Perspectives on the 2018 Higher Education Climate Leadership Summit

By: Tony Cortese & Georges Dyer, Co-Founders and Principals, The Intentional Endowments Network

Second Nature and the Intentional Endowments Network (IEN) held the 2018 Higher Education Climate Leadership Summit February 4-6 in Tempe, Arizona.  It was the largest gathering of higher education presidents, chancellors, trustees, and other senior leaders committed to accelerating climate and sustainability solutions with over 275 participants. 

It came at a critical time as society deals with the ongoing and worsening impacts of climate disruption.  Working together with business, state and local leaders, the higher education sector can and must shape the future of America’s global climate leadership.  After the U.S. Administration’s announcement to withdraw from the international Paris Climate Agreement, Second Nature and its Climate Leadership Network, IEN and other sector partners stepped in to fill the void through the We Are Still In (WASI) which represents $6.2 trillion of the U.S. economy.

Why Second Nature and IEN?

The transformation to a low carbon, circular production, and socially just economy is one of the largest and most complex societal feats in history.  For example, to achieve the Paris Agreement goals, approximately $1 Trillion per year in climate solutions investments are needed over the next 20-25 years.  The necessary change in mindset, knowledge, and action must be led by higher education in its unique role to maintain and expand civilization through research, education of society’s professionals and leaders and modeling sustainable action in operations, community partnerships and in the investments of its endowments totaling over $600 billion.

Second Nature and other organizations began leading this transformation in higher education about 25 years ago, stepped up the pace in 2007 with a commitment of 600 college and university presidents to make a publicly accountable commitment to becoming carbon neutral, and expanded that effort to building resilient and sustainable campuses and communities in 2013.  The Intentional Endowments Network was created in 2014 to bring endowments into the conversation of higher education’s leadership on climate and sustainability.

Both Second Nature and the Intentional Endowments Network are built on the belief that collaborative action and learning networks support, facilitate, generate and encourage higher education’s leadership on climate action. They understand that mobilizing capital internally and through investments are critical for campuses to achieve their climate goals and that engagement of the private sector is crucial to mobilizing the capital needed to create a low carbon economy.

Crossing Sectors/Driving Solutions

Building on these principles, the Summit brought together leaders in higher education, business, municipal government, non-profit organizations, and foundations to explore innovative cross-sector learning and partnerships in advancing climate solutions.  A highly interactive format for learning, sharing, planning and action helped participants understand the deep systemic cultural, social, political and economic perspectives needed to develop effective solutions.

Well known businessman and author of 8 books on business and sustainability, Paul Hawken, opened the Summit with a stirring talk about his most ambitious work - Project Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. Over the last four years, he and a large number of colleagues have developed a surprising set of over 100 solutions for removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere that go well beyond conventional thinking about climate solutions. These strategies help solve some of the broadest health, social justice, economic and ecological challenges we face and go a long way toward achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and a just and sustainable economy.  It set the stage perfectly and had a big impact on the discussions and the cross-sector, interdisciplinary and practical outcomes of the Summit. 

As you can see from the Summit program, there were several unique focus areas. 


  • Climate justice and economic revitalization was a recurring and integrated theme. Ideas for role modeling and preparing students to work towards a just and sustainable economy included moving to 100% renewable energy individually and collaboratively across campuses, campus and community resilience, internal and external carbon pricing, and new integrated learning and action strategies for students. 
  • A major theme throughout the event was aligning endowment investments with their mission and environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals for the benefit of their institution and society. Participants heard stories of various approaches to sustainable investing from several endowments including Pitzer, Cal State, and Barnard; as well as insights from leading investment firms, including BlackRock, Graystone, Mirova, Impax, Change Finance, and more.
  • An exciting case study of cross-sector, place-based climate action in Pittsburgh was presented by the Pittsburg Mayor, the president of a Chatham University, a foundation leader, and a social justice leader, providing a template for climate action work at a city/regional scale.
  • Finally, the presidents of 5 of the largest public universities in the country announced the formation of The University Climate Change Coalition (UC3) - 13 leading North American research universities that will prototype a collaborative model designed to help local communities achieve their climate goals and accelerate the transition to a low-carbon future (UC3 Coalition).


In summary, the Summit was a watershed event in higher education leadership on climate and sustainability solutions.  It emphasized unique ways of looking at the opportunities for comprehensive climate and sustainability solutions. It showed how higher education can and must be a comprehensive role model for all of society – and a catalyst, convener and collaborator with all other sectors.  It explored how endowment investments can advance a just and sustainable economy while earning strong returns for the institution.  In a time of some cynicism about higher education, the Summit showed how critical and relevant the sector is to the future of society. We are pleased to report that Second Nature and IEN will continue to collaborate to accelerate these efforts and partner in hosting the Climate Leadership Summit again next year.