Earth Day DIFCON challenges campus community on climate action

climate action plan event.

By DAVID HILL, Published in UBNow

Release date: April 27, 2022

UB senior Netra Mittal recalls sitting in a booth inside an empty Capen Library earlier this month looking over the United Nations’ latest climate report. The report pointed to some signs of progress. But it also issued a dire warning about the dangers of global inaction toward climate change.

“It left me numb,” Mittal, who works with UB student government to advance sustainability, said Friday during a DIFCON-style discussion about coming together as a campus to achieve climate neutrality.

UB Sustainability worked with various campus partners to host the Earth Day event as part of Sustainability Month at UB. Billed as a candid conversation, the program challenged members of the campus community to think about what they might be willing to sacrifice to advance UB’s climate action plan (CAP) and its aggressive goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2030.

More than 130 representatives from academic and administrative units across campus were seated at tables on the stage in the Center for the Arts’ Mainstage Theatre.

“We’ve done this because we often talk about ‘What is the university going to do around change?’ but change really happens organically and involves each of us within each of our areas,” explained Laura Hubbard, vice president for finance and administration.

Hubbard said UB is about a third of the way toward its climate neutrality goal, and that “going from here to where we need to be is going to require even more action and some harder changes.”

That’s where the UB 10 in 10 comes in. UB’s CAP was updated in 2020 and is centered on a roadmap of 10 strategies to increase climate action and help the university reach net-zero emissions by 2030. Driving this change are 10 working groups chaired by climate “CAPtains” who work in various capacities around the university: leadership, staff, faculty, students.

Over the course of the 90-minute discussion, participants were asked questions intended to probe their willingness to make certain sacrifices to move the needle forward on climate action at the campus level.

“Today is about hearing from you all, and it is about hearing about the type of change that we are willing to make,” said Ryan McPherson, chief sustainability officer.

Many students, Mittal included, are paying careful attention to the collective actions of the UB community.

“The abject cost of inaction is grave,” said Mittal, whose remarks were tinged with emotion and immediacy.

“In all honesty, the discomfort I feel with this problem that’s very difficult to solve, the incomprehensible scale at which this is happening, and the denialism that I see in people who have the power to change, makes me afraid,” Mittal said. “But aversion from fear is a form of denial, too. UB and global scientists tell us that we have time to influence and act. The clock is ticking and with every movement it challenges us. This challenge requires a fight, and I am proud to belong to a generation that shows up with witty banners and boxing gloves.”

That generation, she said, is very much looking to the university — its faculty, staff and leaders — to step into the ring with them. The individuals who participated in the DIFCON event appeared to be up for the fight.

Several of UB’s CAPtains briefly discussed the charge of the working group they chair; then, they polled participants to gauge their support for a range of potential systems changes that would help UB achieve climate neutrality quicker.

For instance, UB controller and associate vice president Beth Corry, who chairs the “putting a price on carbon” working group, explained the concept of carbon pricing, a strategy that incentivizes actions that reduce carbon emissions. At UB, this could look like being more mindful of how much business travel an employee does and what type of travel is used, or reducing utilities usage in existing buildings.

So, DIFCON participants were asked to weigh in on their level of support for reverse budgeting for utilities, a practice where units receive an allotment of funds for things like heating and air conditioning. They pay for excess usage, and keep the funds if they don’t use the full amount. Fifty-eight percent selected “I’m interested, but the devil is in the details.”

Next up, Chris Austin and Mark Coldren, who head up Parking and Transportation, and Human Resources, respectively, polled participants on issues around greening UB employees’ commute and advancing broader behavioral changes.

Participants were split when asked for their level of support for a carbon pricing fee to cover their commute to work: The two most popular responses were “I would be supportive if the annual carbon pricing fee I would be charged did not exceed $50 annually” and “I would not be supportive as this is unfair.” However, 63% of respondents showed some level of support.

Tonga Pham, associate vice president for university facilities, who chairs the working group on heating and cooling, polled audience members on their support for switching to compostable food packaging on campus, with three-quarters in favor, despite the increased cost per meal. She also asked if faculty and staff would be willing to sort their trash and bring it to centrally located receptacles on their floor, something that students already do in the residence halls. Respondents showed overwhelming support for applying this practice campuswide, with 92% favoring.

Christina Hernandez of Student Life, who chairs the committee examining the carbon impact of UB’s food systems, asked about meat consumption and whether audience members would be supportive of implementing a carbon tax on unsustainably sourced meat, with revenue from the carbon tax funding an offset program in the region (41% were supportive).

McPherson closed out the event by asking each table to identify three tactics their unit could implement to advance climate action.

As Mittal reminded the group, “Change begins with us — those gathered here today and those who aren’t, the skeptics and believers alike, because there’s a gap to bridge between education and action. I’m here today to celebrate how far we’ve come in our mission in carbon neutrality and how far we’ve yet to go. We have it within our grasp to not only prevent the worst but also build the best possible. But we can’t do this without you.

“Thank you for being where change begins.”

global goals.

Sustainable Development Goals:

13. Climate Action 

17. Partnerships for the Goal