Let’s talk about climate change: Mason and beyond

(Credit: Laura Baker/Fourth Estate)

The Earth Month event “Let’s Talk About Climate Change,” which was held April 1, explored how organizations on Mason’s Campus, the city of Fairfax and the state of Virginia educate and empower residents to combat climate change.

Sponsored by the Office of Sustainability and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication (4C), this event included faculty, staff, students and members of the Fairfax community.

Chris Clarke, a communication professor and member of 4C, intended for this event to “raise broader awareness of all the different things that entities around us are doing, not just individual.”

Roger LeBlanc, the energy outreach coordinator from Mason’s Office of Sustainability, was one of the speakers at the event. LeBlanc emphasized the importance of thinking global while acting local.

“Mason is kind of like a mini town, so there’s a big impact associated with that,” LeBlanc said.

Mason’s sustainability journey started in 2007 when students, faculty and staff pushed for Mason’s participation in the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, which committed Mason to achieving climate neutrality by 2050.  By signing this commitment, Mason set strict targets for climate neutrality.

These commitments include making sure all Mason buildings meet the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design’s Silver Standard, providing free alternative transportation through Mason Shuttles and participating in mandatory reporting every two years to discuss Mason’s emissions and sustainability-related academic programs.

The Office of Sustainability was established as part of this commitment. According to LeBlanc, the Office of Sustainability serves as a “bridge between facilities,” which means connecting “what’s happening on the operational side of campus and the student-life aspect.” This office hosts events, works with sustainable academic programs and creates internship opportunities.

The Patriot Green Fund was also created as a result of Mason’s commitment to climate neutrality. This program allocates $100,000 for research and infrastructure projects on campus. According to LeBlanc, “students have a voice on how this money is used, and that is pretty unique.” Projects funded through the Patriot Green Fund include the Innovation Food Forest, Piedmont Rain Garden, the eWaste Collection in the Johnson Canter and the Hydroponic Greenhouse at President’s Park.

“On any education level, we want people to feel welcome and have a part in this movement,” LeBlanc said.

Stephanie Kupka, sustainability coordinator for the City of Fairfax, spoke at the event, representing local government efforts to combat climate change.

The City of Fairfax has several programs to provide incentives to their 23,461 residents to reduce their energy use. This includes the Fairfax Housing Renaissance Corporation that provides “three-year interest-free loans” that residents can use to “do energy retro-fits on their house,” Kupka said.

Another such program is Solarize NOVA, which provides free solar siding assessments, discounts for solar panels and other programs to encourage residents to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The City of Fairfax also won a grant through the Urban Sustainability Directors Network to create an online sustainability challenge for businesses and residents. Community members can participate and earn points by switching to LED light bulbs, composting waste food or starting other small-scale sustainability initiatives.

According to Krupka, the main objective of this program is to “engage the community and get people talking about sustainability initiatives.”

Kupka explained that people are often overwhelmed with the idea of combating climate change. Kupka feels that “we can start getting people to think, ‘what small steps can I take to combat climate change?’.”

Jagadish Shukla, Mason professor for atmospheric, oceanic and Earth sciences and a member of the Virginia Governor’s Climate Change and Resiliency Update Commission, spoke regarding Virginia’s efforts against climate change.

Shukla spoke regarding Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s Climate Change and Resiliency Update Commission of 2014. Though this initial plan included nearly 200 recommendations, Shukla discussed just the top five.

These top five recommendations included establishing a climate change and resiliency resource center, creating the Virginia Bank for Energy and Resiliency, establishing a renewable energy target for commonwealth agencies, adopting a zero-emission vehicle program and leveraging federal funds to make coastal communities more resilient.

Although none of these recommendations have been implemented to date, their development is being evaluated.

Shukla emphasized that dealing with climate change policies is infinitely complicated and difficult to approach. Shukla also shared his views that to combat climate change, international involvement is essential.

“How do you compare the hardship of this generation, all generations now,” Shukla said, “to the big damage that would be done to future generations?”