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.
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.
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.