From the Dean

I like to think of it as the dawn of a new, more hopeful era in the fight against climate change.

On Sept. 29 and 30, faculty, staff and students from the Nicholas School joined with our peers from schools and institutes across Duke’s campus, university leaders, alumni, and partners from the Durham community to launch the Duke Climate Commitment.

What is the commitment we are making, you ask? It’s a groundbreaking initiative designed to unite our university’s education, research, operations and public service missions and engage our entire community in the critical pursuit of climate change solutions.

Never before have we committed to marshaling every part of our enterprise—our collective resources, talents and passions—toward solving a global problem in such a focused way.

It truly is a transformational initiative for Duke, one that is unprecedented in our history and in higher education.

These are bold claims, I know, so before my enthusiasm gets the best of me, let me share some concrete examples of what our new commitment entails, how we’ll be putting it into practice, and how we got to this point.

Our Four Focal Areas

Although we’re committed to finding solutions to all aspects of climate change, we’ll be focusing our efforts on four primary fronts where the unmet challenge remains great and we feel Duke has the most to contribute:

  • Energy Transformation: To speed the pace of clean energy development, we’re redoubling our research focus on alternative energy sources and materials engineering, grid integration and resilience, energy economics and policy, sustainable energy systems management, and the environmental impacts of new and old energy sources.
  • Climate and Community Resilience: We’re expanding our focus on research and outreach that helps boost the resilience of natural and human environments alike through natural or engineered solutions, with particular emphasis on Earth’s critically threatened water resources and coastal ecosystems and communities. Closer to home, we’re ramping up our work with local partners to support community resilience in Durham and Beaufort.
  • Environmental and Climate Justice: Drawing on North Carolina’s deep history of environmental justice activism—the environmental justice movement was born in Warren County more than 40 years ago, less than an hour’s drive from our campus—we are committing to work more closely and in partnership with civic, academic and nonprofit partners to address the need for climate mitigation, adaptation, and resilience strategies that benefit all communities equitably and impose unfair burdens on none. Our goal is to be a recognized leader in environmental and climate justice research, teaching and action—and we recognize we need to build our capacity to do this work so we can engage with humility and integrity.
  • Data-Driven Climate Solutions: We’re tapping Duke’s expertise in data science, mathematics, statistics, artificial intelligence and machine learning to devise new tools that harness the power of Big Data and give decision makers more accurate ways to predict the impacts of climate change and proactively identify science-driven solutions. Two initiatives are already up and running. The first, called Data-Driven Climate Expeditions, provides critical early-stage funding for innovative research collaborations, with an initial focus on climate and health. We announced the winners of this competition in early October. More Climate and Data Expeditions will follow. The second, called Climate+, aims to teach students how to solve complex climate problems using data-based methods and interdisciplinary thinking.

Training Climate-Fluent Leaders

Because we believe people from all disciplines and professions can and must contribute to solutions to climate change, we’re integrating environmental and climate fluency into our academic programs university-wide, from the sciences and engineering to social sciences, business, law, divinity, policy, humanities and the arts. We need to find multiple curricular and co-curricular pathways for all students to find the door that works for them.

This includes creating new opportunities for students from diverse disciplines and backgrounds to come together and learn from each other, as well as from faculty experts, about the far-reaching impacts of climate change and what can be done to forge a more sustainable and equitable future for all.

Two early examples of this have been resounding successes. Hundreds of first-year students this year signed up for pre-orientation activities focused on the environment, climate change and sustainability, and a new university-wide course, “Let’s Talk About Climate Change,” that Duke launched this fall has attracted a capacity enrollment of 150 undergraduates. Many more such opportunities are now in the works and more will come in the months and years ahead.

Ultimately, our goal is to make climate and sustainability fluency foundational to the education of every Duke student and to empower them to become change makers in their communities and professions. We aim to extend our reach to alumni and community partners as well, because we’re all in this for life, and we’re all in it together.

A Living Laboratory

Duke’s campus isn’t just a collection of eye-catching buildings and green spaces, it’s a living laboratory where we put cutting-edge research and scholarship to work to enhance campus sustainability, reduce our environmental footprint, and inspire others to follow our lead.

