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 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?
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?
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?
"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
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
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?
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
Is there a campus-wide environmental effort afoot?
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
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
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
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.