Second Nature: Higher Education Institutions’ Potential to Support Local Resilience

At the Center for Food Innovation at Oberlin, we and our stakeholders gain tremendous benefit collaborating with our region’s diverse private and public institutions. With a content team made up of Lorain County Community College and Oberlin College grads, along with a network of partners at the Ohio State University Extension program, we’ve seen first-hand how these institutions’ sustainability curricula, resource programs, infrastructural commitments, and more impact their greater regions. As we work towards our goal of establishing an advanced regional agricultural cluster in Northeast Ohio, these schools help us achieve our mission of network building and support for innovation.

America’s higher education institutions hold a unique role in addressing the climate crisis. On one hand, as key centers for research, innovation, and communication, these institutions harness immense potential to develop and promote sustainable solutions to environmental issues. On the other hand, they possess just as much potential to heavily contribute to carbon emissions, waste, and other forms of environmental degradation. Second Nature, an NGO committed to accelerating climate action in, and through, higher education, digs into academia’s one-of-a-kind placement in our societal fabric to help these institutions develop sustainability-focused strategies for campus operations that emphasize community development, ecosystem restoration, and local climate resilience.

Alexander Maxwell, a former Second Nature Climate Programs Senior Manager, previously emphasized that each higher education institution has a significant role to play in the health and development of their larger community. Second Nature has developed a variety of initiatives catered towards institutions’ different abilities to follow through on realistic climate action plans. The Presidents’ Climate Leadership Commitment is one opportunity for schools to determine their own unique goals and actions using an implementation handbook which serves as a framework to propel campus sustainability efforts. They also provide a Reporting Platform which tracks institutions’ first, second and third scope emissions to hold signatories accountable to their commitments. Further, Second Nature’s University Climate Change Coalition (UC3) is a subset of large research institutions who aim to partner with local businesses, foundations, governments, and organizations to promote cross-sector climate resilience. UC3 members come from different universities and work together to implement innovative strategies and further their own ambitious campus climate goals.

Second Nature hosted the 2020 Higher Education Climate Leadership Summit, which is their annual summit for higher education leaders committed to sharing innovative sustainability solutions.  Photo Credit: Second Nature

One of Second Nature’s particularly innovative and relatively new programs is the Acceleration Fund. The project sets aside small grants for a handful of colleges and universities within the Second Nature network, to jump start cross-sector and cross-community climate action work. identifies unique projects that cultivate campus-community partnerships and address climate solutions that affect both institutional and external stakeholders. Recently funded projects include Wentworth Institute of Technology’s establishment of an ongoing community forum for microgrid development, the Institute of American Indian Arts’ creation of a free podcast resource on water-saving and solar solutions for the local community, and Bard College’s development of a refrigerant management system to locally tackle environmental contamination and destruction. Through grant term report requirements, Second Nature keeps track of the implementation of each project to ensure that all institutions are set up for success.

Considering our organizational goal to establish a regional agricultural cluster in Lorain County, we at CFIO see the potential in Second Nature’s work to bolster community development and mobilization. Performing the proposed 25% shift towards local food production in northeast Ohio will require adequate workforce training, capital accumulation, job creation, land security, and consumer education, all factors which the coalition of local institutions has the resources to implement. With such power over the region’s economies, food markets, and long-term sustainability plans, northeast Ohio’s higher education institutions have a responsibility to amplify their ambition around climate activity so they can best use their positioning to support local needs.

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