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Training programs, reductions in energy usage and greenhouse-gas emissions earned system a national award and participation in UN Climate Change Conference in 2017

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: PETER WONG - Mark Mitsui, president of Portland Community College, talks about the system's efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change on Monday, Feb. 26, at a Washington County Public Affairs Forum in Beaverton.The president of Portland Community College says Oregon's largest institution of higher education is doing more than its share to prepare people for coping with climate change.

Mark Mitsui said despite the continuing political arguments over the issue in the United States, economic, social and technological developments — and scientific evidence — all point in one direction for the world.

Mitsui spoke Monday, Feb. 26, at the Washington County Public Affairs Forum.

"I think it's really unstoppable. It is happening," Mitsui said. "The question is what role the United States will play — and within the United States, what role community colleges will play."

Mitsui talked about actions ranging from training students in new technologies and educating them about the implications of climate change to reducing energy use and greenhouse-gas emissions on the four campuses and eight centers.

With 77,000 students — most of them attending part time — PCC has a larger enrollment than any of Oregon's four-year universities.

PCC earned the 2017 Climate Leadership Award for two-year institutions from Second Nature and the U.S. Green Building Council, which sets standards for buildings known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).

The award earned PCC an invitation to take part in the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which took place Nov. 6-17 in Bonn, Germany, as part of a non-federal delegation.

Even though President Donald Trump announced last year he would seek to withdraw the United States by 2020 from the 2015 Paris accords — under which nations set voluntary goals for greenhouse-gas reductions — there were U.S. participants from a consortium known as "We Are Still In," which sponsored a 27,000-square-foot pavilion at the conference. PCC was part of it.

"Even though the current administration has pulled out of the Paris accords, the country as a whole has not," Mitsui said.

Among the participants were the governors of Oregon, California and Washington — Kate Brown, Jerry Brown and Jay Inslee — who in Mitsui's description were like "rock stars" because of the international media attention they drew. Others were state and local officials, educators, businesses and foundations.

"Education was important all across the spectrum," Mitsui said, both to raise public awareness and spread knowledge about best practices.

Only war-torn Syria has not joined the global accords.

Guiding PCC's efforts are Jim Harper, a board member from Hillsboro; Sandra Fowler-Hill, PCC Rock Creek campus president; Briar Schoon, director of sustainability, and Kate Chester, director of community relations.

Mitsui came to PCC in fall 2016 after a stint as deputy assistant secretary for community colleges in the U.S. Department of Education.

He was at North Seattle College as vice president for student services from 2006 to 2010, and president from 2010 to 2013, when he took the federal position.

PCC's efforts

Mitsui said PCC's efforts fall into four categories:

• Workforce training, not only for developing renewable sources such as solar and wind power, but also repairing all-electric and hybrid cars, and constructing "green" buildings and landscaping.

"We can help prepare students for the new clean-energy sector, and through bridging the skills gap, help the clean-energy sector grow."

• Operations, such as reducing PCC's energy footprint by 65 percent and its greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent since 2006, largely through energy-efficiency measures and use of cleaning agents that have little or no toxic chemicals. Mitsui said PCC is using more electric-powered carts but still has work to do.

He said the Rock Creek campus is among those with "learning gardens," which also yield produce for needy students and campus food service.

• Curriculum, where "sustainability and climate action are woven into almost all disciplines."

Mitsui also said a number of PCC students come from neighborhoods affected by polluting factories, freeways and other facilities undesired elsewhere. "A lot of students have lived it and enrich that discussion" of environmental justice, he said.

• Policy: Mitsui said PCC must live up to its stated goals in third-party accreditation, which enables college students to receive federal aid and transfer academic credits.

In his opening remarks, and in a question-and-answer session afterward, Mitsui responded to skeptics of climate change.

He said the best evidence comes from the amount of carbon dioxide detected in core ice samples dating back 400,000 years.

"It's really since the Industrial Age, and particularly in the past 30 years, that you see this skyrocketing of CO2 levels in the atmosphere. In the past 400,000 years, CO2 levels have never been this high," he said.

"We know it has something to do with us, what we are doing, and what we may be able to do about it."

In response to a questioner who said plants depend on carbon dioxide, Mitsui said: "We are not in danger because we do not have enough carbon dioxide. We are in danger because we have way too much."

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