We released our first Climate Action Plan in 2009 and with our update to it in 2019 we are poised in 2024 to be among the first universities to achieve carbon neutrality. We are pioneering high-quality carbon offsets as part of our approach. But that’s not the end goal—it’s just the beginning.

As part of our Climate Commitment, we’ll be pushing forward to develop and test new operational practices and technologies that help us take campus energy use, transportation, waste management and food sourcing to even higher levels of sustainability—including procurement practices that incorporate environmentally preferable purchasing as well as local and diverse supplier goals, some of the first of its kind in higher education.

Building on a Legacy of Innovation

Although the Duke Climate Commitment focus on forging a more sustainable and equitable future may seem like something new, it builds on a legacy of innovation that dates back to the early days of our university. Indeed, you might say that we’ve been laying the groundwork for this moment for as long as we’ve been Duke.

More than 90 years ago, long before sustainable environmental management was part of the mainstream academic lexicon, the university acquired thousands of acres of former forestlands surrounding Durham and replanted them to create Duke Forest, one of the most important field laboratories for environmental research and teaching in North America today.

Our School of Forestry, Department of Geology, and Marine Laboratory were all founded more than 80 years ago. In 1991, under the leadership of founding Dean Norm Christensen, they were united into one school—the first of its kind in the world—which, thanks to a foundational gift from the Nicholas family, we now know as the Nicholas School of the Environment.

The brilliant interdisciplinary work Norm and his faculty did in those early days of our school, and the deep disciplinary expertise each brought to the table, still informs and guides our research and teaching on climate change today. Randy Kramer, Curt Richardson, Ram Oren, Bob Healy, Orrin Pilkey, John Terborgh, Lynn Maguire, Emily Klein, Rich Di Giulio, Dan Richter, Bruce Corliss, Jeff Karson, Jim Clark, Ken Reckhow, Peter Haff, Richard Forward, William Kirby-Smith, Dan Rittschof, Pat Halpin, Marie- Lynn Miranda, Joe Ramus, Susan Lozier, Mike Orbach, William Stambaugh, Dean Urban, Dick Barber, Dan Livingstone, Brad Murray, Lincoln Pratson, Paul Baker, Prasad Kasibhatla, Ken Knoerr, Joe Bonaventura, Celia Bonaventura, Jonathan Wiener, Alan Boudreau, Ron Perkins, Ronie-Rochelle Garcia-Johnson, Peter Malin, Duncan Heron, and so many more—we owe them a deep debt of gratitude for creating the rock-solid foundation the Duke Climate Commitment will now build upon.

We also owe a debt of gratitude to our colleagues at the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment, and Sustainability—launched in 2005 through another foundational gift from the Nicholas family—who will play a central role in the new Climate Commitment and whose efforts over the last 17 years have extended the reach of Duke’s environmental work through sustained, nonpartisan engagement with leaders from the policy, governance, corporate and nonprofit spheres.

How You Can Get Involved

So, that gives you an idea of what we’re trying to achieve in this new initiative, why Duke is so well positioned to do it, and why I am so excited about its potential.

But there’s one part of the equation we haven’t yet talked about yet. And that’s you.

The scale and urgency of the climate-related challenges we face today call for having all-hands-on deck if we want to create the sustainable and equitable solutions that will place society on the path to a resilient, flourishing and net-zero-carbon world by mid-century.

When we announced the Climate Commitment, we also announced $36 million in initial gifts to fund our work. Those gifts, for which we are deeply grateful, will allow us to make tremendous progress toward our goals of boosting climate fluency among our students, expanding our climate curriculum, and making new faculty hires in critical disciplines such as environmental economics and environmental policy. They are a down payment on a much bigger vision and ambition.

To take our commitment to the next level and realize its full potential impact, however, additional investments are needed across all three areas—climate fluency, climate talent, and climate solutions—including opportunities to support proof-of-concept ideas that are ready to scale and address key knowledge gaps that only Duke can fill. Gifts of shared expertise and time are also welcomed.

The Duke Climate Commitment marks a hopeful moment for us—when we seize the opportunity and step up to our responsibility to lead toward a brighter, healthier future. I hope you will join us in this transformational undertaking.