Faculty Resolution on Climate Action

Johnson Center for Environmental Innovation

(Passed on Dec. 14, 2012)


Whereas anthropogenic climate change has been shown to be a real phenomenon that threatens the health and stability of Gustavus Adolphus College and the wider society that we serve;

Whereas a rapid reduction in our institution’s green house gas emissions will contribute to the necessary effort to mitigate climate change globally;

Whereas participation in a community that is doing the hard work necessary to make such reductions will better prepare our students to participate in that effort as future leaders;

We the faculty of Gustavus Adolphus College strongly urge that the college administration fulfill its status as signatory of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) by moving aggressively to reduce its green house gas emissions by making green house gas emission reduction a primary consideration in all significant administrative decisions, including our decisions related to facilities renovation and construction.

Rationale: The college has been a signatory to the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment since 2007. While we have hosted a significant number of global experts on the topic through our annual Nobel Conference, and they have made clear the science behind the threat, and the increasingly urgent necessity of a response, action by Gustavus Adolphus College has been tepid in comparison with the magnitude of the issue. The President’s Cabinet reviewed and accepted a climate action plan (Dec 2010- Jan 2011) and later accepted a specific timetable for its implementation (Dec. 2011-Jan 2012), but has made no effort to publicize the plan nor has taken any vigorous action to implement the plan. Nor has the Cabinet made any significant effort to engage the Board of Trustees and other college constituencies in a discussion about this strategic issue.

There have been notable steps in the right direction, including the energy conserving features of Beck Hall, ongoing energy-conserving retrofits to buildings, and recent additions of renewable energy capacity on campus. The green house gas emissions reduction brought about by these efforts are small, however, when compared with the 80% emissions reductions necessary to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

The key scientific findings pertinent to the climate change issue remain unchanged in the past five years:

  1. Our overall global climate is warming more rapidly than would be expected from long-term records of climate dynamics, and with that change we are seeing a range of immediate and longer term disruptive consequences.
  2. Levels of atmospheric green house gases, most notably carbon dioxide, have been increasing at rapid rate—far more rapidly than could be caused by known geologic causes—and have reached levels not seen for a long geological time frame, possibly for 20 million years.
  3. The rapid rise in carbon dioxide levels is clearly anthropogenic in origin and tied directly to the emissions from fossil fuel use and land clearing activities enabled by these fossil fuels.
  4. Because of its role in regulating the escape of energy from the earth, all credible models of how earth’s climate will develop in the next 100 years indicate we can expect significant, and potentially devastating (for humans) climate change because of the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.
  5. To avert the worst of these effects, a rapid reduction in carbon emissions must begin now and result in an 80% reduction In emissions by 2050.

The scientific predictions described in d) and f) are usually presented as a range of possibilities (e.g. from a 1°C to a 6°C global temperature rise, for example) that is determined by uncertainties in the models’ predictive capacities. As observed climate affects (notably a more rapid warm up of the Arctic and the resultant loss of Arctic sea ice) are reported, there is a growing probability that we will see effects on the more extreme end of the possible range.

The extreme climate changes that are now a greater possibility will take us out of the range of climate norms human civilization has experienced during the past 10,000 years—and it will take us there in less than 100 years. Since most of the human cultural legacy we celebrate at Gustavus has developed during that 10,000 year period of relative climate stability, a reasonable conclusion is that climate change could pose not a long term, but a short term threat to the health of the college.

To put this in the most practical and immediate terms, our primary science building, Nobel Hall, is just about 50 years old. Our new academic building. Beck Hall, is has the potential to last at least that long, yet the climate assumptions used in the design of that building may be severely out of date when and if we celebrate its 50th anniversary.

But the greater threat to Gustavus Adolphus College is that the economic and social context we both support and depend on could be severely challenged by climate change. Close to home, we have seen how climate extremes have had consequential effects: the fall 2010 floods that disrupted travel to and from the 2010 Nobel Conference caused expensive damage to infrastructure in the region, and the threat of more frequent flooding has necessitated ongoing engineering changes to the major highway artery serving the community. Farther away, superstorm Sandy has generated cost that will have to be paid for by government expenditure and higher future insurance premiums (both of which will affect the college’s future fiscal wellbeing).

While no single weather event can be conclusively tied to anthropogenic climate change, these events are a part of the emerging trend of greater climate variability that matches the predictions of anthropogenic climate change.

While robust greenhouse gas emissions reductions on campus will not change the global climate trends unless matched by society wide reductions, the global reduction in emissions will not occur unless Gustavus Adolphus College and many other institutions do reduce their emissions.

Furthermore, we are asking our students to become leaders, and the climate trends we face make it clear that the world needs leadership on this issue. Remembering that our most influential teaching is contained on our community’s daily actions, we have an obligation to prepare our students for leadership by inviting them to participate in a visible and effective campus effort. As the evidence for anthropogenic climate change has grown stronger, the public discourse on the issue has gone remarkably silent as leaders and citizens all across the political spectrum took cowardly flight from the vitriolic political rhetoric. It is time that Gustavus Adolphus College aligns its actions with the lessons we teach in the classroom. If we teach the reality of climate change in our laboratories, and discuss the response in our lecture halls, and if we are willing to invite the public to listen to global experts on the topic, we should be willing to act on what we teach.