Global Environmental Change

ASU is all-in for sustainablity

This fall, another 150 students joined the School of Sustainability as majors and graduate students. In total, 2,000 students are enrolled in sustainability programs at ASU this fall. The School of Sustainability is committed to offering education to students in sustainability no matter what their major. This can range from a single course, such as the ever-popular Introduction to Sustainability, to concentrations, certificates, a minor, and double majors. We have also developed a very robust executive education and training program, one that links the expertise of our world class faculty to growing needs for sustainability training in the private, public, and non-profits sectors.

The reason we can reach all these audiences is because ASU is an “all-in” university when it comes to sustainability. And because ASU is a large, research-intensive organization, we can draw on the talent pool of 415 Sustainability Scientists and Scholars to tackle almost any sustainability question.

Our students benefit hugely from the sustainability expertise that has been fostered at ASU over the last dozen years. Over the next decade we will continue to engage globally by bringing students to ASU from around the world, in person and virtually through our excellent online programs. Last year we launched ASU’s first joint degree program with a foreign institution. With the MS in Global Sustainability Science students earn a degree from ASU and from Leuphana University of Luneburg, Germany. ASU and Leuphana students spend a semester abroad at each other’s university and work together on sustainability projects.

We have also created a global consortium of universities and research institutes focused on sustainability outcomes. The purpose is to work together to scale solutions to have a global impact.

All of these efforts are centered on our most important mission–educating students to develop practical solutions to the most pressing sustainability challenges. As we welcome another fabulous group of students to ASU, I share their excitement about the years ahead, what we will learn together, and how we will build a better future.

Photo from Camp SOS, Prescott AZ, Aug 2016
New School of Sustainability students at orientation camp in the cool pines of Prescott, AZ.

Convocation address: On hope and agency in sustainability (fall 2015)

boone_regaliaA typical pathway for students entering as first time freshmen in the School of Sustainability is taking the Advanced Placement test in Environmental Sciences in high school. When I ask students what draws them to sustainability rather than biology or ecology, they respond that sustainability is not about doom and gloom—rather, it offers hope and invites everyone to do something about creating a desired future for people and the planet. As young people anticipating decades of their own future lives in an era of significant social and environmental challenges, there is a strong vested interest in not accepting the status quo. They recognize the burdens they inherited from present and past generations but are motivated to make change for the better. In short, they are drawn to the principles of hope and agency embedded in sustainability.

A key difference between most environmental science programs and sustainability is a focus on interventions. Similar to public health, sustainability teaches students that integrated, systems-level interventions are appropriate for achieving desired outcomes. Implicit in the notion of interventions is that sticking with the familiar is inadequate for achieving long-term, sustainable outcomes. Despite potential dilemmas of interventions—the potential for lock-in and unintended consequences—students in the program come to recognize that thoughtful, flexible change experiments are necessary given current trajectories, whether it be climate change, biodiversity loss, energy consumption, waste production, income inequality, inadequate nutrition, and other global concerns. 

Another thing to remember is that sustainability transitions are driven by people responding to challenges and opportunities of existing social-ecological-technical systems. Conscious, deliberate design can facilitate transitions to new stable states, and transitions can be accelerated by “bending the curve” of current pathways. With the momentum of the COP21 meetings in Paris, we have an opportunity to accelerate the transition to a low carbon economy and potentially avoid catastrophic consequences projected by the business-as-usual models. 

Although action at the international level, such as the COP21 meeting, is critical, it is important to remember that individual action (agency) to mitigate the grand challenge of climate change can aggregate to have significant impacts. However, the messaging is important because individual action on something as large as climate change could seem futile. I believe we need to turn the idea on its head, and make the argument that individual action, such as reducing one’s own carbon footprint, will have far-reaching impacts, given the global circulation of carbon dioxide, and long-lasting consequences, given the long life span (from decades to hundreds of years) of new carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere. From your own little corner of the globe, your individual actions can impact someone or something thousands of miles away for generations. This ability for an individual to have a long-term global impact by decisions made today is a very powerful expression of agency, and if done well, for hope.

