Penn State Zero – Background & Plans

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I met over the weekend with Jon Brockopp and Sylvia Neely. Both are affiliated with Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light, and both are involved in the recent establishment of Penn State Zero, a small committee of current and retired Penn State faculty members that planned the April 11 “Getting to Zero” mini-conference.

A group of five faculty members including Brockopp (History and Religious Studies), Neely (History, retired), Ray Najjar (Meteorology), Andy Lau (Engineering Design) and Leland Glenna (Rural Sociology)  began meeting monthly in October 2013 to discuss two key questions:

  1. “Why isn’t Penn State’s president a signatory to the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment?”
  2. “How can our small committee get more faculty and administrators interested in and educated about climate change so that they can influence the president to sign on?”

They did limited research about Penn State’s energy systems and strategic plans, and about energy systems and strategic plans at other colleges and universities.

Brockopp said that they learned – from SecondNature.org, a nonprofit organization that supports the movement – that almost 700 college and universities have signed the commitment to develop and implement carbon neutrality plans, and to monitor and publicly report on their progress toward the goal of carbon neutrality (zero carbon emissions).

Penn State’s president is not among the signatories, although Penn State Berks – under the leadership of Chancellor Susan Speece – is on the list. Of the signatories, Brockopp said, roughly half have submitted carbon neutrality plans, and of that half, roughly half have followed through by monitoring and publicly reporting their progress.

Over the winter, the faculty committee named their organization Penn State Zero and reached out to Denice Wardrop, Director of the Sustainability Institute, and Nancy Tuana, Director of the Rock Ethics Institute, seeking information about why Penn State’s president hadn’t yet signed the committment, and why climate change is not mentioned in the Penn State’s Sustainability Strategic Plan.

Brockopp reported Wardrop’s response was to challenge the organizers of Penn State Zero to “do something.”

Brockopp proposed a set of small group discussions as their first organized event. The group decided on six initial discussion topics, drawn from a 2008 National Wildlife Federation report:

  1. Physical Plant Retrofitting
  2. Investing in Existing Technologies for Alternative Energy Production
  3. Promoting Emerging Technologies for Alternative Energy & Carbon Sequestration
  4. Assessing and Changing Carbon-Intensive Practices and Cultures
  5. Market Mechanisms for Encouraging Greenhouse Gas Reductions
  6. Interfacing with Local and Regional Initiatives

Wardrop proposed adding a seventh topic:

  • Coordination, Planning, Communicating with Partners and Administration

Chris Uhl (Biology) proposed an eighth topic:

  • What does the failure to confront climate change tell us about ourselves?

Brockopp said organizers decided to limit the eight discussion groups to six to eight participants per group – for a total of roughly 64 participants – and to target primarily people currently inside the Penn State institution (faculty, administrators and students) who are not yet familiar with climate change, energy constraints and related issues but would be interested in learning more if given an opportunity to explore the issues and consider their own potential roles in the struggle.

Around spring break a few weeks ago, the Sustainability Institute and Rock Ethics Institute signed on as sponsors, with SI approving an event budget of $1,800, primarily for refreshments, last week. Organizers also connected with Erik Foley of the Sustainability Institute, and reached out to Rob Cooper (OPP Engineering Services), Paul Moser (OPP Steam Services), Shelley McKeague (OPP Environmental Compliance) and Gordon Turow (OPP Campus Planning & Design) to develop program details.

Penn State Zero’s event outreach has been limited to individuals the  organizers know directly through their personal and professional social networks, who have been invited via email in two rounds – the first sent roughly two weeks ago, and the second sent last Thursday.

For more information about Penn State Zero, contact Jon Brockopp.

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