Education  May 2, 2022

CU’s first chief of sustainability advocates with UN summit

BOULDER — The University of Colorado’s first ever chief sustainability officer has a lot on her plate. In addition to the day-to-day responsibilities of managing sustainability on a 30,000-student campus, Heidi VanGenderen has to prepare for the United Nations’ upcoming Right Here, Right Now Global Climate Summit, to be held from Dec. 1-4.

“The University of Colorado Boulder has a long, rich history in its activism and its reputation, in the realm of sustainability,” VanGenderen said. 

CU Boulder is well-known for its history of activism. The school’s first student-led environmental center has operated for more than 50 years, and current students continue that legacy by finding sustainable solutions for the future.

“The first student-led environmental center was established 52 years ago, at CU Boulder, and it’s not that I came into a job that had no footprint prior to my coming into the position,” VanGenderen said.

VanGenderen got her start focusing on energy and its impacts on the environment. Prior to developing her role as chief sustainability officer, she worked with the U.S. Department of Energy and in former Gov. Bill Ritter’s administration.

“I was excited to be able to branch out beyond energy, but energy remains a key focus in all of the work that we do, because I think of energy as the circulatory system, really, within the broader ecosystem of human development,” VanGenderen said.

A focus on energy policy has led VanGenderen to work on advocacy in favor of more responsible energy production. In addition to serving as the state’s first gubernatorial adviser on climate change, she directed outreach with the American Council on Renewable Energy and public engagement with the U.S. Department of Energy.

“The transformation of the energy economy right now remains an extreme imperative, if we are to successfully address human contribution to climate change,” VanGenderen said.

VanGenderen sees climate change as not just an environmental issue but as a social justice issue, and CU’s partnership with the UN reflects that.

“We are very, very pleased to be partnering with the United Nations’ human rights division,” VanGenderen said.

It’s not just through the university’s partnership with the UN’s Right Here, Right Now Global Climate Alliance that VanGenderen feels the importance of climate justice.

“At the base of all efforts within the realm of sustainability is social equity and social justice,” VanGenderain said.

That extends from topics as basic as food insecurity to as daunting as droughts and floods impacting areas in poverty sooner and more severely. VanGenderen and the United Nations hold access to clean air and water as important human rights, in addition to more commonly-held beliefs in the right to life and liberty.

“Looking at that imperative through the lens of those most vulnerable and those most affected by climate change, meaning those who are least able to protect themselves, so the very young, the very old, those who are disabled, those who are impoverished, is at the aim of the framing of this global climate summit,” VanGenderen said.

VanGenderen’s commitment to sustainability has lasted as long as she’s lived in Colorado. Born and raised in the state, she spent a lot of time outdoors.

“I’m a third generation Colorado native, and that’s a blessing in and of itself, and it means that I was exposed to the beauty and the importance of the natural world shortly after I was born, and that was a great gift,” VanGenderen said.

VanGenderen’s connection to conservation connects back through her family tree. VanGenderen is descended from Warwick M. Downing, considered by some to be the father of Denver’s mountain park system, which includes iconic spots like Red Rocks. His work in Colorado was not necessarily always environmentally friendly, though, as in addition to his conservation work he furthered the interests of the oil and gas industry.

“He appeared to me to be a slight contradiction in terms, as he was a huge believer in the exploitation of oil shale on Colorado’s western slope, as one example,” VanGenderen said.

The upcoming Right Here, Right Now Global Climate Summit is only the first in a long line of plans for the university, VanGenderen hopes. The December event is set to gather experts in environmental science and human rights to work on meaningful strategies to prevent ecological collapse.

BOULDER — The University of Colorado’s first ever chief sustainability officer has a lot on her plate. In addition to the day-to-day responsibilities of managing sustainability on a 30,000-student campus, Heidi VanGenderen has to prepare for the United Nations’ upcoming Right Here, Right Now Global Climate Summit, to be held from Dec. 1-4.

“The University of Colorado Boulder has a long, rich history in its activism and its reputation, in the realm of sustainability,” VanGenderen said. 

CU Boulder is well-known for its history of activism. The school’s first student-led environmental center has operated for more than 50 years, and current students…

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