Life on Earth can recover from a drastic climate shift by evolving into new species and creating new ecosystems. Humans cannot.
Every few years the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issues reports on the climate crisis. These documents are hugely important for the global conversation about the topic, not least because they summarize cutting-edge science and offer policy recommendations. The most recent one, the Fifth Assessment Report (a/k/a AR5), appeared in 2014.
The next big IPCC report is due out next year sometime, yet Agence France-Presse seems to have grabbed an early draft copy.
AFP scored a world scoop by publishing a new and very concerning draft report from UN climate experts. The report serves as the international reference document to measure how the planet is warming.
Hundreds of scientists contributed to this 4,000-page report, the previous edition of which came out in 2014. Their assessment of the speed and consequences of climate change is more alarming than ever.
As far as I can tell APF has not shared that big, 4K document at all. They have so far only shared an introductory article, made this piece for syndication, and created this video:
Writeups from other sources, like this, rapidly appeared, but they don’t add much beyond recapping the APF summary.
What can we say about this ghostly report now, as it impacts higher education?
Put another way, should we even spend time on this leak-in-process? We don’t have much to go on, after all. And the document is a draft, meaning the actual report will differ once it appears next year. Yet probing it can have some uses. The APF notice gives us a glimpse of the climate crisis in time, showing warnings being sounded as the United States apparently backs away from major steps. Discussing it might set us up for the report next year. And for higher education, which all too often isn’t strategizing on climate change, the APF leak might be a useful prompt. Or even a needed goad.
The summary repeats the threats those following climate change already know: “Species extinction, more widespread disease, unliveable heat, ecosystem collapse, cities menaced by rising seas.” Those threats hit unevenly and unjustly: “those least responsible for global warming will suffer disproportionately, the report makes clear.”
One key change in the report is the finding that these dangers are growing, and their advent “accelerating… bound to become painfully obvious before a child born today turns 30.” The APF video starts with the claim that parts of coastal cities, and entire urban areas located on the edge of major bodies of water, will be wiped out.
More, major tipping points or “dangerous thresholds are closer than once thought… A dozen temperature trip wires have now been identified in the climate system for irreversible and potentially catastrophic change.” And some impacts are already being felt: “A warming world has also increased the length of fire seasons, doubled potential burnable areas, and contributed to food systems losses.”
There is also a powerful metaphor for describing some changes in the nonhuman, natural world:
…even as we spew record amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we are undermining the capacity of forests and oceans to absorb them, turning our greatest natural allies in the fight against warming into enemies. [emphases added]
What does this mean for higher education? Well, that’s the subject of the book I’m frantically writing, so I’ll try to be quick here and focus just on what the APF is reporting, then link it directly to academia.
Cities being partially or entirely wiped out, abandoned – how many campuses are located in such urban areas? How many are planning for migration or some sort of defensive measures for long-term persistence on site? Which academic researchers are studying this? And for the cultural heritage sites in the path of rising water, how many universities and colleges are planning on their protection, relocation, or other forms of preservation?
Social justice – for campuses focusing now on issues of racial inequality and inequity, are they also extending that awareness to climate justice? Recall how the AFP account emphasizes that climate dangers will fall (and are starting to fall) on marginalized populations.
Storytelling – in the AFP video Climate Central’s Ben Strauss asks us to think about the stories future generations will tell of our time. Which researchers are studying this now?
Let me leave with this concluding thought from the AFP writeup:
We need transformational change operating on processes and behaviours at all levels: individual, communities, business, institutions and governments… We must redefine our way of life and consumption.
Just how far is academia thinking in terms of reinvention during the climate crisis?
More as the AFP releases it.
One lesson from the pandemic is that our society is generally not very good at anticipating non-linear change. I recall getting eye-rolls when I suggested on Feb 25th, 2020 that we needed a pandemic continuity task force, and less than 3 weeks later we were working 100% virtually from homes on total lock-down. Each IPCC report seems to state “this is happening much faster than we thought when we wrote the last report”. We should probably expect the 7th assessment to state something like “no need for more forecasts, it’s here” as the re-recalibrated models and accelerating conditions converge.