World Bank Group and GIOS partner on climate change workshop

Earlier this week, the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability (GIOS) offered a workshop on sustainability and climate change to more than 30 participants from the World Bank Group (including IFC). The purpose of the workshop was to learn about the latest science of climate change, how climate change may affect the operations and priorities of the World Bank, and to explore how the World Bank could contribute to climate change mitigation, adaptation, and resilience. From ASU, 7 prominent scientists presented their views and research on climate change issues.

Jim Buizer (ASU sustainability scientist and director of the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions at the U of Arizona) kicked things off with a presentation on latest findings from climate change and drew on some of his own research on climate change adaptation and resilience, including some work in the impoverished Indian state of Bihar. The next session focused on carbon budgets and pricing. ASU professor Klaus Lackner, the Director of the Center of Negative Carbon Emissions, demonstrated that carbon intensity of production would have to increase by more than 7 percent a year to remain within a target of 450 ppm for atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations—a very tall order that would likely necessitate the use of carbon capture and storage technologies. Professor Michael Hanemann outlined some of the failed attempts at carbon pricing schemes, including cap and trade, and the limitations of the integrated assessment models that couple economic with damage models. He saw a role for the World Bank to improve the integrated models and to incorporate social cost estimates of climate change. James Close, Director of Climate Change for the World Bank, announced to the group that the World Bank has arrived at a social cost figure of $30/ton of carbon.

Dan Bodansky, Foundation Professor in the ASU Law School, gave a lunchtime address on the lead up to the Conference of Parties (COP) meeting in Paris this December. His remarks included some predictions on the outcome of the meeting and some of the political obstacles to achieving binding agreements. One of the key differences from the Kyoto Protocol is the bottom-up approach of allowing countries to set their own goals for emissions, or Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. The question of equity and climate change was the focus of the next session led by Sonja Klinsky, faculty in the School of Sustainability. Dr. Klinsky pressed the important point that equity needs to be incorporated into all aspects of climate change, from examining drivers to impacts, whether discussing mitigation or adaptation. Failure to incorporate equity, she demonstrated, would increase vulnerabilities and undermine efforts to reduce climate change drivers and negative repercussions. Alan Miller, retired from IFC, concluded the day’s sessions with a discussion of climate finance, including innovative financial instruments, investment needs, and potential priority interventions to support changing demand. He also offered an excellent retrospective on IFC and WB efforts in climate finance and climate change research. The day wrapped up with a closed-door session for WB/IFC staff to assess the day’s discussions in relation to their needs and priorities and those of their clients.

The second day began with a session on the climate impacts in key sectors. ASU faculty Netra Chhetri focus on agricultural impacts with a special emphasis on adaptation in response to climate change, particularly in Nepal. GIOS Director Gary Dirks discussed the implications of climate change policy on the energy sector, threats of stranded assets, the role of renewables in climate change adaptation, and the politics of new utility models. Founding Director of GIOS and the School of Sustainability Chuck Redman focused on the risks to infrastructure from climate extremes and the need to build safe-to-fail resilient systems in anticipation of climate change, especially in critical urban environments.

The final session of the day was moderated by James Close (WB) and included Jennifer Hodbod, post-doctoral fellow at the Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiative, and Todd Brady, Global Environmental Director at Intel, as presenters and panelists. Jennifer focused on agricultural practices that can be undertaken immediately at little to no cost while Todd illustrated the power and innovation of private industry to mitigate and adapt to climate change. James led a rich discussion on how participants could incorporate what they learned during the two-day workshop into their everyday activities. Monali Ranade, Senior Environment Specialist at the World Bank, closed the session with a review of the objectives and key findings of the workshop.

