In Brief

Reaching a Global Accord on Climate Change

How a pledge signed by Tufts and other colleges nationwide helped pave the way for success at the Paris conference
January 12, 2016

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Tufts was one of more than 200 colleges and universities in 40 states to sign the American Campus Act on Climate Pledge last November. In reflecting on the positive outcome of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in December, Kelly Sims Gallagher, F00, F03, a professor of energy and environmental policy at the Fletcher School, believes that pledge helped strengthen the U.S. bargaining position.

“In the international community, there has been a lot of doubt about the United States’ commitment to reducing carbon emissions,” says Gallagher, one of 20 Tufts faculty, staff and students who attended the conference. “Different segments of society going public in their support of the climate change negotiations demonstrated a groundswell of support from civil society that increased the credibility of U.S. negotiators—and I think contributed to reaching an agreement.”

In addition to the schools’ pledge, 81 companies signed the American Business Act on Climate Pledge. The aim of the Paris conference was for countries to set carbon-limiting goals post-2020, and increase the number of countries making pledges. “Now 186 countries around the world have made pledges of varying strengths,” says Gallagher. “That was the main achievement of Paris. I think every call for action played a part in shifting world opinion about the urgency of addressing climate change.”

Gallagher, who also directs the Fletcher School’s Center for International Environment and Resource Policy, has an insider view of what it takes to reach a climate change accord. As a senior policy advisor for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and senior China advisor in the State Department’s Office of the Special Envoy for Climate Change from June 2014 to September 2015, she helped to negotiate two major climate change agreements between the United States and China, steps that some observers believe helped lay the foundation for the success of the Paris conference.

Gallagher first learned of the pledge when she received a phone call from White House staffers inviting Tufts to participate in the pledge.

Gallagher passed the request on to Tufts President Anthony P. Monaco. “He immediately thought it was a great idea,” she says. “The values embedded in the pledge are already those that have informed Tufts’ own sustainability pledge.” The university’s Sustainability Council, which Monaco chairs, has pledged to reduce greenhouse gases 10 to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and to cut energy consumption by 5 to 7 percent per year for three years starting in 2013, with additional targets to be set this year.

These actions build on a long legacy of fighting climate change. In 1999, Tufts was the first university in New England to pledge to lower its greenhouse gas emissions in accord with the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement that commits countries to binding emission reduction targets.

The American Campuses Act on Climate Pledge attracted support from 218 U.S. schools, representing more than 3.3 million students. Announced on Nov. 19 by the White House, the pledge says, in part, “As institutions of higher education . . . we recognize the urgent need to act now to avoid irreversible costs to our global community’s economic prosperity and public health. . . . Today our school pledges to accelerate the transition to low-carbon energy while enhancing sustainable and resilient practices across our campus.”

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.