Land & Environment

Campus Climate: New Publication Proposes Framework for Higher-Ed Greenhouse Gas Accountability

By Lael Gilbert |

View of a defunct smokestack at North Carolina State University. New research proposes a framework to make campus action on climate change faster and more authentic.

Why, exactly, aren’t universities better at moving the needle on climate change, even on their own campuses?

Carrying a mandate to serve the public good and designed for innovation, one would think that institutions of higher education would be leaders in the charge to cut greenhouse gasses. But organizations of higher education still struggle to effect significant change, according to a recently released article in the journal Climatic Change from Patrick Belmont, Roslynn McCann, Sarah Klain, and a team of authors.

The inability of academic institutions to commit and follow-through on effective climate action is tied to several deep-seated factors, according to the authors: a dependence on private funding, influence exerted by the fossil fuel industry and reluctance for employees to challenge status quo in top-down organizations. Collectively these factors tend to pull institutions into “academic capture” and inaction, preventing more sincere efforts toward deep, rapid and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, they said.

“It can be hard to identify the convoluted and subtle influences that have major impacts on the trajectory of these big organizations,” said Belmont, department head of Watershed Sciences in the Quinney College of Natural Resources. “But it’s becoming increasingly urgent and necessary to untangle competing interests and to hold institutions accountable for the way they benefit from a carbon-dependent world, even universities.”

The authors developed a framework for assessing academic capture in colleges and universities and offer strategies to get institutions back on track. Topping the list are ways to avoid allowing institutions to benefit from “greenwashing,” which offers the privilege of a strong public-facing reputation without implementing authentic (and often difficult) carbon-cutting strategies.

A key criticism lies with carbon pollution offset markets, the authors state. Carbon offsetting gives institutions and industries a way to compensate for the greenhouse gasses they produce by investing in projects that reduce emissions elsewhere. But there is increasing evidence that these market mechanisms don’t work — and probably contribute to a net increase in the rate of global emissions growth. Some universities in the U.S. claimed to have achieved carbon neutrality with offset purchases while their actual emissions increased, the authors state — a strategy that isn’t authentic or sustainable.

Academic capture can also be influenced by university employee reticence. Many university employees work in a charged political climate and tend to err on the side of least drama, even when the issue merits it, they said. This hinders targeted research, education, outreach and policy to address the looming issue.

Academic administrators who are responsible for institutions can play a critical role in cultivating culture and shaping vision, they said. Despite offering ambitious climate statements, there is often failure in leadership to follow through with authentic policy action. The solution lies in more transparency about their commitments, funding and follow-through, according to the authors.

“Faculty in the land grant system have a fiduciary responsibility to accurately represent science and share it with the public,” said McCann, who is a professor and Sustainable Communities Extension Specialist, “and the science points toward a global climate emergency.”

Land grant institutions should be leading in innovative research, teaching, outreach and by example in climate mitigation, adaptation and resilience, she said.

“But I’m not seeing this happen,” McCann said, “especially not at the scale needed to avoid severe hardship for the next generation.”

Universities need to get to a point where the first standard is based on environmental and social betterment, not on what it will cost, McCann said.

“I’d love for academia to think about what kind of students they are sending out into the world after graduation,” she said, “whether they are aware of the climate crisis and of meaningful action they can take to engage in solutions.”


Lael Gilbert
Public Relations Specialist
Quinney College of Natural Resources


Patrick Belmont
Watershed Sciences Department


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