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Smith College releases report on climate change

  • A group of Smith College students sing during a vigil for victims of climate change and the fossil fuel industry, Thursday at Pierce Hall. At the same time, members of Divest Smith College met with the Board of Trustees to demand bold action on climate change.



@ecutts_HG
Thursday, March 16, 2017

NORTHAMPTON — Smith College’s fight against climate change took a big step forward this week with the release of an action plan a year in the making that spells out how the college aims to combat “unpredictable, highly damaging and potentially irreversible impacts” on the climate by humans.

A 36-page report, “Toward a Sustainable Future,” released Monday by the college’s Study Group on Climate Change outlines 21 recommendations across five areas — academic, campus programming and operations, investments and institutional change — that will impact the campus, the community and the world.

“Now more than ever, the college and its peers need to lead the charge on campuses and the global stage to actively promote and develop these collaborative solutions,” the report states. “Responding now — rather than in the future — lowers the risk of catastrophic changes and the cost of taking action.”

The 16-member group was formed in 2015 to examine how Smith could most effectively respond to the challenge of global climate change, according to the report. Members, including students, faculty, trustees and alumnae, were tasked with exploring opportunities to mitigate climate change impact on campus as well as how the college could contribute to climate change solutions within the framework of its educational mission.

“We have ... a very active environmental and sustainability program at Smith,” said Michael Howard, the college’s vice president for finance and administration and the committee’s co-chairman. “Many faculty are interested in it, many students are … there was a feeling it was the right time to do a more comprehensive set of work.”

Climate change is an important issue for current and future students, according to Amy Rhodes, a professor of geosciences and director of the Environmental Science and Policy Program. She also serves as the committee co-chairwoman.

In fact, many of those students rallied earlier this month outside the doors of a trustees’ meeting to demand that the college fully divest from fossil fuels.

“Our feeling is that understanding climate change can’t just be taught within one particular major or just a couple sets of majors,” Rhodes said. “Students really want to understand how climate change connects to the other academic interests that they hold. And that the issue is important enough that they need to see how climate change is connected to the issues they care most about.”

Investments

One set of recommendations that is likely to draw interest from many in the college community is the report’s finance section. It makes four recommendations:

Increasing the college’s impact investing budget from $9.5 million to $30 million. Impact investments are investments made in companies, organizations and funds with the intention of generating measurable social and environmental impact alongside a financial return;

Making targeted divestments from fossil fuel holdings;

Enhancing reporting and analysis on fossil fuel investments in the endowment;

Increasing the endowment for the college’s investment club.

Howard said the group viewed taking action as an investor could be a meaningful component of the college’s “comprehensive response to climate change.”

As of February of last year, Smith College had an endowment of about $1.7 billion, about 6 percent of which was invested in fossil fuels, according to college officials.

“The decision to divest is a complicated one because we have to sort through exactly if we were to do that, how we would do that, how it would work over time and what the implications would be,” Howard said.

The vast majority of the endowments, he said, are pooled or collective investments.

“We have discussed and looked at divestment and we’re basically recommending that the ACIR (Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility) explore this in more detail,” Howard said. “There is a lot of detailed work the ACIR needs to do but we strongly view it as something that warrants explanation to see if it’s something that we could do there.”

The report also recommends giving students a hands-on experience making investments in fossil-fuel-free companies. The school’s investment club already manages and invests an endowment portfolio worth more than $160,000. If the recommendation were enacted, it would fund a second portfolio for the student to manage.

Other categories

The report also recommends increasing educational opportunities with an emphasis on climate change across disciplines.

To do that, the committee suggests prioritizing climate change and sustainability expertise in faculty appointments in all departments. The committee also recommends expanding experiential and applied learning opportunities both on and off campus.

This could include development of a “campus as classroom” data integration program that manages operational climate and sustainability data in support of courses and student-faculty research.

In the area of campus programming, the report calls for expanding opportunities for students to learn about climate-action initiatives outside of the classroom and to live more sustainably on campus.

By engaging students in the “really challenging problems,” Rhodes said, they would be able to leave the college with those skills.

Under campus operations, the report calls for officials to aggressively pursue the college’s commitment to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, including a roughly 40 percent reduction in emissions over the next five years and continued research and scholarship focused on the optimal path to net zero.

Ways to do this is including converting the central heating system to a ground-source heat exchange energy system, upgrading part of the central heating plant to burn carbon-neutral biofuel and purchasing all noncampus-generated electricity from renewable resources.

Implementation

How exactly the recommendations will be put into action has yet to be finalized, although many of them fall under existing structures on which to build upon.

In the report, the committee recommended the formation of a committee to be charged with overseeing the implementation phase and to report annually on the college’s progress.

Many of the recommendations are also in line with the college’s new strategic plan and, as Howard said, would be “infused with the rollout of our strategic plan.”

The entire report can be found on the college’s website. https://www.smith.edu/climatechange/

Emily Cutts can be reached at ecutts@gazettenet.com.