From my perspective this was an excellent workshop. It was a wonderful opportunity to engage with an organization that is working on the ground on a daily basis and with significant resources to mitigate and adapt to climate change. I was very proud of the expertise ASU and GIOS faculty brought to the workshop. If the ideas generated from the workshop can be matched effectively to resources and practices, I see great potential for the World Bank and ASU to strategically align to address the grand challenges of climate change and sustainability.

A Global Education

The critical scale for sustainability is global. Solutions to grand sustainability challenges depend on our ability to think on the scale of a planetary system. This does not mean that local action is unimportant, but we need to be sensitive to the fact that local actions undertaken even with the best intentions might undermine the ability of other parts of the world to achieve their own sustainability goals, which together could slow or reverse the transition to a sustainable planet for present and future generations. Education plays an important role in improving the ability to think from local to global scales and partnerships with other universities is an important strategy to achieve that goal.

Recently, ASU signed an agreement to establish a dual master’s degree—the first of its kind at ASU with a foreign university—in “Global Sustainability Science” with Leuphana University of Luneburg, Germany. Students who are selected to participate will spend time at both universities and receive a degree from both institutions. This partnership makes sense for a lot of reasons. Similar to ASU, Leuphana is a young, innovative university that has embraced sustainability as a pan-university principle. This means that it does not tuck away sustainability as a subset of a traditional college but promotes it across the entire university as a lens for seeing, understanding, and changing the world. ASU and Leuphana have already worked together fruitfully in a “Global Classroom” that included an exchange of students taught by professors from both institutions. Using streaming video technologies and face-to-face group work, the students worked collaboratively on urban sustainability solutions. Alongside the dual degree, ASU and Leuphana are developing a research partnership that will bring together the best sustainability scholars from the United States and the European Union to work on large-scale, collaborative projects.

The partnerships do not end with Leuphana. This spring, Professor Arnim Wiek of the ASU School of Sustainability launched the International Network for Programs in Transformation Sustainability (NEPS) that includes the following institutions:

  • ASU, United States
  • Leuphana University, Germany
  • University of Maastricht, The Netherlands
  • Lund University, Sweden
  • Stellenbosch University, South Africa
  • University of Tokyo, Japan
  • Technical University of Catalonia, Barcelona, Spain
  • University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna, Austria
  • National Autonomous University of Mexico, Mexico City, Mexico

Joint learning with a focus on impactful, on-the-ground change is a key priority for this network. ASU will play a leading role in the network to ensure that our students have access to the global marketplace of ideas and actions necessary for envisioning and implementing strategies for a sustainable planet.

Global Declaration on Importance of Sustainability Education

A very important document that emerged from the latest Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was a declaration on sustainability education (see it here). The declaration recognizes that “education, including formal, non-formal and informal education, and public awareness programmes should promote the attitudes and behaviour needed to prepare our societies to adapt to the impacts of climate change.” I would like to underscore one item in this declaration, the need for “informal education.” In SOS, we have established a reputation for the best and most advanced sustainability degree programs, which are formal systems of getting an education. We are now working in partnership with GIOS and other centers and colleges at ASU to develop the best informal educational opportunities in sustainability. Informal education includes such offerings as workshops, short courses, certificates and certification, online and face-to-face training, and community presentations and speakers. We know there is a hunger for sustainability education beyond what is offered through formal university and college degrees and courses, and we are working very hard to meet that need.

SOS is also playing a leading role in developing and promoting innovative formal systems of sustainability education. Later this month, we will be offering a webinar on “Innovative Approaches to Sustainability Education at U.S. Universities.” The purpose of this webinar is to demonstrate, using case studies, how to effectively establish or accelerate the adoption of sustainability education programs in universities large and small, public or private. The webinar will also showcase the success of sustainability alumni and envision where sustainability education will be five years from now. I encourage you to attend, and look forward to answering your questions.

