As the University at Buffalo’s (UB) first ever Chief Sustainability Officer, Ryan McPherson exudes optimism and inspires action when he speaks about environmental stewardship. “If we are going to keep our planet sustainable for future generations, we need to step up to the plate in every phase and way immediately,” he echoes in the early stages of our recent conversation.

But Ryan is much more than just passion and talk, he’s also ensuring UB leads the way when it comes to climate action. He, his team and the entire university have built a comprehensive strategy to help UB reduce its carbon footprint and educate students to be positive ambassadors for Earth through a people, planet and profit approach. He’s helped UB earn recognition as the No. 3 university overall in the Times Higher Education (THE) first-ever global climate action rankings, too. And, he’s confident the university will continue to lead and contribute more and more each year in the future. 

Ryan recently took time to chat with us about UB’s plan for the future, how they engage students, his background and more.

Ryan McPherson speaking at the 2018 State of New York Sustainability Conference.

Let’s start with the recent No. 3 ranking in the Times Higher Ed report. That’s awesome recognition, can you speak to what efforts made that possible for UB?

It’s a great honor for the university. There are a number of people doing excellent work on climate action planning that deserve credit for their efforts. Climate change is the greatest challenge of our time and it’s something UB takes very seriously. We want to be a paragon for how academic institutions can make an impact in preserving and evolving our planet for the future.

The university’s work in climate action goes back decades, but it became formalized in 2009 when we established our first official climate action plan. It was a good plan and foundation at the time, but as years passed, it needed revisiting and that’s what we’ve been focused on lately. We needed to fully integrate it with a campus-wide energy plan, we needed to better visualize the data and educate our peers and the community, we needed to harness our collective data in new ways. That’s been our focus as we reorient that original climate action plan.

Essentially, our efforts are threefold. We seek to lessen our footprint, advance solutions to global challenges via research, and create the next generations of climate action advocates and warriors through our teaching. We must ensure our curriculum and operations are pedagogical learning tools for climate action. It all boils down to research, teaching, engagement and action.

Your UB’s first Chief Sustainability Officer. What are the biggest challenges you face in your job?

I’d love to tell you it’s all strawberry shortcake, but no, advocating for climate action isn’t always easy work. That’s okay though, like Tom Hanks said in “A League of Their Own”: “It’s the hard that makes it great.”

In my opinion, the key challenge is balancing our need to inspire and motivate young minds around this common purpose of climate action while not giving in to the overwhelming current odds we face. Climate change is happening at an alarming scale and there are moments where I do pause and fear for the world our children will inhabit and the environmental challenges they’ll face. But you can’t stay there. You can’t lead from that position of doom and gloom because it’s disempowering. You need to point toward those making positive change, be eternally optimistic, and also convey a critical sense of urgency. It’s a huge messaging challenge that we need to confront with hope and possibility, because failure is not an option here.

Do you believe we can ultimately overcome the odds we face when it comes to climate change?

Absolutely. I talk to students all the time who look at current data trends and wonder if we can overcome. You have to remind them that we actually do this frequently. Fifteen years ago, every restaurant in America left customers walking out smelling like cigarettes, now you can’t smoke in any of them. Look at how quickly perceptions and attitudes have changed toward same-sex marriage. Look at the great strides we’re making with the Cancer Moonshot. When we bring enthusiasm and energy to important issues, change happens. I believe the change we need will be brought to life by our millennials, Gen Z and future generations in similar fashion.

That shifts the lens a bit more toward today’s students. How do you engage them in your climate efforts at UB?

Today’s students are so critical to all of this. And, I’m sheepish to admit that when I stepped into this role, I focused mostly on strategies to help UB lessen its carbon footprint. It took me a bit of time to realize the greatest potential lied in our student body. Yes, let’s work toward carbon neutrality, but let’s also strive to graduate thousands of sustainability-literate students who are ready to prioritize our planet and leverage all of our vast human capital every year – that’s the greatest potential for higher education.

Truthfully, student engagement is our core business model today. Regardless of their desired profession or future career, any student can become an advocate for climate action. So, we work to knock down silos and engage every UB student. We want to arm them with the intellectual capital to be game changers. They are our future, and we need to help them understand what it means to commit to a life of advancing the sustainable solutions we need.

What tips would you give other universities trying to bolster their climate action planning?

It’s key for each institution to understand their own realities and culture and work forward from that baseline. The idea that there’s a cut-and-paste solution is false, that will never work.

That said, it’s important for colleges and universities to understand this is a connect and collaborate world, so we must invest in relationships. We have to inspire change, because simply ordering people to change behaviors will never work. I think one of the best things any institution can do is work to shine light on the individuals and groups really making positive strides with climate action. If we can tell their stories in digestible, inspirational and actionable ways – that’s how you build a coalition and ensure action. We do this in person and through numerous university communication channels. I think UB’s President Satish Tripathi did that years back when he created the role of Chief Sustainability Officer in 2011. Shine light on those advancing climate action, inspire change, understand failure is part of the process but not achieving our objective is really not an option.

What change do you hope we see in the next five years when it comes to climate action?

There’s so many changes I’d love to see, but let’s focus on two. First, the United Nations established 17 Sustainable Development Goals that we should achieve by 2030. They look at environmental stewardship, but also how we fight extreme poverty, alleviate food insecurity, advocate for gender equity and much more. I hope these goals are understood much more broadly and we’re on successful paths toward all of them.

Secondly, I hope the entire globe is mobilized to address climate change in five years and the United States is leading the charge. I also hope we’re not just doing it from a position of fear, but we also recognize the incredible ways advocating for climate change can spur economic evolution and growth and advance human vitality. I hope we use our response to climate change as a means to thrive. That should be the purpose of our work.

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