Letter from President Paxson: Brown’s actions on climate change

President Christina H. Paxson wrote to the campus community on March 4 with an update on Brown’s efforts to confront climate change through net-zero GHG initiatives, halting investments in fossil fuel extraction in the University’s endowment and other efforts.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — To confront what scientists have declared an increasingly dire threat posed by global climate change, Brown University unveiled plans in February 2019 to cut its campus greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent by 2025 and to achieve net-zero no later than 2040.

With work to achieve those goals well underway, University President Christina Paxson wrote to the Brown community on Wednesday, March 4, with a detailed update on that effort and others across campus to take on climate change, which she says may be the single most pressing problem that society faces today.

In addition to plans toward net-zero, Paxson outlined actions at Brown to strengthen Rhode Island’s ability to mitigate and adapt to climate change, halt University investments in fossil fuel extraction companies, and use Brown’s leverage as an investor to encourage plans by others to reduce greenhouse gases and develop sustainable technologies.

Paxson wrote that, to date, 90% of Brown's investments in companies that extract fossil fuels have been sold, and the remainder (less than 1% of the portfolio) is being liquidated as it becomes possible to do so. In the meantime, the Investment Office has made no new investments in this area.

The full text of her letter is included below.


Dear Brown University Community Members,

Climate change may be the single most pressing problem that society faces today. The scientific evidence of the enormity of this threat has become increasingly clear over time — without a rapid transition away from fossil fuels on a global scale, it will become impossible to avert disastrous consequences for humans and the natural environment worldwide. Over the past months and years, I have spoken to many members of our community who are committed to making real and lasting change on this issue. I’m writing to give an update on Brown’s actions to confront climate change.

Brown’s major contribution to addressing the global climate crisis is through its teaching and research. However, the urgency of the situation calls for additional action. A year ago, Brown made a bold commitment to reduce the University’s carbon footprint. Aligned with these efforts, Brown is playing a leadership role in improving Rhode Island’s resilience to climate change, and is taking concrete steps to reduce the carbon content of the Brown University endowment. These actions, described in more detail below, are in line with the growing consensus that climate change poses an existential global threat, as well as our deep concern for the futures of young people at Brown, in Rhode Island and globally.


In February 2019, Brown pledged that campus emissions will reach net zero by 2040, with a 75% reduction by 2025. These objectives are based on a plan developed by our Facilities Management team and several faculty experts. We are on our way to achieving these goals. This spring, two wind turbines in Texas will be operational, and site preparation has begun on a solar farm here in Rhode Island that is on track to start producing power for Brown in 2022. These two projects are expected to produce enough renewably-generated electricity to offset all current on-campus electricity use.

We are also making progress on shifting our central heating plant from natural gas to a sustainable power source. Although the long-term plan is to convert the central heating plant to sustainable electricity, we are exploring two near-term options for significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions before the conversion to electricity can take place. One option is to convert the plant to burn recycled biofuel, and another is to offset natural gas use by investing in a renewable natural gas project. We will decide which option to pursue by the end of 2020. The wind and solar projects, combined with the switch to biofuel or renewable natural gas, will make it possible to meet our goal of reducing campus greenhouse emissions by 75% within the next five years, and position us to reach our net-zero goal no later than 2040.

Achieving our campus reduction goals over the long term will require changes in the mechanical systems of all campus buildings. All new buildings, such as the Performing Arts Center, the Center for Lacrosse and Soccer and the Health and Wellness Center and Residence Hall, are being designed to be “net-zero ready,” prepared to use Brown’s central heating facility after its eventual conversion to electricity. Retrofits of our existing infrastructure have begun and will ramp up in the coming years.


The Brown community has a record of leading and joining efforts to make progress on climate action in our state. Six years ago, the University provided support for student and faculty efforts to push for a state-wide climate-resiliency plan, which led to passage of the 2014 Resilient Rhode Island Act. And in 2018, Timmons Roberts, a professor of environment and society and sociology at Brown, led a group of students in partnership with local advocates to introduce carbon pricing legislation to promote clean energy in the state.

