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Boise State’s efforts to mitigate climate change in a growing global crisis

Illustration by Wyatt Wurtenberger

Boise State’s campus sustainability department can be found in a dimly lit double-wide trailer on Euclid Avenue. It is tucked away from the campus’s main thoroughfares, behind tall, freshly minted brick and glass buildings like the Norco and Alumni and Friends buildings. 

The thin walls around sustainability coordinator Kat Davis’ office do little to buffer the noise of construction machinery outside. Yet as the global climate crisis gains more attention, Boise State is positioning itself to respond by collaborating across campus and professions to face an increasingly unsteady future.

“I believe to make infrastructure change we first must make culture change to ensure that the changes we make at the programmatic and infrastructure level truly serve the needs of the community,” Davis wrote in an email.

Despite its lack of glamour or the omnipresent neon blue and orange found almost everywhere else on campus, the department’s initiatives are just one part of the university’s efforts towards an environmentally responsible campus.

The climate crisis that has escalated in the last 50 years is causing Broncos, from administrators to first-year students, to reconsider their consumption and collaborate to educate the Boise State community on sustainable practices. The greater charge, however, is to contribute research that will help communities around Idaho – and the world – survive.

Sustainable practices for a changing world

Increasing environmental concern at Boise State reflects the global climate advocacy that youth around the world are engaging in. Greta Thunberg is just one of many teenage climate activists pushing governments and corporations to counteract climate change.

Morgan Brummund is a senior environmental studies major with minors in sustainability and climate studies, and also chairs the sustainability and government relations committees for ASBSU. For younger generations worldwide, Brummund said, the challenges posed by climate change are daunting and personal.

“When it comes to thinking about climate change, people our age are really going to be the ones on the forefront, fighting and dealing with climate change,” Brummund said. “And so I think that’s why, in general, it is so important to young people.”

Youth climate advocacy has swayed major groups in Idaho. Idaho Power Company has committed to sourcing 100% of their energy from renewable sources by 2045, and the City of Boise approved a plan to reach 100% clean electricity by 2035 as part of an initiative called Boise’s Energy Future. Last semester, ASBSU passed a resolution acknowledging the initiative to show student support.

Randi McDermott, vice president for campus operations, said that even in a state like Idaho – where Gov. Brad Little recognizing climate change made headlines – prioritizing sustainability is not likely to draw much critical feedback.

“Conservation is really a big deal to just about everybody regardless of political party affiliation because we’re such a natural resource state,” McDermott said. “From an operational standpoint, it’s often less expensive to operate in a sustainable environment and if we have to fall back on that, we can fall back on that.”

The university is moving towards more renewable energy sources; but many students and visitors are conscious of their personal impacts, which has led the sustainability office to educate people about recycling for years. Now, the department is moving to remove plastic recycling from campus altogether because of high levels of contamination in recycling containers.

As the director of environmental health, safety and sustainability, Suzy Arnette works to promote environmentally responsible practices at Boise State. Arnette said that, over the years, there have been obstacles to promoting sustainability on campus, like staffing levels, student interests and communication challenges.

“We also weren’t good at telling our story, and we’re getting better at that,” Arnette said.

Dr. John Gardner is a professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering and director of the Energy Efficiency Research Institute branch of Idaho’s Center for Advanced Energy Studies. Gardner said that one of the most integral groups for Boise State’s sustainability is the Facilities, Operations and Maintenance crews, which includes waste processing. 

Additionally, data shows that Boise State’s greenhouse gas emissions have actually decreased in the past decade, partially because of Boise’s geothermal energy supply and hydroelectric dams in the Pacific Northwest that provide relatively low-carbon electricity, but also because of efforts by people on Boise State’s grounds.

“The facilities folks have been pursuing energy efficiency improvements across campus, and you don’t see those,” Gardner said. “Those tend to be behind the scenes.”

