Reflections for Earth Day 2021

Climate change is an existential threat to our state, our country, and the global community. As weather changes, storms become more intense, and the resilience and health of our ecosystem deteriorates, we are all affected. In addition, we know that climate change has a disproportionate impact on people of color and impoverished communities, piling suffering on those who can least bear it and worsening inequities across the globe. In the face of these issues, we must all decide how we will act to avert further damage.

At UW-Madison we are working to meet this challenge, finding ways in which we can improve our environmental impacts, create resilience in our community to these changes, and use our university to support education and research that will help address these problems across the globe. We have made this work a priority, despite strained budgets and the ongoing public health crisis, because we know that taking action cannot wait.

As we mark another Earth Day, it’s a good to time assess what we are doing. I am proud that Wisconsin’s political leaders were centrally involved in creating Earth Day 50 years ago. It’s a tradition of activism that we need to uphold.

Here are a few of the ways we’ve been leading on environmental issues:

More broadly, we are building a coalition of partners through the UW–Madison Resilience Commitment. Through this effort, our Office of Sustainability is strategizing with campus and community partners to address climate change and build resilience across seven dimensions: Social Equity & Governance; Health & Wellness; Ecosystem Services; Economy; Infrastructure; Curriculum; and Research.

As a world-class research institution, it’s particularly important that we support education and research on these issues. On the educational front, the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies has seen a 70% increase in credit hours since 2012, and its programs served over 1,000 students during the Spring 2020 semester alone. The new Sustainability Course Attribute was motivated by student interest and a student call for easy identification of coursework that relates to sustainability. Since it was created in 2020, 338 courses have received the provisional course attribute for sustainability.

On the research front, our researchers do a remarkable amount of work related to the environment and sustainability. This past year, they generated $459 million in funding, or approximately 1/3 of our total research dollars, for projects that directly or indirectly addressed environmental issues. This work cuts across many different areas, from global health to veterinary medicine to the humanities.

Leading the university on these issues is the Nelson Institute, which offers classes, coordinates research, and helps UW-Madison address institutional issues. More than 190 faculty are affiliated with the Nelson institute and its programs. Also providing leadership is the Office of Sustainability, which serves as the key facilitator and institutional hub for creating a culture of sustainability at UW–Madison as well as improving campus operations and resource stewardship.

UW–Madison will continue to leverage our expertise, compassion, and determination to develop and implement climate-change solutions. I invite you to read more about the work we are doing across our campus community in the year-one Resilience Commitment impact report.

We are always looking for faculty, staff and students to be involved with these efforts. You can get involved as we move into the next two stages of our resilience commitment: assessing campus and community vulnerabilities, and creating a Climate Action and Adaptation Plan.

Thank you to everybody on this campus who is involved in these issues in so many different ways. We must be in this for the long-term, seeking news ways to leverage our knowledge, our resources, and our institutional actions to address and remediate the changes we are seeing in our environment.