One Last Chance | Sustainability

Public and academic libraries should be leaders in moving away from fossil fuels, prioritizing investments in net-zero energy construction, renewable energy, and electric vehicles. This requires commitment from leadership in facility and budget planning. Library administration and governing boards of trustees need to step up to prioritize greenhouse gas emission reduction in their strategic and operational planning.

Rebekkah Smith Aldrich head shot“We are walking when we should be sprinting,” said Hoesung Lee, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) at the United Nations, upon the release of the latest report from the panel in March 2023. “The pace and scale of what has been done so far and current plans are insufficient to tackle climate change.”

In the report, endorsed by 195 countries, climate scientists estimate we have one more decade to hold global warming to an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius or face deadly extreme weather resulting in catastrophic heat waves, flooding, drought, crop failures, and species extinction. The Earth has already warmed by 1.1 degrees Celsius since 1880, and if we continue our current pace, it will warm by 2.1 to 2.9 degrees Celsius this century. A “quantum leap” in climate action is called for immediately.

As our national leaders contend with policymaking and investments through the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) library leaders need to step up and act quickly, prioritizing climate action now. Not only is it the right thing to do for humanity in the long term, but such a response will position libraries to receive funding being provided to help with climate action in the next five years. The IRA provides for direct payments to nonprofits and governmental agencies equivalent to the tax credits businesses will receive through many renewable energy and electric vehicle related expenditures.



For most of our lives, we have been taught that climate action requires the mitigation, or reduction, of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). Greenhouse gases trap heat and make the planet warmer. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), human activities are responsible for almost all the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere over the last 150 years. The largest sources of GHG from human activities in the United States are from burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation. Fossil fuels include coal, oil, and natural gas.

However, personal and professional choices related to where we get our energy from, and how we transport ourselves and items around the globe, are the single greatest personal actions we can take to mitigate climate change. Public and academic libraries should be leaders in moving away from fossil fuels, prioritizing investments in net-zero energy construction—meaning that a building balances its energy needs with energy produced from renewable, zero-emission sourcesrenewable energy, and electric vehicles (EV). This requires commitment from leadership in facility and budget planning. Library administration and governing boards of trustees need to step up to prioritize GHG emission reduction in their strategic and operational planning.

Because of the impacts climate change has already had on our world, we must concurrently be planning toward climate adaptation. Climate adaptation means taking action to prepare for and adjust to current and projected impacts of climate change. As has become painfully obvious, climate change is already here and wreaking havoc across the country in the form of atmospheric rivers, increasingly severe weather, and extended heat waves—to name just a few visible impacts.

In a national research study, the results of which will be released at this June’s American Library Association’s Annual Conference in Chicago at a program titled “The Storm is Already Here: A National Study on Public Library Disaster Preparedness and Community Resilience,” the team of researchers (I am one) heard from 1,000 library leaders from every U.S. state. They weighed in on topics related to resilient building design, internal disaster preparedness planning documentation, relationships with emergency management personnel, direct support for communities in the aftermath of weather-related disasters, disaster recovery training, and more. The bottom line? There is much work to be done.

Library exterior with cactus plantings in front
New zero net energy branch library of San Diego County Library in Lakeside, CA

Libraries in the Sustainable Libraries Initiative’s award-winning Sustainable Library Certification Program (SLCP), recognized as early adopters in this work, are leading the way. The Concord Free Public Library, MA—one of the newest members of the SLCP—aims to be carbon neutral in 2030, a goal documented in its Sustainability Plan. The library is developing a zero net energy plan for existing buildings: adhering to sustainable building principles for all upgrades and creating a sustainable operations and maintenance guide. The San Diego County Library, the first in California to join the SLCP, just opened a zero net energy branch; retired two diesel-fueled bookmobiles, replacing them with four all-electric bookmobiles; and will soon feature EV charging at all locations.

The South Huntington Public Library, NY, one of the first libraries in the country to complete the SLCP, embedded a long-term focus on climate adaptation into its planning, investing in infrastructure upgrades to minimize disruption of library services during weather-related emergencies and other unpredictable events, offering public programming like “Wacky Weather: Are You Prepared?”, and strengthening local connections through events that help residents connect with the first responder community.

“In the immediate aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, with the library without power, our staff felt helpless to aide our community,” said Director Janet Scherer. “Since then we have worked with purpose to ensure our library can be there for the community in the aftermath of future severe weather events. Most important, we gained a seat at the table with our town council where we were able to impress upon them that our local libraries should be considered as a top priority when restoring electricity during future emergencies. We are confident that this work will ensure that our community is strong, connected, and resilient in the face of future disasters.”

Rebekkah Smith Aldrich is Executive Director, Mid-Hudson Library System, Poughkeepsie, NY; cofounder of the Sustainable Libraries Initiative; a judge for LJ’s New Landmark Libraries; and an LJ Mover & Shaker.

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