Institutional collaboration and planning

In a letter released on Feb. 26, Boise State president Dr. Marlene Tromp detailed plans for a Sustainability Governance Council, one of the university’s first major efforts to consolidate faculty, staff and student decision-making into one group. The council will include three separate subcommittees: academics and research, engagement and planning and operations.

“The time is right to create a structure to ensure the university is establishing goals, tracking progress and maintaining operations, infrastructure and education in a manner that is both environmentally and socially responsible, as well as economically feasible,” Tromp wrote.

The council will report their data to The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), which uses an assessment and rating system to evaluate higher education institutions on five different sets of criteria: innovation and leadership, planning and administration, academics, engagement and operations.

Brummund agreed that the new Sustainability Governance Council offers an opportunity to maximize efforts on campus and using the data derived from the AASHE system will allow the council to make informed decisions for the campus moving forward.

“I think it was just clear to President Tromp and to other university decision-makers that students really are advocating for some sort of unified plan for the university,” Brummund said.

The Sustainability Governance Council is one of the biggest announcements the university has made regarding the prioritization of sustainability on campus.

However, Gardner said that while the council offers new structure and publicity, the university has been working towards objectives included in the AASHE system for years. 

“We’ve had a core, mostly of staff, really dedicated to this. There have been times when it’s risen to the presidential level and it’s doing that again, and that’s great,” Gardner said. “But I don’t think it’s a huge shift.”

Though Boise State is now using a structured program to evaluate its environmental impacts, there has always been collaboration on campus to promote sustainable practices. One of the most important foundations of that work comes from education.

Reaching into the classroom: research and academia

Bringing sustainable practices and climate change into the light requires classroom education about environmental systems, as well as teaching people how to reduce their waste. As students become more and more conscious of their environmental footprints, the demand for education increases.

In Dec. 2019, The Arbiter reported on Boise State’s climate studies minor, which began in 2017. This semester, Brummund and one other student will be the first graduates of the program.

After growing up in a small town near Sacramento, California, Brummund moved to Boise State, where she said that the political climate around environmental issues was very different from her home state. She also took the University Foundations course on climate change her first year, and that inspired her to pursue environmental studies.

“My driving force is that sometimes [in]Idaho we could be doing more – we have the opportunity to be doing more,” Brummund said. “At Boise State specifically, we have an opportunity to lead in higher ed when it comes to sustainability initiatives.”

Dr. Jenn Pierce, an associate professor of geosciences is one of the professors who started the climate studies minor. She researches wildfires, one of Idaho’s biggest climate threats, and is one of at least 40 faculty members doing environmental research at Boise State.

Students coming from California, Oregon, Washington and other states almost always have a higher climate literacy than students coming from public Idaho schools, including their understanding of pollution, the greenhouse gas effect and human environmental impacts, Pierce said, which can create an obstacle for professors.

Because Pierce and other faculty want to continue to grow their departments, she said while faculty and staff are leading research projects, it is crucial for students to be involved and provide feedback.

“Boise State students are inheriting a lot of problems from my generation and the generation before me,” Pierce said. “So we want to know what classes you want taught, and learn what you care about.”

Pierce said that it is important to approach climate change holistically, including the lenses of studies like literature and philosophy into environmental science in order to provide solutions that will actually work. 

For Davis, that means educating on environmental inequalities that make particular communities more susceptible to the effects of climate change.

“I personally believe that in order for ‘sustainability’ work to be truly sustainable, it must be designed within a system and framework that centers interdisciplinarity, diversity, inclusion, and equity at its core,” Davis wrote in an email. “We are working to create a future that is sustainable for all, not just sustainable for some.”

While students are driving Boise State into a more environmentally responsible future with a growing body of research, education about sustainable practices and the new Sustainability Governance Council, everyone involved in these changes remains very aware of their motivation.

“I think we have a long way to go,” Pierce said. “There are a lot of people working on this at Boise State and there is change happening, but we have a long way to go.”

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