To Overcome Barriers to Climate Action, Build a Case for Sustainability

To advance sustainability in higher education, sustainability officers face challenges typical to implementing any program on campus, including limited time and resources, competing priorities, and attaining buy-in from a vast collection of stakeholders.

However, they also face a challenge that is distinctive to climate action. While building a coalition, sustainability officers may encounter indifferent or dismissive attitudes regarding climate science and the need for environmental protection. How, then, can campus sustainability advocates continue to move forward?

Making the business case for sustainability may hold a key to bridging these differing attitudes. A recent report from Sightlines examines how campus sustainability can identify solutions to pressing financial and enrollment challenges facing higher education today. A careful framing of sustainability goals in the context of other, non-environmental concerns can overcome some common hurdles to inspiring campus climate action.

Understanding the Barriers

According to research from Yale University, viewpoints among the American public on climate change are clustered in six positions. This framework is useful for understanding the audiences that campus sustainability officers must engage.

  • Alarmed: Highly concerned about climate change and motivated to take personal and political action
  • Concerned: Supportive of a national response, but not as motivated to take individual action
  • Cautious: Aware of the issue, but no sense of urgency
  • Disengaged: Not actively thinking about the issue
  • Doubtful: Uncertain whether climate change is happening or poses a threat
  • Dismissive: Certain that climate change is not happening and opposed to a national response

Of the “Six Americas” identified, the Alarmed and Concerned would likely support campus sustainability initiatives. However, on a campus representative of the American public, the remaining four viewpoints would constitute nearly 50% of stakeholders. Bringing these groups into the fold poses a significant challenge for sustainability officers.

It is not always effective to simply educate these groups on climate science. Reaching them starts with understanding what drives Cautious, Disengaged, Doubtful, and Dismissive attitudes. Research by Per Espen Stoknes identifies five barriers to caring about climate action:

  1. Distance: Impacts of climate change are perceived as far away, not here or now
  2. Doom: Climate change is often presented as a catastrophe, sparking negative emotions that discourage engagement
  3. Dissonance: Desire to stop climate change conflicts with desire to avoid extreme lifestyle changes
  4. Denial: Climate change denial is self-defense in response to perceived moral judgment
  5. Identity: Information that conforms to existing values is accepted, while other information is filtered away

To appeal to the widest possible audience, campus sustainability officers must avoid these stumbling blocks. A successful case for sustainability is locally-relevant, hopeful, pragmatic, non-judgmental, and apolitical.

Overcoming the Barriers

Making the business case for campus sustainability is one strategy for overcoming the barriers above.

Rather than framing sustainability as a primarily environmental matter to resistant stakeholders, sustainability advocates can emphasize how their programs address pragmatic and locally relevant issues such as campus financial strain.

Campuses sometimes see substantial financial benefits from sustainability programs that reduce resource consumption. On average, expenses related to utilities—fossil fuel, electricity, and water/sewer—constitute 31% of the total cost of running campus facilities. Returns from revolving green funds and clean energy projects that reduce utilities spending can be three to six times higher than returns from traditional endowment investments.

Energy and water are not the only campus resources that should be sustainably managed; the actual space on campus holds vast potential for increased efficiency as well. Currently, higher education achieves only 50-60% average classroom space utilization. Optimizing use of space not only avoids carbon emissions associated with constructing and operating a new building, but also avoids cost from consuming more energy, labor, and supplies.

In addition to a problem-solving framing, a business case for sustainability can also take a hopeful perspective. This helps stakeholders focus on how sustainability could lead to a brighter future for campus. For example, at the many institutions nationwide that face declining enrollment, a strong sustainability program has the potential to attract more prospective students. A study by the Princeton Review finds that 21% of students surveyed considered campus commitment to environmental issues “Strongly” or “Very Much” when choosing a school, and as many as 91% of students weighed this factor at least a bit.

This approach is not only hopeful, but also non-judgmental and apolitical; encouraging decision-makers to tap into a constituency of students who care about the environment does not necessarily require them to change their own values. This increases the likelihood that resistant stakeholders will digest and consider the information, rather than filtering it away.

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