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Montana State University faculty and students push for stronger climate action

MSU wild

Montana Hall is pictured on the Montana State University campus on Thursday, June 10, 2021.

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A decade has passed since Montana State University addressed its plan to combat climate change, despite a plan to review and update progress regularly. And while sustainability work has continued on campus, many are saying now’s the time to establish a new plan setting clear and ambitious goals.

Administration officials and sustainability staff said MSU has made concerted efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create a more sustainable campus through energy efficient buildings, geothermal wells and campus-wide programs like composting and recycling.

But some faculty and students say it is critical to push for more aggressive changes to combat climate change and ensure the university is a statewide leader in sustainability and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

MSU’s Climate Action Plan was adopted in 2011 after over two years of development. Although the plan outlined the need for regular progress updates on climate action and sustainability goals on campus, faculty say those reports never came.

“I think it’s unfortunate that we had a mandate through the 2011 plan to update the plan and we’ve had no update,” said Paul Lachappelle, a political science professor. “The message that sends to our students and citizens is that the climate crisis is not being taken as seriously as it should be.”

A recent report from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change said nations must create stronger, more ambitious goals to reduce carbon emission if they are to limit global temperature rise. Executive Secretary of UN Climate Change Patricia Espinosa said the task is “crucial now.”

The university is in the process of drafting a sustainability plan following the adoption of the 2019 campus-wide strategic plan that included sustainability as a goal.

The Campus Sustainability Advisory Council is meeting throughout the summer to get input from campus representatives like the facilities department, with the plan to present it to faculty and student government leadership by the fall, said Kristin Blackler, director of the Office of Sustainability.

The draft plan was scheduled to be published for feedback in the fall of 2020 before the university paused the effort due to the pandemic, Blackler said.

Blackler said she views a sustainability plan as a more holistic approach whereas a climate action plan is a targeted look at how the university can reduce emissions, a subset of any sustainability model.

While a draft of a sustainability plan is in the works, Blackler said it would be up to the committee to determine when and how to develop a climate action plan.

Campus sustainability work

Although the university hasn’t updated its climate action plan, it has made progress on metrics it outlined in 2011.

In 2019, the university compiled its first STARS report, a self-reported framework used by a lot of higher education institutions to measure sustainability at an individual level — like measuring emissions from official university cars — to a larger level — like the emissions of students studying abroad.

MSU scored a silver in its report and the university is collecting new data to submit before the end of the calendar year.

One of the goals outlined in the 2011 plan was to increase the waste diverted from the landfill to 25% by 2020. By 2019, the university diverted 32% of its waste away from landfills, thanks in part to a campus-wide composting and recycling program.

Another goal was to achieve a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the 2009 levels by 2025. The last greenhouse gas inventory was conducted in 2016 and saw a 17% decrease, despite campus growth, Blackler said.

MSU wild

A screen tracks the day's energy consumption of the Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering from inside the building on Thursday, June 10, 2021.

More recent greenhouse gas emissions data is awaiting third-party verification and isn’t yet publicly available, Blackler said.

Blackler said the university was on track to meet the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions despite campus-wide expansion, thanks in part to the state-of-the-art buildings and geothermal wells.

“We did see a reduction in the overall emissions, despite growth in people on campus and square footage. That starts to tell a story of better use,” she said. “The new buildings we design are energy efficient and we’re constantly learning.”

The first geothermal wells were constructed at Jabs Hall in 2014, with three others either completed or still under construction. The university estimates the wells at Jabs, which store heat underground until its needed at a later date, save more than $100,000 each year in energy costs.

Blackler, who has worked at MSU for eight years, said one of the next sustainability projects is to look at how to retrofit older buildings to be more energy efficient.

More to be done

While applauding the university’s efforts to build sustainable buildings and create campus-wide systems to reduce waste, many students, faculty and staff are calling for larger actions to combat climate change, like setting an aggressive carbon-neutrality goal.

Norris Blossom, president of the Associated Students of Montana State University, said the student body is largely in favor of the university taking big steps toward sustainability and being a leader in climate action in the state.

In the spring semester, the student government passed a resolution in support of a climate action plan. The resolution says in addition to its high-rated energy efficient buildings, renewable energy development, waste diversion efforts and water conservation, MSU should have a strategic plan to mitigate its environmental footprint.

“Students want some type of climate action plan and will work to make it happen,” Blossom said.

ASMSU and the student body are “really cognizant of the timeline we’re on with” addressing the climate crisis and want to find realistic solutions that can be implemented quickly, Blossom said.

“I think as a land grant university, we really need to make sure we’re persevering what we have for the next generation,” he said.

Some faculty members are also pushing for very proactive emissions reduction strategies to be included in the sustainability plan under development.

While the university has intermittently been capturing data, it’s hard to really know where it stands with carbon emissions in relation to the plan created over 10 years ago, Lachapelle said.

