Response to Duke Climate Commitment

guest column

On September 29th, Duke University announced its Climate Commitment, calling for greater integration of the pursuit of climate change solutions across the whole of the university.

Duke has committed to “uniting the university’s education, research, operations, and public service missions to engage our entire community in the relentless pursuit of climate change solutions.” I commend Duke for expressing an expansive approach to address the most pressing and complex challenge of our time. I am grateful for the generosity of the trustees, alumni, and friends who are supporting this campus-wide initiative. Building on this announcement,I implore Duke to move forward boldly and creatively, by aligning, in meaningful and measurable ways, our investment strategies, day-to-day operations and governance to our Climate Commitment. In doing so, open communication, transparency, inclusive engagement, equity, and accountability are key. Without such alignment, I worry the Climate Commitment may ring hollow and be steeped in hypocrisy. I applaud the letters written by the Duke Climate Coalition and Meech Carter, GPSG Director of Environment and Sustainability, which underscore the importance of these issues. 

To align Duke’s investment strategies, day-to-day operations, and governance with the pillars of the Climate Commitment, I call on our leaders and governing bodies to consider the following: 

Duke investment strategy

In the previous decade, the Duke Climate Coalition (formerly Duke Divest) submitted two proposals to Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility (ACIR)  for fossil fuel divestment (2014 and 2018). In response, Duke’s ACIR opposed divestment in both cases. In the spring of 2022, the Duke student body expressed broad support for divestment of fossil fuels (2,435 to 203 referendum vote). In recognition of this history, and the new Climate Commitment, I urge our administration and its advisory boards to take these actions: 

  1. As soon as possible, ACIR must openly publish the date, time, and venue of its upcoming fall open meeting. Students, staff, and faculty need adequate notice prior to a meeting to fully engage in discussions about Duke’s investment strategy. This request aligns with the expectations of procedural justice–a critical component of environmental justice, a pillar of Duke’s Climate Commitment. 
  2. In its 2020 forum summary, ACIR stated it would not reconsider repeat proposals for divestment from fossil fuels. I urge ACIR, under its new leadership, to consider student proposals for divestment (and any other proposals) in the context of the Climate Commitment.
  3. DUMAC and/or the University Priorities Committee (UPC) must regularly and publicly report the extent of Duke’s carbon-intensive direct and indirect investments, including fossil fuel exposure, as well as investments in green/renewable energy. Transparency is critical to understand the degree of alignment/misalignment of the Climate Commitment with DUMAC’s investment strategy. The Harvard Management Company (HMC) February 2022 report offers an example of how this could be structured. Emissions from investments must be included in Duke’s future carbon action plans.
  4. In its 2019 report to President Price, ACIR recommended a feasibility study of a proposed Portfolio Carbon Tax. This study was to be finalized by the end of the 2019-2020 academic year, but it is unclear if such a study was started. I urge the administration to fully support the study to be completed this academic year.
  5. The Board of Trustees and DUMAC are responsible for managing the investment funds of Duke University. I urge the Board of Trustees to commit to regular structured discussions with students, faculty, and staff with the goal of increasing transparency and alignment between its investment strategy and the Climate Commitment. 

Day-to-day operations

  1. Duke must integrate its Climate Action Plan with the recently announced Climate Commitment. Links between these initiatives must be made explicit and clear. Duke must aggressively strengthen its post-2024 carbon goal by committing to further reducing on-campus emissions and reliance on carbon offsets to reach its goal. 
  2. Transportation: Duke must address carbon emissions from commuting to and from campus–a sector that grew in carbon intensity prior to the pandemic. Improved, accessible public transportation and walking and biking infrastructure are a must. I urge Duke to support inclusive participatory processes to identify barriers and innovative and equitable solutions to reduce emissions from commuting to campus. Duke must engage humbly and justly in transparent, empowering, and meaningful partnerships with the City of Durham, NCCU, nearby communities, and neighborhoods to increase equitable access to and efficiency of public transportation and to improve bikeability/walkability of Duke and Durham. 
  3. On-campus energy: To continue to tackle on-campus carbon reductions, Duke must transparently track and communicate energy use across all campus buildings, empowering the creativity of students, faculty and staff to maximize energy efficiencies and data-driven solutions across campus. I urge our leaders to engage regularly and openly with the Duke community to discuss the alignment of renovations and future construction with the Climate Commitment with the goal of increasing energy efficiency and alternative energy deployment.
  4. Purchasing: To be a climate leader among universities, Duke needs to broaden its accounting of carbon emissions to include procurement– carbon emissions from purchases are not currently tracked or a part of our carbon action plan. 

Duke governance

  1. Given the announcement of Duke’s Climate Commitment, Duke’s ongoing climate action plan, and the student referendum on fossil fuel divestment in the spring, it’s an opportune time for the full Academic Council (AC), the Duke Student Government (DSG) and Graduate & Professional Student Government (GPSG) to weigh in on these important initiatives. The announcement of the Climate Commitment provides a new opportunity for these bodies to engage thoughtfully, critically, and creatively at the intersection of climate change and the governance of Duke.

Duke has the capacity and moral obligation to act now, and to do so with urgency, determination, and innovation. It’s time to lead with action and listen with humility. University leaders must leverage and allocate the financial, human, and technical resources that success demands. Investment strategies and day-to-day operations must align with the Climate Commitment. Transparent goals, objectives, and metrics must stem from open, inclusive, and engaged processes that elevate and empower a diversity of voices. Duke University will be judged by current and future generations in the ways we decide to implement concrete, measurable, and forward thinking goals to ensure that our actions are as bold as our words.

Betsy Albright, PhD
Associate Professor of the Practice
Nicholas School of the Environment


Share and discuss “Response to Duke Climate Commitment” on social media.