Leadership, sustainability, and the gentle art of persuasion

When Ogbo Ngwu ’20, an environmental and sustainability science major, thought about the weight of climate change as his generation’s crisis, he started to explore ways to empower and lead his peers.

That desire led him to ALS 2000, a “Leadership for Sustainability” course that provides practical experience in sustainability leadership and peer education and helps students to identify and explore the issues that affect the Cornell community’s impact on sustainability.

Using the Ithaca campus as a living laboratory — specifically the residence halls on North Campus — student teams identified sustainability challenges and developed and tested ways to influence behavior change at the local level.

Ngwu, along with Leena Morris ’19, a communication major, and Claire Kao ’20, a government major, decided to focus their semester long project to address the issue of “phantom” energy use in Court-Kay-Bauer Hall.

Electricity production represents about 37 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, one of the main contributors to climate change. When appliances and electronic devices are plugged in — even if they are turned off or in standby mode — they are using electricity. According to research in northern California by the Natural Resources Defense Council, devices in idle power mode account for about a quarter of all residential energy consumption. Phantom (also called “ghost” or “vampire” energy) accounts for more than $19 billion in electricity costs annually.

“We decided we would define success as behavioral change, so even though it doesn’t have a huge impact, at least this behavior can then percolate through to other practices and habits in other aspects in students’ lives,” said Kao.

The team created flyers and commitment boards, posted reminders near light switches, facilitated discussions, surveyed their peers, and took direct action by turning off lights, unplugging appliances not in use, and encouraging the use of power strips so that several devices could be turned off with the flick of a switch.

While their second survey response rate was low, it indicated that behaviors and attitudes in the residence hall were changing. More students were turning off lights when leaving study lounges, or turning off their computers when not in use. The team also saw a four percent reduction in energy use in Court-Kay-Bauer Hall compared with the two-week period prior to their campaign.

“We were attacking behavioral changes, not actual energy numbers, so we were surprised that it had that kind of impact,” said Ngwu.

Aside from the project, Morris appreciated that the class offered strategies on how to talk with people who might be skeptical about climate change or the effectiveness of the behaviors they sought to encourage.

“Just because you think something is right doesn’t mean you’re necessarily giving someone the proper information to change their minds,” said Morris.

From project management to peer-education, the course is designed to provide students with the opportunity to develop a range of leadership skills that they can use to motivate themselves and others to develop new behaviors and practices.

Jane Mt. Pleasant ’80, MS ’82, associate professor of horticulture and part of the team of ALS 2000 instructors, believes students come away from the class with a much better understanding of the complexities of changing people’s behaviors and ways to implement change in their own communities.

“Increasingly, I think students are becoming aware that the problems and issues around global climate change are not going away and that it’s their generation that’s going to be most accountable and the most affected by climate change,” she said. “The students are seeing that they really need to become involved and they are also realizing they need the skills to actually do this.”

Even though they’re finished with the course Ngwu, Morris, and Kao have a passion for promoting sustainability and plan to continue their efforts to encourage more sustainable behaviors on campus.

“I think people turn a blind eye toward sustainability because they feel so helpless,” said Kao. “They feel like climate change is such a big problem that cannot be alleviated in any way, but it is doable and there are so many things that can be implemented and can be put to practice that we have the means to do things to address climate change.”

ALS 2000: Leadership for Sustainability is open to all students. This course provides the skills and hands-on experiences students need to develop sustainability leadership skills important to their time at Cornell but also to their future careers and lives. Students learn to identify and examine critical sustainability issues and how to develop campaigns and communication skills that lead to changes in behavior — their own and others.

The course is taught by a team of instructors including Michael Hoffmann, professor of entomology and executive director of the Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions; Jane Mt. Pleasant ’80, MS ’82, associate professor of horticulture; Sarah Brylinsky, sustainability communications and integration manager in the Campus Sustainability Office; Kim Anderson, sustainability engagement manager for the Campus Sustainability Office; Marcus Brooks, coordinator for the Cornell Team and Leadership Center; Karel Hiversum, coordinator of the Cornell Team and Leadership Center; and Amy Kohut, lead facilitator and emeritus director of the Cornell Team and Leadership Center.

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