By Kate Ryan
NEW YORK, July 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — More than 7,000 colleges, universities, technical schools, and community colleges from around the world declared a climate emergency in a joint letter which was set to be delivered to the United Nations on Wednesday.
"Declaring a climate emergency changes the nature of the urgency in higher education," Sam Barratt, chief of education and youth for UN Environment told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Networks of schools pledged to increase sustainability curriculum and campus outreach, boost climate change research and skill-building opportunities for students and reach carbon neutrality by 2050, some as soon as 2030.
"This isn't a nice to-do, it's a must do," Barratt said.
The letter was coordinated by the UN Environment's Youth and Education Alliance, The Alliance for Sustainability and Leadership in Education and Second Nature, a nonprofit working with colleges and universities on climate action.
It was delivered to UN ministers at the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative ahead of the United Nations Climate Action Summit on Sept. 23.
UN member nations unanimously adopted 17 global development goals in 2015, setting out a wide-ranging "to-do" list tackling issues such as conflict, hunger, land degradation, gender inequality and climate change.
A recent report called climate change "the greatest challenge to sustainable development."
The letter marked the first joint effort on climate change by a global network of higher and further education institutions.
Six of the institutions are already carbon neutral, including Washington, DC's American University which reached the goal two years ahead of schedule.
Such successes spurred some schools eyeing a 2050 date to push that up to 2030, said Tim Carter, president of Second Nature.
"There's no reason to wait," Carter said. "We're already behind the eight ball."
Beyond striving for carbon neutrality and curriculum expansion, Barratt emphasized that learning institutions have a responsibility to shape students' behavior and mindset as they enter the world, both at work and as private citizens.
Barratt and Carter both noted the range of learning institutions from technical training institutes to elite universities that had signed on, reflecting a wide demographic of future workers and leaders.
"Higher education is the crucible through which the next generation of leaders emerge," said Barratt.
The letter remains open for online signatures from leaders of institutions and networks representing them.
"We call on governments and other education institutions to join us in declaring a Climate Emergency and back this up with actions that will help create a better future for both people and our planet," the letter read.
Organizers expect more than 10,000 higher education institutions to join the effort this year.
(Reporting by Kate Ryan, Editing by Chris Michaud)