If you’re an undergraduate student, carbon dioxide levels in Earth’s atmosphere have surged by about 15% since you were born. Because even small changes in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses can dramatically warm the Earth, in your lifetime, average global temperatures soared by around 0.5 degrees Celsius. It’s a change in climate that is totally without precedent in recorded human history.
This climate crisis will get worse before it gets better. By the end of this century, global temperatures could climb by two degrees Celsius or more. The extreme weather set in motion by warming of that magnitude would likely fundamentally impoverish Earth’s biosphere and thereby threaten the survival of today’s societies. Yet, it is still entirely possible to limit warming to just another half of a degree Celsius. That would be destructive but far from apocalyptic.
Nothing will shape the life of the average undergraduate student quite like the decisions that governments, institutions, corporations and ordinary people will make in the coming decade to reduce — or accelerate — global warming. Therefore, universities have a special responsibility to be part of the solution.
Georgetown University takes its responsibility to combat climate change seriously. In 2021, Georgetown expanded its long-standing sustainability office and hired its first vice president of sustainability, as well as a team that works within the university to plan for future sustainability and climate action. To that end, Georgetown is reducing its carbon footprint by constructing greener buildings, electrifying its bus fleet, reducing building energy usage, improving the efficiency of the central plant and utilities on campus and by purchasing renewable energy certificates to offset the remaining electricity usage on campus.
There are currently around one million square feet of green buildings at Georgetown certified by the U.S. Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program. Through Georgetown Energy Partners, the university will reduce energy use intensity by 35% by 2031. Currently, the partnership is undertaking a large-scale energy efficiency lighting upgrade that will reduce our carbon footprint by almost 1,800 tons of carbon dioxide annually.
Two-thirds of the university’s electricity needs are provided through a power purchase agreement that launched in October 2020. This 15-year agreement allows Georgetown to buy 100,000 megawatt-hours of electricity annually from 11 existing solar plants. On-site solar is also a priority for the university, and new solar panels will be added to buildings in coming years.
In addition to improving campus facilities and energy procurement, Georgetown is rolling back fossil fuel investment in its endowment. In 2020, Georgetown committed to divesting from public securities of fossil fuel companies by 2025 and from existing private investments in those companies by 2030. The university is also making smart investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency and related areas while freezing new endowment investments in companies or funds whose primary business is the exploration or extraction of fossil fuels.
In addition to this substantial work, Georgetown will carefully assess and reduce its overall greenhouse gas footprint. The Office of Sustainability is collecting input from students, faculty and staff on how to take further action related to emissions from campus, travel, procurement, investment, solid waste and other areas. Georgetown students can engage with the university’s sustainability team, provide input and get tips for taking action by contacting [email protected] or following @SustainableGU on Instagram and Twitter.
Beyond acting to directly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, universities can confront the climate crisis by building on their traditional roles as hotbeds of research, innovation and teaching. Recently, Georgetown has emerged as a global leader in climate education by providing unique opportunities for students to learn about global warming from the perspectives of many disciplines.
Five years ago, a small group of faculty, students and innovators launched a new climate curriculum at Georgetown. This “Core Pathway on Climate Change” allows students to choose four half-semester courses in distinct disciplines, from theology to physics, that all deal with different dimensions of the climate crisis. Students in the curriculum meet several times every semester to learn from leading policymakers and activists or cooperate in activities that integrate all the disciplines in the pathway. The pathway’s surging popularity has helped inspire similar programs at other universities and thereby has played a role in a transformation of how global warming is taught across the country.
More recently, Georgetown launched Earth Commons, an institute designed to connect and support all of the university’s environmental scholars and programs. The Earth Commons is hiring a wave of postdoctoral researchers and tenure-track professors with the goal of elevating Georgetown into a leading center for transdisciplinary climate scholarship. It is offering its first joint degree with the McDonough School of Business and the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences — the Master of Science in environment and sustainability management—and partnering with the Georgetown College of Arts & Sciences to design a new undergraduate degree focused on the climate crisis.
Given the magnitude and urgency of the crisis, these efforts must be understood as first steps. The university must continue to reduce its consumption of energy and its solid and electronic waste, for example, and it must quickly improve more of its aging buildings. It must become a more comprehensive center for climate scholarship and teaching by rapidly increasing the pace with which it hires explicitly interdisciplinary, tenure-track faculty.
In the meantime, daily actions matter. Students, faculty and staff can fix old items before they order replacements online, use reusable water bottles, unplug devices drawing phantom power and take public transit — or a bike, or a scooter — instead of a car. These simple actions can have a profound impact.
Students have already organized efforts to reduce emissions and waste on campus and have played key roles in rallying support for climate action at Georgetown. You can learn more about how to get involved in Georgetown’s sustainability efforts by following @SustainableGU. As the world continues to warm, your actions and your voice are needed now more than ever.
Dagomar Degroot is an associate professor in the Georgetown history department and specializes in environmental history. Meghan Chapple is the vice president of sustainability at Georgetown.