The world watched in horror as wildfires raged through Australia and the American West Coast, then in shock as hurricane after hurricane battered the U.S. Gulf Coast, with so many named storms the Greek alphabet was used for just the second time in history. Polar bears wandering into remote Russian villages in search of food highlighted a grim new chapter in the fight against climate change, and what is yet to come.
We all know the problem; we have for decades. Now isn’t the time for questions, it’s the time for solutions. The University at Buffalo’s Department of Environment and Sustainability was created to do just that, and together with other disciplines, they’re leading the charge for a more sustainable and safer planet.
Climate change is no longer just a theoretical discussion. We’re far beyond that. If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that time is of the essence, and to combat real-life problems we need real-life solutions.
As College of Arts and Sciences Dean Robin G. Schulze observes, the university’s traditional approach to solving problems has been to think and operate by discipline, rather than by letting the problem determine which disciplines need to be at the table to solve them. Recognizing the pitfalls in this approach, she championed problem-based education. Under her leadership, a new kind of faculty, called “innovation professors,” are actively focused on creating experiential learning opportunities, allowing students to participate in a new world of applied learning where they can translate classroom knowledge into practical experience. As she observes, “This is a response to where students are in the 21st century. They look at education as a means to an end. They look at education as an idea of, ‘How am I going to apply this to solve problems?’.”
By wedding problem-based education with skills and subject-matter expertise across departments, students can solve problems in real-time. They don’t need to wait until graduation, nor do they want to.
Climate change isn’t due to a single cause. As such, the Department of Environment and Sustainability was specifically created to gather critical expertise from multiple disciplines to address it as a wide-ranging issue that we need to solve together.
With a conglomeration of more than 100 faculty involved in various research areas focused on creating a sustainable future, UB is looking not only at how to solve the problem, but also why some people aren’t, and haven’t, taken it seriously to begin with. Together, our multidisciplinary approach helps us understand the problem from a variety of perspectives, creating even more opportunities to affect change—from environmental issues to social issues tied to the environment—starting with our very own campuses.
When Ryan McPherson was appointed UB’s chief sustainability officer in 2011, he was tasked with coordinating a university-wide effort to promote sustainability throughout the university, incorporating sustainable initiatives into the heart of our operations. This came at a critical juncture as we sought to reduce our own environmental footprint in accordance with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, culminating in the UB Climate Action Plan launched in April 2020.
In blending sustainability with UB’s core operations, McPherson transitioned the operational ecosystem into a pedagogical tool that today reinforces not only the university’s values, but also its commitment to leading by example for its students. As he recalls, “Our academic research and our teaching are first and foremost, but our students are really looking for us to ground that in purpose and meaning, and that’s what we try to do with our sustainability initiatives at the university.”
In July 2020, the New York Times observed “The Great Climate Migration Has Begun.” As conditions deteriorate and people flee worsening earthquakes, wildfires, hurricanes and drought, climate “safe zones,” which include Buffalo, will inevitably become magnets for migration. With two freshwater lakes and relative safety from extreme weather, our city is in a unique position to serve as a model for other safe zones. Therefore, determining how to successfully sustain ourselves isn’t just a matter of environmental policy—it’s a public responsibility.
“Our publics are part of why we’re here,” says Schulze. “We’re a state institution, we must serve our public—that is what we do.”
The only way we’re going to create a sustainable future is if we do it together. Big problems need big ideas. Take that bold next step. Join us and fuel a brighter future for all.
Your investment in UB will make a difference for a cause that matters to you: whether you make a gift to the UB Fund, support a scholarship for one UB student, sustain the work of a professor who will inspire thousands, or fund a cancer cure that saves the lives of millions. Every gift counts!