It’s been a year since President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement, a multilateral effort to combat climate change and try to keep the global temperature rise within 2ºC above pre-industrial levels. Since then, over 2,700 leaders of local and state governments, businesses, universities and other organizations have pledged to do what they can to contribute to that crucial global goal nevertheless. George Mason University is doing its share, but we are going to need to do much more.
The politics of environmental protection are intrinsically complex because solutions almost always involve some form of individual sacrifice towards producing a benefit that accrues equally to sacrificers and free-riders alike–a decision conundrum known as the “tragedy of the commons”. Climate change may well be the greatest, most global tragedy of the commons we have faced as a species. Inaction will lead to irreparable damage for billions of us and generations to come. Solutions are possible, but they require that we change how we live and work, that we develop new sources of energy resulting in far lower greenhouse gas emissions, that we protect large sections of rainforest and ocean, and that we reconsider models of economic growth and income distribution–on a global scale.
Because we are caught in a complex web of mutually reinforcing, self-perpetuating institutional relationships that are incredibly hard to alter (what my colleague Gregory Unruh named “carbon lock-in“), any meaningful change will require the participation of multiple stakeholders, from scientists to entrepreneurs, educators, or policy makers–on a global scale. When one important stakeholder in that complex web–like the United States government in this case–refuses to do its part, the rest of players need to carry their weight and then some, or nothing will change.
Universities can be effective working laboratories of environmental sustainability practices, educators of students who understand the causes and consequences of climate change and are committed to doing their part, and researchers and innovators seeking and testing novel solutions.
Here are examples of what we’re doing at Mason:
- Our Center for Climate Change Communication is applying social science to help society make informed decisions that will stabilize the earth’s life-sustaining climate, and prevent further harm from climate change
- Our Office of Sustainability is bringing our community together to put in place sustainability practices on our campus and around us and be a real-life learning lab
- The Center for Ocean-Land-Atmosphere Studies is developing better models to predict temperature changes on land, air and sea and the interactions between them
- We’re offering a number of undergraduate and graduate programs in climate science as well as environmental science and policy to train future leaders across sectors
- We’ve established a School of Conservation in partnership with the Smithsonian and opened up a new facility on the Potomac for environmental education, research and public information
- We’re leveraging the national and international media to bring attention to the importance of conservation
- We’ve joined global efforts to exchange best practices and are doing what we can to report publicly on our actions and progress
The list is not intended to be exhaustive but illustrative of the range of activities already in place. We obviously can and should do much more. Paris Agreement or not, we are still in.