Register (free) for the webinar:  Innovative Approaches to Sustainability Education at U.S. Universities

Doing our part to fill the sustainability deficit

Today I read a news story that cites the looming deficit in sustainability skills. Several corporations are working to fill the deficit of employees with sustainability skills through on-the-job training. Another story that appeared this past spring shows that nearly 80% of sustainability employees are pursuing new training because the scope of sustainability in organizations is growing rapidly. In the School of Sustainability, we are working hard to fill the present and future deficit in sustainability skills. I reported earlier that our graduates are doing exceedingly well in finding employment but increasingly they are getting jobs directly related to sustainability. We continue to revise our undergraduate curriculum to make sure that our alumni are able to make a difference and fill the growing need for sustainability professionals. Last night, I had the pleasure of attending an open house for the Executive Master’s in Sustainability Leadership. Current students had a chance to talk to incoming and prospective students. Two key messages I heard were : 1. the program was personally transformative and 2. students were immediately able to use what they learned in their current positions. It was a very positive and glowing assessment of the program, one that is meeting a very clear and real need. The future looks bright for sustainability students. The future needs more sustainability students. I invite you to explore some of the ways you can achieve an education in sustainability and do your part for building a better future for you and others: https://schoolofsustainability.asu.edu/

Future Earth

I am attending a Future Earth (http://www.icsu.org/future-earth) meeting in the UNESCO offices in Paris. The purpose of the meeting is to explore how to integrate global environmental research that is presently fragmented across dozens of programs and funding agencies. As the name suggests, Future Earth has a strong sustainability focus. After a large number of consultations, a transitions team has narrowed the focus of Future Earth into supporting and promoting three broad themes:

1. Dynamic planet (science for understanding social and biophysical dynamics)

2. Global environmental change research for sustainable development (making GEC science useful and aligning with stakeholder goals)

3. Transformative research (science and stakeholder engagement to transform societies to achieve desirable goals)

I am very optimistic about the 10 year plan for Future Earth. It already had strong endorsement at Rio +20 and the leadership has taken on the tremendous burden of consulting with researchers, NGOS, corporate partners, and funding agencies to make sure that the program reaches the level of awareness necessary to make it work.

Planet Under Pressure

I am at the Planet Under Pressure conference in London. The morning began with excellent talks by Diana Liverman and Will Steffan on the social and ecological drivers and consequences of global environmental change. In an earlier address by one of the co-chairs of the conference, he remarked that we need more global change, but change that is transformative. The theme thus far is urgency of positive change if the Anthropocene will remain within the bounds of the Holocene, an era or relative stability that corresponds with the rise of agriculture, urbanization, and the modern life we enjoy. Will Steffan remarked that we are at a critical inflection point, that we need to act now to avoid tipping to a new earth state that could be be very bad for humanity.

Earth Stewardship

I just returned from the Ecological Society of America’s annual meeting in Austin, Texas. I was struck by the meeting theme, Earth Stewardship, “the scientific basis for actively shaping trajectories of social-ecological change to enhance ecosystem resilience and human well being” (Chapin et al. 2011). This could easily stand as a definition of sustainability. The difference perhaps is in emphasis, reminding us of the need to consider environment as a stakeholder in the sustainability debate. Similar to strong notions of sustainability, Earth Stewardship implores ecologists and other scientists to actively shape trajectories, not to sit idly by and watch social-ecological systems degrade or human suffering continue. Earth stewardship, like sustainability, requires intervention, bending the curves, and envisioning plausible but desirable futures defined by multiple stakeholders.

Chapin, F. Stuart, Mary E. Power, Steward T. A. Pickett, Amy Freitag, Julie A. Reynolds, Robert B. Jackson, David M. Lodge, Clifford Duke, Scott L. Collins, Alison G. Power, and Ann Bartuska. 2011. Earth Stewardship: science for action to sustain the human-earth system. Ecosphere 2:art89. [doi:10.1890/ES11-00166.1]