June 2010 cover SCAN - St. Catherine University St. Catherine University
June 2010
 
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Earth First

ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST CAITLIN GRAY ’ 10 PUTS
GLOBAL WARMING ON THE FRONT BURNER.

By Elizabeth Child
Photo by Bill Kelley

Caitlin Gray '10
Caitlin Gray '10

Caitlin Gray '10 had already emerged as a student leader by the time she was a sophomore. Her strong interest in the environment led her to join the Environmental Issues Task Force of the Student Senate, then a temporary committee.

In 2008, the six-member group — after researching the time and financial commitment it would take — asked St. Catherine President Andrea J. Lee, IHM, to sign the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment (PCC), a comprehensive document signed by more than 600 college and university presidents.

With a swipe of her pen, Sister Andrea committed St. Kate's to eliminate net greenhouse gas emissions from specified campus operations, and to promote research and educational efforts to restabilize the earth's climate. University administrators wanted students to lead the ambitious effort. Again, Gray stepped forward.

A biology and philosophy major, Gray accepted a first-of-its-kind, year-long paid internship to spearhead phase one of the initiative — the daunting task of measuring greenhouse gases emitted University-wide, including those associated with travel-abroad programs and commuting to and from campus.

In collaboration with her advisor, Assistant Professor of Biology Jill Welter, Gray led 12 student groups who conducted the inventory as part of the "Environmental Biology" course co-taught by Welter and Associate Dean of Education Tony Murphy.

In May, she and Welter presented the findings to the University community, setting the stage for an emission-reduction plan that soon will touch all corners of St. Kate's.

You have completed the first academic internship championing campus sustainability at St. Kate's. How did it come about?
The President's Climate Commitment called for a detailed collection and calculation of emissions data from departments across campus. Jill Welter's "Environmental Biology" course [co-taught by Tony Murphy] was set to complete the carbon inventory for St. Kate's last fall. Jill and Brian Bruess [vice president for enrollment and dean of student affairs] discussed the possibility of bringing in a more senior student intern to work both as a mentor for the students and as a navigator of the class project. Over the summer, Jill asked me if I'd be interested. I said yes.

In brief, what is the Presidents' Climate Commitment?
It's a commitment to move the campus toward carbon neutrality. Over 600 college and university presidents have signed on to the PCC. The commitment is a broad outline; at St. Kate's we set our own deadlines for reducing our carbon footprint. The first step is taking the inventory. The next steps are for the University to set a target date for becoming climate neutral and make short- and long-term plans for reducing emissions.

Could you explain what "climate neutral" means?
Climate neutrality is when the amount of greenhouse gases released equals the amount of greenhouse gases sequestered, or offset. Emissions-reducing actions include conserving energy use in buildings, improved lighting efficiency and purchasing electricity from a renewable energy source.

Besides carbon, what greenhouse gases did you measure?
We measured methane, a byproduct of trash and landfills, and nitrous oxide, a byproduct of fertilizer.

Why do you call this a "carbon" footprint?
Carbon dioxide is by far the biggest emission worldwide. If you look at potency in the atmosphere, however, nitrous oxide is more potent than carbon dioxide.

Why is it important for St. Kate's to focus on sustainability?
I think colleges and universities should be leaders in sustainability. We're educating students who will soon be entering the work force. If students aren't learning sustainability ideas in college, how can we promote larger solutions in society?

What motivated you to study sustainability?
My first-year "General Biology" class, which had an environmental focus, and my ecology course spurred my interest in the science of sustainability. Sustainability has become important in the way I think about solutions to problems in life.

How do you live a green lifestyle?
I don't have a car on campus. I ride my bike, walk a lot and bus. If I need something new, like a pot or pan, I'll find one at a second-hand store. I'm a conscientious consumer. I check labels. If a container is a made out of plastic that can be recycled [rated 1 or 2], I'll buy it. If not, I won't. I cook most of my food myself so I have control over what I put into my mouth.

How does your interest in philosophy dovetail with your environmental interest?
When you look at environmental ethics, we have a responsibility to examine our actions and consider how they are affecting the world, and whether or not they are destructive to the environment. Philosophy certainly plays a role in how we act.

What exactly was the "Environmental Biology" class assigned to do?
I designated student groups to look at particular sources of emissions on campus. The groups of students met with the departments. They had to collect the data first and then convert that data into units of emissions. For example, Global Studies told us where students were studying abroad. We had to calculate air miles from the Twin Cities to the destinations. I used an Excel calculator called the Clean Air–Cool Planet Campus Carbon Calculator.

How did the departments respond to the additional workload?
We had really good reactions by all the departments. We found departments had already been reducing emissions, and they were eager to share what they'd been doing. For example, Jim Manship [director of facilities management] showed how just switching to energy-efficient light bulbs saves the University a substantial amount of money in the long run. The library implemented a printing policy in the fall of 2007 to reduce excessive printing on campus. They have a group called the Green Organization of the Library.

What was it like to turn the tables and become a teacher of your fellow students?
Teaching is incredibly rewarding and challenging in many ways. The students and I were on the same page a lot of the time. I was learning with them. You kept regular office hours to advise students.