More recently, Brown became a founding partner of the Providence Resiliency Partnership, an organization that is developing strategies to buffer residents and businesses from the effects of sea-level rise. The early work was funded by the Program for Environmental and Civic Engagement housed in the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society (IBES), and is now supported by the Office of the President. Currently, Brown is working with the University of Rhode Island Coastal Resources Center, the Providence Foundation, and a growing number of partners to build a network of businesses and community-based organizations that will work together to strengthen the community’s ability to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Curt Spalding, the immediate past U.S. EPA Administrator for New England and a professor of the practice in IBES, is leading this initiative, working with Executive Vice President for Planning and Policy Russell Carey, along with colleagues in Government and Community Relations and Facilities Management. This work is particularly important if organizations are to extend their sustainability goals to buildings that rely on shared or public infrastructure, which includes Brown’s development in the Jewelry District.


The growing recognition that the world must transition away from coal, oil and gas is already producing changes in how investment managers value, buy and sell the assets of companies that extract fossil fuels. The Brown University Investment Office is no exception, and it has taken a proactive approach to managing the portfolio’s investments in fossil fuels. Nearly two years ago, the Investment Office decided to sell its entire exposure to fossil fuels, a process that takes time due to the illiquid nature of some investments. To date, 90% of investments in companies that extract fossil fuels have been sold, and the remainder is being liquidated as it becomes possible to do so. In the meantime, the Investment Office has made no new investments in this area. The decision to halt investments in fossil fuel extraction companies reflects the view that, as the world shifts to sustainable energy sources, investments in fossil fuels carry too much long-term financial risk. We do not plan to make new investments in fossil fuel companies unless and until they make significant progress in converting themselves into providers of sustainable energy.

Just as Brown is taking concrete actions to reduce our campus carbon footprint, a growing number of businesses around the world are creating plans to reduce their own emissions of greenhouse gases. Brown will use its leverage as an investor to actively encourage these efforts. For more than five years, Brown’s Investment Office has applied Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) standards in all of its investment decisions, encouraging its external fund managers to strengthen their own ESG criteria, and identifying new high-yield investment opportunities in businesses that develop sustainable technologies. We plan to make these standards more rigorous over time. This proactive, engaged approach to investing is consistent with Brown’s values, and is aligned with our other actions on campus and in the Rhode Island community.

The Investment Office has recently launched a new website that includes information about how it uses ESG criteria. I encourage members of our community to learn about ESG and sustainable investing, whether by taking a course on sustainable investing, participating in the student-led Brown Socially Responsible Investment Fund, or attending lectures or conferences on the topic. Later this week, for example, Brown will host a student-led conference called “designing the future of sustainable investing,” which will feature professionals who work in this growing field, several of whom are alumni.


Brown’s plans to confront the realities of climate change will continue to evolve. Over the past year, Stephen Porder, assistant provost for sustainability and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, has engaged the campus community to draft a strategic plan for sustainability at Brown, which focuses not only on greenhouse gas emissions, but also high-priority areas that include nutrient pollution, water, biodiversity and human health.

The draft plan also underscores how important it is for students to have hands-on academic experiences that educate them about the causes and consequences of climate change. A wonderful example is the Wintersession course that IBES director Amanda Lynch taught this January, in which she, several co-teachers, and a group of students travelled to the Arctic to study how communities there are being affected by climate change. In the coming years, we will continue to expand Brown’s research, teaching and community engagement in climate change — in areas such as the creation of low-cost sustainable energy sources, the impact of climate change on vulnerable populations locally and globally, and the development of policies and practices that will prevent the most devastating effects of climate change from occurring. We are in the process of collecting community feedback on the draft sustainability plan, with the goal of finalizing it by the end of the semester.

Although there is a clear consensus in our community that climate change is an urgent threat, there are multiple views —and at times fierce disagreements — about the best political, social and technological strategies and tactics to employ to move the world away from fossil fuels. There is no place better than a university campus to discuss and debate these disparate views, and I look forward to the conversation as it evolves in the months and years ahead.

I thank our students, faculty, staff, alumni and parents for their commitment to building a sustainable future, and I encourage all members of our community to participate in Brown’s work to confront climate change.


Christina H. Paxson