In contemplating what all this might mean for higher ed and the question of reinvention, could there also be a need to understand how our system of education itself contributes to the ecological destruction underpinning the destablization of our climate? Or as the recent essay “Educating for the Future We Want” by Stephen Sterling puts it: “Our educational systems are implicated in the multiple crises before us, and without meaningful rethinking, they will remain maladaptive agents of business as usual, leading us into a dystopian future nobody wants.” (See: https://greattransition.org/gti-forum/pedagogy-transition-sterling)
Inspired by this article and your posts on climate change, I started sketching an organizing framework for a spectrum of HE responses to climate and ecological unraveling. I’ve developed this partly in response to the current 60-year curriculum notion which seems to be premised on a linear projection of business-as-usual techno-optimism; shiny cities filled with digital workers powered by renewable technologies. However, as this leak from the IPCC report makes clear, in 60 years a good number of those shiny cities will be permanently flooded (and the beaches underwater… what will be spring break without beaches?), and the energy physics for the renewables build-out just doesn’t add up (see Tom Murphy’s blog Do the Math: https://dothemath.ucsd.edu/2021/05/why-worry-about-collapse/
) which is going to constrain all those energy-intensive data-centers, AI miracles, and blockchain applications. Not to mention a future of renewables means we’re simply trading Big Oil for Big Lithium as events in places like Thacker Pass, Nevada are showing (https://www.protectthackerpass.org/a-little-math/). We’re likely to discover that the cleanest, greenest energy is no energy, which of course doesn’t align well with dreams of a “synergistic digital economy” (https://er.educause.edu/articles/2020/10/the-60-year-curriculum-a-strategic-response-to-a-crisis). And we may run into those energy constraints much sooner than we think, as the drought and heatwaves in the western US this summer affect energy demand and supply (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-05-13/u-s-west-facing-white-knuckle-summer-with-power-in-short-supply
). How to teach/learn online in an era of rolling blackouts?
The next 60 years is likely to be much less shiny than a linear projection of the present suggests, and so the need for models of structural change that go much deeper. Which leads to the framework…
1) The Sustainable Campus – Current standard model to address problems of CO2 emissions and waste. Solar panels on the roof; campus composting; programs and research in sustainability and climate justice topics; triple (even quadruple!) bottom lines. Has yet to examine the question: what are we trying to sustain?
2) The Resilient Campus – Structural changes for business continuity through crisis. Seeing a few glimpses of this thinking post-pandemic (http://www.hewv.com/knowledge-cafe/resilience-in-practice-resilient-campus-planning-11/
). Many of the pandemic response strategies are good examples of developing resilient structures, such as: staff redeployment programs; developing/maintaining the ability to rapidly change teaching & learning modalities; putting in place extended support for impacted students; divestment of problematic real estate; etc. Institute retains the same foundational principles, identity, mission, and worldview.
3) The Deeply Adaptive Campus – Bendellian (Bendellesque?) expansion of mission to include reducing harm, saving what we can, and promoting creative responses to crisis. Campus as climate sanctuary; community rehabilitation partnerships; psycho/social support for students, faculty, staff, and their families; re-wilding campus lands; ag extension schools as food-supply re-localization hubs. Or as you’ve written Bryan: “A 60-year curriculum now means considering teaching how to survive or address civilizational crises.” Assumes (requires?) a context of crisis and instability; potentially self-fulfilling outlook.
4) The Regenerative Academy – A fundamental epistemological shift in service to restoring life on Earth. Campus as garden; integration of indigenous wisdom traditions into curricula; gift-based and de-growth financial models, negative interest student loans; de-institutionalization and re-localization of education within community. Deep philosophical and cultural shift required to, in Sterling’s words: “escape from the bedrocks of the prevalent education epistemology—reductionism, objectivism, materialism, and dualism.”
What’s interesting is that there are various institutions, departments, organizations, and people acting at these different levels already, some within and a great many outside the HE ecosystem (particularly for levels 3 and 4). Perhaps the (other) future is already here, it too is just unevenly distributed.
Jeremy, how do these ideas work under capitalism, when there is an enormous profit to be made from war, famine, and pestilence? I can see these programs on a small scale, as corporate PR, but not as any form of necessary revolution. That said, I hope and pray I’m wrong.
Some have suggested we’ve moved beyond capitalism and into economic catabolism (https://www.catabolic-capitalism.com/), which profits from devouring the society it’s meant to sustain.
On the other hand, we also have an opportunity to expand the definition of what is ‘capital’ — we do this already with ideas of ‘social capital’ ‘political capital’ etc. So we can modify our story of how the world works to include ideas of ecological capital. We’re heading in that direction with “ecosystems services” that seek to put a dollar value on, say, the ability of a healthy forest to filter water so that its drinkable.
In the meantime, all revolutions start at a small scale. The legacy of the online education / MOOC-mania of 2012/2013 is the proliferation of cheap and easy-to-use courseware technology, which has allowed anyone and everyone to put up a course, program, etc around everything under the sun (for example, here’s an interesting course on climate change: https://www.commonearth.com/). This has greatly expanded the universe of learning opportunities and allowed otherwise marginalized groups to share / teach new ideas globally. Systemic step-change always comes from the margins… capitalism was once a fringe concept not that long ago 🙂
Bryan, yes, the effects of climate change are not distributed equally and never have been distributed fairly. I hope you will interview Robert D. Bullard, the Father of Environmental Justice, before your book Universities on Fire is published. Dr. Bullard’s wisdom is so extensive and so inspirational that it’s overwhelming.