Did you feel like you needed to have all the answers?
No. Each team of students was responsible for researching a source of emissions for a research paper. For example, if they were measuring airtravel emissions, they needed to understand why air travel generates emissions. I put together web links for each group to supplement their resources. Jill and I would also work with student groups to help them figure out what the data meant. We'd come to a closed door, and we'd have to find a different door to go through.

So, how did St. Catherine's emissions compare with those of other urban Twin Cities campuses?
We were in line with most of them. Electricity is the number 1 source of greenhouse gas emissions. It's about 30 to 45 percent for most colleges, and we fall into that range.

Where does St. Kate's diverge from the norm?
With the Weekend College, graduate programs, and the Day Program, we have more commuting students than other colleges and universities of our size, so our emissions for commuting are higher. We have students driving 100 miles or more to get to school. They travel from Wisconsin and northern Minnesota to get to St. Kate's.

It seems like it would be hard to reduce those emissions.
Our emissions reflect our mission. It says a lot about the strength of St. Kate's as a unique institution of higher education for women that students will travel so far to come here. We will have to address our emissions differently from institutions that can offer alternative ways to commute to campus. We can offer more classes online, and we are looking into that alternative.

Is there a campus-wide environmental effort afoot?
It's growing, and this project has been a really good start on it. Next year there will be five student workers instead of one focused on the inventory, which has to be redone every other year, and a campus plan for reducing emissions. That will really increase awareness of the issue.

Separately, two official co-chair positions were created on the Student Senate to lead the Environmental Issues Task Force beginning last fall. The chairs, Rachel Toenjes '10 and Lauren Brin '10, sit on the Student Senate as environmental issues co-chairs.

How should St. Kate's approach the effort to reduce emissions?
The educational component is really big. We need more presentations, more speakers, and more interactions among students, faculty and staff to gain more knowledge on the issue.

So, the '90s slogan "reduce, reuse, recycle" isn't solely the answer?
There's not yet a unified consensus about how to reduce emissions. I think we should make gradual change. We should look at all the impacts, not just the environmental impact, before we make reductions.

It's not easy being green?
Right. Take air travel. There's no straightforward answer. If you reduce emissions from travel, you reduce the benefits of study-abroad experiences. I'm a student who travels a lot. I fly to and from Great Falls, Montana, where I'm from. I took a semester in Turkey last year, and that was very valuable. I think emissions have to be looked at from many angles. There is not a direct route to reduce emissions. But there will be a way. I'm not always in favor of settling for the simplest solution.

That sounds like an interdisciplinary approach. Has St. Kate's influenced your thinking?
Of the three prongs of a St. Kate's education — women, Catholic and liberal arts — the liberal arts has been the strongest for me. The liberal arts put a big stress on interdisciplinary education. Biology isn't strictly a lab course. You look at social issues as well. You have to view problems from many angles.

We're having this conversation on Earth Day. Are you doing anything special today?
Every day is Earth Day for me.

As a graduating senior, where will you go from here?
I'm ready to leave the academic setting and apply what I've learned. I'm looking into community development programs through AmeriCorps with a stress on youth education and increasing educational resources for people who don't have tools like the technology that you need for most jobs.

How do you hope your environmental efforts will be continued on campus?
I hope that students continue to keep leading this effort. Students are a very powerful force for change. That's an important campus dynamic. Environmental initiatives to date have been driven by students. I like that about St. Kate's.

Elizabeth Child is a writer and marketing consultant based in Northfield, Minn.

 

St. Kate's Q&A

St. Catherine University Emissions by Source (2008-09 Fiscal Year)

St. catherine University Emissions by Source

1 - Purchased Electricity - 41%
2 - Custom Heat - 26%
3 - Student Transportation - 13%
4 - Faculty/Staff Transportation - 6%
5 - Air Travel - 9%
6 - Transmission/Distribution Losses - 4%
7 - Trash Disposal - 1%
7 - Water Use - 1%
7 - Paper Use - 1%
7 - Fertilizer - 1%
7 - Vehicle Fuel - 1%

HOW ST. KATE'S DAILY BUSINESS AFFECTS THE PLANET

LAST FALL, senior Caitlin Gray led 12 teams of students in St. Catherine's "Environmental Biology" class to conduct an inventory of University emissions. The inventory is step one of the American College & University President's Climate Commitment to reduce the University's "carbon footprint," by reducing greenhouse gas emissions or investing in energy alternatives, such as wind or hydroelectric power.

The students' initial research measured greenhouse gases emitted from the University during the 2008–09 fiscal year (June 2008 through May 2009) from electricity, heat and University-owned vehicle fuel use. They also measured indirect greenhouse gas emissions related to University activities — such as daily commuting for students, faculty and staff, and air travel for student study abroad and faculty presentations or conferences.

The group discovered that the three greatest sources of campus emissions at St. Kate's are from electricity (41 percent), heat (26 percent) and commuting (19 percent).

This first inventory allowed students and faculty advisors to establish methods for converting campus activities into measurable units of emissions. It laid the groundwork for refinements by next year's "Environmental Biology" students, who will continue the inventory. "From now on, measuring emissions will be an ongoing process at St. Kate's," Gray says.

This year's findings will allow students, faculty, administrators and facilities representatives who have formed a collaborative environmental committee to begin creating an action plan for reducing emissions that will involve the entire campus community.