A Tough Road Ahead: Takeaways from Two Conferences

By: LOUIS SPANIAS, Sustainability Program Manager

Over the past several months, the Hixon Center for Sustainable Environmental Design planned and organized its 2nd Biennial Conference for Sustainable Design and Solutions. After months of preparation, we were happy to host the conference at Harvey Mudd College on Friday, October 5th, 2018 – and we are even happier to say that more than 100 people from across the Claremont Colleges and southern California registered for the event.

Immediately prior to that, I had the privilege of once again attending the national conference of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania from October 2nd to October 4th. The AASHE conference is the world’s largest gathering of sustainability professionals in higher education, which this year was themed around the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Needless to say, this week was highly immersive and intense – but after having some time to reflect, the conferences couldn’t have been timelier. The new IPCC Special Report, released on October 8th, pushed up the timeline on many of the more dire consequences of climate change – placing a far heavier emphasis on the need to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The report accompanied other dismaying climate-related news items, and before long, it occurred to me that much of the topics discussed both at AASHE 2018 and at our Sustainable Design and Solutions conference hold more weight than they may have otherwise felt like at the time.

While some of the sessions I attended at the AASHE conference in Pittsburgh focused more on hands-on initiatives, such as implementing more effective and consequential campus waste audits, others emphasized the importance and complexity of strategic sustainability planning in the college and university setting. One of the first workshops I attended, titled “Facilitating for Organizational Change,” gave its attendees the opportunity to practice establishing parameters for a Sustainability Action Plan (SAP), including designating focus areas and the stakeholders required at the Table to design and implement the plan. I recall that after three practice meetings (30 minutes each), I felt that my group and I hadn’t come all that far (though we had accomplished our assigned goals). Even in a harmless, low-stakes setting like a conference workshop, it still felt like there was so much more to do. Strategic sustainability planning, even in a room full of sustainability professionals, was challenging, messy, and time-consuming. While the goal of that workshop was to become a better meeting facilitator, I learned as well just how challenging the strategic planning process can be.

This point hit home even harder during a panel, titled “Got Plans? Perspectives on Developing and Implementing Campus Sustainability Plans.” The panel featured four sustainability professionals, including myself, who sat at very different stages of the planning process. I offered the perspective of just getting started or laying foundations, and emphasized the need for collecting data, creating allies, and developing a narrative around your institution’s sustainability efforts and why it’s so important to compile all of that into a SAP. A panelist from East Carolina University shared how ECU just formulated their SAP and how it had occurred to him how urgent and challenging it would be to now implement that plan. As if getting people together to create the plan wasn’t hard enough, now they must see that plan through. The other two panelists, from Emory University and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, discussed how well the implementation of their action plans was coming along – and emphasized how crucial it was to be adaptable to changing circumstances, personnel, and institutional goals.

This point of adaptability carried through to the SDS conference at Mudd this past Friday. I was fortunate to moderate a Sustainable Transportation and Infrastructure Panel that day. The panel featured Sabrina Bornstein (Deputy Chief Resilience Officer, City of Los Angeles), Professor Julie Medero (Computer Science, HMC), and Professor Paul Steinberg (Political Science and Environmental Policy, HMC). Our conversation cut across a number of areas, including the importance of personal behavioral changes and how we move around our cities, but what stuck with me were Bornstein’s comments on making our cities resilient and adaptable in the face of a changing climate. The city of Los Angeles is not only dealing with chronic stressors such as warming temperatures and an ongoing state-wide drought, but it also does and will deal with acute shocks like earthquakes and wildfires. This not only means more diligent infrastructural planning to deal with these shocks and stressors, but it also means understanding and supporting communities who are less equipped to deal with them and/or stand to suffer the most from them. Resilience planning means being prepared when things change suddenly, but also preparing for a world that may be much different from the world we live in today.

Altogether it has felt like another resurgent wake-up call that there is a tough road ahead when it comes to dealing with the consequences of climate change. We must make very serious changes to our way of life on personal and institutional levels as it is right now, but we also must be prepared to roll with the punches going forward. This means bringing people together, whether it be on a college campus or in a city-wide community or elsewhere, to have complicated but candid conversations about what needs to be done and how to plan for what we can and cannot predict.

That’s not to say this all has left me feeling too heavy or exasperated (though there has been a bit of that if I am to be honest). Conferences are also always about what people do well. The SDS conference was a much-needed reminder of what students, faculty, and staff at Mudd, as well as at other institutions, are doing to create sustainable solutions. The collection of presentations and workshops showed us the wide array of tools and strategies people are implementing every day to solve challenging problems – from facilitating partnerships between NGOs and corporations, to building more efficient and sustainable campus residence halls, to using drones to map out large areas. All in all, these two conferences were not just a dose of realism and urgency, but also a much-needed dose of optimism.