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Colleges can lead efforts on climate change

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​Communities and institutions around the country are building resiliency to address the economic impacts of climate change through such actions as creating local food systems, developing green infrastructure, improving community health networks and building career pathways.

Community colleges can and should be a key players in these efforts, says a new report from the American Association of Community CollegesSEED (Sustainability Education and Economic Development) Center, with assistance from COWS (Center on Wisconsin Strategy), based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Community colleges are ideally situated to be community leaders in building resiliency because they can disseminate reliable information on the social and economic impacts of climate change, help communities prioritize their needs in the context of resiliency, and provide critical material support in times of crisis,” according to A Guide to Climate Resiliency and the Community College.

Vision and innovation needed

Resiliency is not just about disaster preparedness and recovery; it’s about vision, leadership and employment, the SEED Center contends. Some community colleges are already involved in efforts to build resiliency in their communities, but more needs to be done.

The report lays out a guide for two-year colleges, focusing on their roles in building resiliency through  job training and economic development. Resiliency will require technical experts in healthcare, construction, urban planning, civil engineering, landscape designer, farming and food systems – occupations for which training is provided at community colleges.

Using sustainability efforts on campus as learning labs

But two-year institutions can do more than train workers for jobs; colleges need to become community leaders and campus innovators, the SEED report urges.

“College presidents, administrators, and faculty need to assess the relevance of coursework and campus initiatives, and, more importantly, step into their role as community leaders on climate resilience,” it says. “It is less a matter of teaching engineers to build green vs. grey infrastructure than of adjusting the entire way that the nation’s problem-solvers are taught to think. It is about creating the educational environment that fosters expansive and imaginative new approaches to solving the infrastructure challenges of tightly interconnected systems.”

College efforts under way

The report highlights examples of community colleges that are working on building resiliency:

  • Los Angeles Trade Technical College has developed a climate action plan, committed itself to becoming climate neutral by 2050, signed on to the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment, and built competency-based on-ramps to certificates and careers in clean energy.
  • Gateway Technical College in Wisconsin serves as the anchor for the area’s broadband network, allowing interoperability for police, fire departments and schools. The college is prepared to serve as a center for community support in times of crisis and has developed crisis intervention teams networked with social services.
  • Edmonds Community College in Washington offers a variety of sophisticated energy management pathways in partnership with universities and industry and with funding from the U.S. Department of Labor and the National Science Foundation. The college offers certificates in energy efficiency, commercial lighting, residential auditing and related areas.
  • Hillsborough Community College in Florida is engaging the community in developing a robust, cross-program hazard response curriculum. College leaders began thinking about disaster preparedness and hazardous materials training after the huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. This training was incorporated into all programs for emergency response professionals in law enforcement, firefighters, first responders and healthcare workers.
  • The Peralta Community College District in California has a lead role in bringing together local government, public sector unions and environmental advocates to develop more resilient systems for urban stormwater, wastewater and drinking water management.
  • Merritt College, in the Peralta system, played a critical role in the San Leandro Creek Greenway Project, which calls for restoring an urban waterway through community engagement and using urban forestry to improve the environment.
  • North Seattle College has taken the lead in developing a certificate program on sustainable health-care practices, which has since been replicated in other colleges. Students analyze current practices in their hospitals to identify areas of inefficiency, waste or potential exposure to hazardous materials.

Action plan

The SEED report recommends a number of actions community colleges can take to lead the effort in building resilient communities:

  • Integrate resilient systems-thinking into every program of study and develop curricula responsive to the particular skill implications of local climate adaptation and mitigation initiatives.
  • Update existing coursework in emergency response, public service, urban planning, engineering, information technology, landscape, water, construction, environment, health and transportation programs – and seek interdisciplinary opportunities among those areas.
  • Work with local industry partnerships, high schools, workforce intermediaries, unions and community groups to align education with demand for climate resiliency-related jobs.
  • Make sure all community stakeholders understand that postsecondary success leads to economic opportunity and thus is a crucial element in the architecture of community resilience.
  • Transform the campus into a living laboratory of resilience by modeling renewable energy systems and stormwater management, for example.
  • Align college adaptation and hazard mitigation planning with local and regional efforts.
  • Establish the campus as a safe haven and stable, reliable operations center for times of crisis.
  • Insert resiliency conversations into campus planning on green initiatives and institutional strategic planning.
  • Provide educational resources on climate change and adaptation to the community at large.
  • Incorporate city governments, transit authorities and regional planning bodies, as well as employers, into workforce development programs.
  • Convene scientists, industry, community leaders and policymakers for efforts to shape climate action plans and determine workforce implications.

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