand opportunities for students to participate in climate-action initiatives outside of the classroom and to live more sustainably on campus.
  • Campus Operations Aggressively pursue the college’s commitment to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
  • Investments Address climate change in the context of Smith’s endowment investments.
  • Institutional Change Develop sustainability and climate-change initiatives that model ideal institutional behavior.

Study group co-chair Michael Howard, Smith’s vice president for finance and administration, noted that the recommendations align with the goals of the college’s new strategic plan, which commits Smith to taking on complex, urgent problems.

“Another positive is that we already have a strong infrastructure of people interested in this work on climate change that we can build upon,” Howard said.

Here’s what else Howard and professor of geosciences Amy Rhodes—co-chair of the study group—had to say about Smith’s approach to climate change.

How is the new plan for addressing climate change ‘uniquely Smith?’

Amy Rhodes: “The report builds on Smith’s strengths by merging what happens in the classroom with what happens in campus operations. The recommendations offer opportunities for students to work on sustainability projects and offer ideas for improvements, then have those ideas circle back to operations. If the college moves toward a ground-source heating system, for example, we would expect students to be part of that process.”

Michael Howard: “Another aspect that is uniquely Smith is that the study group went about this work as an integrated team of students, faculty, staff, trustees and alumnae. We talked to literally hundreds of members of our community as part of our outreach efforts. The recommendations reflect the involvement of all of those constituencies, and blur the boundaries between departments and disciplines in a way that’s to our benefit.”

What do you see as major takeaways from the report?

Rhodes: “The expansion of climate change and sustainability throughout the curriculum is key. These recommendations mean strengthening faculty climate expertise in the humanities, social sciences and sciences, and bringing those issues into more courses. What was perhaps most exciting to people during our playback sessions was the recommendation for a yearlong focus on women and climate change. That’s a program we will be gearing up for—one that fits with our educational mission as a women’s liberal arts college.”

Howard: “This report represents a bold approach blended with a sense of pragmatism. The recommendations set extremely ambitious goals that are also grounded in the way the world works now. We will be looking at what we can do to make immediate progress on dealing with climate change—opportunities to mitigate the impact at the college—while also exploring how Smith can contribute to solutions beyond our campus.”

Are there recommendations regarding the college’s endowment?

Howard: “The most important thing for people to understand is that the choices we make in how we manage our endowment need to be consistent with the mission and values of the college. Through our work, we concluded that actions the college takes as an investor can be an effective component of a comprehensive program in response to climate change. We see our endowment as one way we can think about responding to climate change. The series of recommendations about investing acknowledge the fiduciary role of the college’s Investment Committee, and offer some exciting opportunities for impact investing, which means investing in clean energy—including solar and wind. We see great opportunities to do more in those areas.”

Will the locus of work on climate change move to others at Smith, now that the study group has concluded its work?

Rhodes: “We will be working with President Kathleen McCartney and other college leadership to help implement these recommendations. Through the work of the Study Group on Climate Change we’ve heard a mandate from the community to keep the college engaged and making significant progress on these issues. This report is really about the future of Smith College—about what our prospective students will see and what students will be doing on campus for years to come. Climate change is an issue that touches everyone.”