“What I and other faculty members would like is to not have some kind of down the road carbon neutrality goal of 2050 but very specific climate goals,” Lachapelle said.

Lachapelle pointed to Utah State University, which set an annual carbon emissions reduction goal of at least 10%.

“As a land grant university, we need to be public in our discussion and intentions in the climate crisis, and that means very bold annual reductions to show the state how it’s possible and how innovative the university can be,” Lachapelle said.

Push for divestment

Alongside the development of a new sustainability plan is a renewed student-led push for the university to divest its endowment from fossil fuels and public prisons into environmental, social and governance funds.

ESGs are equities and bonds that meet certain standards for sustainable companies.

The Alumni Foundation, a legally separate organization from MSU, manages the $225 million endowment for the university.

Chris Murray, president of the Alumni Foundation, said in an emailed response that an investment committee and an outside consultant, Wilshire, manage the endowment.

In its eight-page investment policy, the Foundation says it will “take into consideration ESG factors when evaluating new investment mangers.”

Murray said the Alumni Foundation also created an ex-officio position for the ASMSU president on its board of governors and placed the dean of the Jake Jabs College of Business on its investment committee.

“These kinds of connections are not common among our peers, but they are consistent with our values,” Murray said.

Emma Bode was an MSU student from 2013-2018 and is a founding member of the student organization Sustainability Now. Bode is also the Bozeman field manager with Forward Montana, but spoke to the Chronicle in her capacity as a former MSU student.

A big focus for the student group was a campaign to get the Alumni Foundation to reinvest the endowment away from fossil fuels, private prisons and harmful corporations into more sustainable sustainable and equitable companies, according to Bode.

As a private institution, the Alumni Foundation doesn’t have to release information on its finances, like MSU. Students involved in previous and ongoing divestment work said it’s hard to get a clear idea of where the foundation has invested its endowment

“That legal structure allows them to make you play cat and mouse figuring out who the real person in charge is and what levers to pull,” Bode said. “… We needed more than just student support. We needed faculty and staff to advocate for those things and a lot of faculty were afraid to be really outspoken about it, afraid it would impact their careers at the university.”

In 2016, the student government passed a resolution in support of sustainable investment. On the 125th anniversary of MSU in 2018, Sustainability Now and other campus organizations held a rally to advocate for divestment from fossil fuels.

“It felt like all of our efforts were not being heard,” Bode said. “I graduated around then and a few other students maintained that effort, but it kind of slumped, as it will.”

Atticus Cummings, a rising junior at Montana State University, is part of a renewed effort to work with the Alumni Foundation on reinvesting in more sustainable ways.

Cummings said divesting money from fossil fuels and private prisons is one of the biggest impacts a student group can have on the university’s sustainability efforts.

The group of students helping to lead the effort, known as the Campus Climate Coalition, is a cross-section of university life, with freshman, Ph.D. students represented. The group is working to have every university department represented, Cummings said.

In the past year, the students have presented in different classes. They also have a scheduled meeting with Murray and the Alumni Foundation later this month.

“Realistically, we’re not going to solve divestment in a summer,” Cummings said. “Our goal is to continue pushing to divest and to continue recruiting other students.”

He added it’s hard to know when reinvestment might happen and it’s possible the group could see change in the next few months.

Cummings said environmentally and socially sustainable mutual funds perform at the same level, or even better, than those that focus on fossil fuels. He said that was especially true this past year when fewer people were driving during the pandemic.

“It’s pretty logical to make that transition,” he said. “… Ultimately, they’re running a business here and hopefully they will do what is most beneficial to their business.”

Divestment should be done cooperatively with all parties concerned, Cummings said.

It was important to ensure that when the university transitioned away from fossil fuels, that it was a “just transition” and nobody was adversely affected either through a loss of salary, scholarships or jobs, Cummings said.

As a land grant university, MSU has an added responsibility to steward the land and be at the forefront of reaching carbon neutrality and investing in renewable energy, many of the students and faculty said.

The goal of a land grant university is to serve the whole state of Montana and to teach young adults who come to learn, which includes teaching them how to be leaders in climate action, Cummings said.

Land-grant institutions received land from the federal Morril Acts of the 1800s, establishing colleges and universities focused on the agricultural and mechanical arts. Many people also point out that land to do that was stolen from Indigenous people.

“I think the land itself and the benefit (MSU) receive from that was directly taken from Indigenous people who lived in Montana and in the Bozeman area,” Bode said.

University faculty and staff who spoke to the Chronicle said they were proud of the work and leadership students have shown to push for more climate action and sustainability on campus.

“Students are often told to ‘wait’ and ‘it’s not time yet’ and ‘they’re impatient and don’t know enough.’ But it really feels like we’re the ones that have the urgency needed to meet the crisis,” Bode said.

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