Last month, young people took to the streets in over 150 countries pleading for “adults” to do something in light of the United Nations emergency climate summit. The global day of protests called on governments to act, and act now, to advance renewable energy and end our reliance on fossil fuels. 

The recent International Panel on Climate Change warned that we have only 10 years to take action to turn the tide on global warming before catastrophic disruption results in exacerbating poverty, spreading illness, increasing social unrest, and causing loss of lives and biodiversity.

For more than 50 years, researchers in universities around the world have been studying climate change and solutions, and environmentalists have been taking action since the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. For more than a decade, higher education has built on our missions of education, research and service and committed to taking action as institutions to become carbon neutral and advance sustainability across the curriculum, in operations, and in the communities in which colleges and universities reside. 

The Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) was launched in 2005 with the mission of inspiring and catalyzing higher education to lead the global sustainability transformation and to lead these institutions to be a “foundation for a thriving, equitable and ecologically healthy world.” 

Today, over 900 higher education institutions, businesses and nonprofits are part of AASHE. In late 2006, the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment was initiated by the presidents of 12 institutions, and they were followed by 336 charter signatory institutions. The University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) was among the signatories committing to tracking and publicly reporting greenhouse gas emissions and to the development of a Climate Action Plan. 

UIC is one of a network of over 30 higher education institutions in the Chicagoland area who continuously work to advance our commitments and plans. We have committed to become a Carbon Neutral university by 2050, along with achieving our Zero Waste, Net Zero Water, and Biodiverse university goals. As Chicago’s only public research university with more than 33,000 students, part of our mission is to prepare students to solve critical problems in the city of Chicago and beyond. Community engagement, climate action, and sustainability are integral to our plans. As such, UIC has committed not only to the Retrofit Chicago Energy Challenge to make our buildings more energy efficient, we have also signed onto the Chicago Renewable Energy Challenge to accelerate the adoption of renewable energy across the city. 

Higher education also dedicates research to finding carbon neutral solutions. For example, UIC’s engineers were the first to show that lithium-carbon dioxide batteries can be designed to operate in a fully rechargeable manner, with the carbon and lithium carbonate produced being recycled back into the process. Humanities professors examine the concept of environmental rights. Public health faculty work to build the capacity of Illinois’ public health system to minimize the public health impact from climate change. A minor in sustainable cities educates our students on the effects of climate change in our cities. 

As our students take to the streets, their advocacy complements UIC’s mission to educate, pilot, model, and lead efforts to find solutions to climate change.

Cynthia Klein-Banai, PhD, an Oak Park resident, is associate chancellor for Sustainability, adjunct assistant professor of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences, and secretary of the AASHE Board of Directors.

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