Academia and the climate crisis: snapshots from June, 2023

How might colleges and universities respond to climate change?

I’d like to share several recent stories in this post.  They range from enrollment and academic politics to insurance company behavior.

One caveat: this is just three stories from an enormously complex and huge topic. While we can deduce something from what follows, please don’t read them as dispositive.

ITEM: students at a series of Virginia universities are pressuring administrations to divest from fossil fuel businesses.  Such pressure has taken the form of student government resolutions, student journalism, and petitions, plus demonstrations and political theater:

At the University of Richmond, students in the Green UR group met with university Chief Operating Officer David Hale in February and conducted a march around campus in March…

University of Richmond students march with banner reading end-fossil-finance_Chronicle 2023 June

members of [Virginia Commonwealth University]’s Green Action! this April delivered a divestment petition to President Michael Rao’s office that was placed on a model planet in a casket. The petition also asked the university to provide greater transparency on where investments are going and release data about the school’s carbon emissions.

So far, it seems to still be early days, as “only the University of Virginia has responded to student pressure by altering its investments.”  You can see samples of resistance in this statement:

“You want to balance what you’re doing for students today versus what [you’re doing for] students for tomorrow,” said Bruce MacDonald, chief investment officer for VCU Investment Management Company. “How can we do it so we’re not hurting people today and just favoring people tomorrow? But we also don’t want to kill everybody tomorrow.”

I see these Virginia drives as part of a nationwide, rising current of student (and some faculty and staff) interests in campus divestment as part of growing concern about the climate crisis.

ITEM: another major insurance company is changing its offerings in response to climate change.  The American International Group “is now set to curb home-insurance sales for affluent customers in around 200 ZIP codes across the US.”  Those regions include states dangerously exposed to sea level rise, but also those likely to be hit by high temperatures and desertification: “New York, Delaware, Florida, Colorado, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.”

Note how the Insurance Journal describes this move.  It’s hardly a green or left wing outfit, and yet read their analysis:

the AIG move stands out, both because of the broadness of its reach — touching states that are not normally considered in the high-risk pool — and what that breadth says about the years to come. A warming world means rising waters, stronger storms, more wildfires and more places experiencing extreme weather and natural disasters. Anyone in a high-risk area, whether the woods of New Jersey or the floodplains of Illinois, could see their access to insurance affected.

Remember, the insurance industry bases its every move on data.  This story is not exception:

Insurance experts say the industry’s reaction tracks. Natural-disaster losses from 2020-2022 in the US caused a record $275 billion in insured damages, according to the American Property and Casualty Insurance Association. Those figures, combined with the impact of high inflation on replacement costs, have insurers scrutinizing vulnerabilities beyond traditional regions of risk.

AIG’s move is not the first.  As I’ve been noting, other insurance companies have already been reducing their exposure to climate risks by cutting back offerings.

Unity Environmental University sealITEM: a small Maine college switched from in-person teaching to mostly online, and its environmental curriculum drew a massive enrollment increaseUnity Environmental University (Unity College, until recently) now teaches 95% of its students online, with more than 7000 of them, as compared to just 771 a decade ago.

Note how Unity’s upward spike compares to the situations of its geographic neighbors:

Unity’s hard online pivot comes as numerous small, private colleges across the U.S. are struggling. Looking at Unity’s neighbors in the Northeast—which have traditionally focused on residential experiences, as Unity previously did—many colleges have closed due to declining enrollment. And amid difficult economic headwinds, experts expect more colleges to close in the future.

What can we take away from these stories?

Broadly, we’re seeing rising interest in addressing global warming.  The insurance company decision really strikes me, as AIG is a very conservative company by nature and reputation.  At a smaller n the Virginia and Unity stories point to growing interest – among students, and those faculty and staff willing to support them.

The Unity story fascinates me.  It’s one college out of 4,000, and an outlier in many ways: super-tiny to start with, in Maine (unusually underpopulated, white, rural compared to the rest of the USA), and apparently capable of flipping from almost entirely in-person to almost entirely online. Yet it’s one datapoint in favor of an argument I’ve been making for a while: if you build more climate classes, they (the students) will likely come.

Politics: review the range of Virginia divestment tactics. That sketches out various ways academics might press for climate action.  Watch for more.

Insurance: has any college or university experienced anything like this so far?  That is, has any insurance provider refused to cover your campus when it lies in these high risk zones?  Or, instead of cutting you off, increased costs and/or reduced coverage?

If you’re interested in this topic – and if you work in or near academia, you should be – check out my recent book all about it, Universities on Fire.

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2 Responses to Academia and the climate crisis: snapshots from June, 2023

  1. Jeremy Stanton says:

    The insurance piece is very interesting. I’ve always suspected that actuaries would be watching very closely for future risks from climate change and that we’d see important signals from the insurance industry. Banks don’t usually provide mortgages without insurance, so these insurance moves seem set to drive changes in the housing markets in these zip codes; and/or might we see homebuilders lobby for state public insurance schemes a la Florida? I imagine there is an inflection point in the insurance & mortgage payback models where the probability of significant property damage from sea-level rise overlaps the time horizon of the loan payback to the point that it makes no economic sense to provide the loan, and these loan refusals would trigger a “Minsky moment” in certain housing markets. That could appear suddenly as ocean temp spikes (like the one we’re seeing this year) lead to sudden model recalibrations.

    In one of Kim Stanley Robinson’s books, one of the big stakeholders in the climate mitigation activities turned out to be Swiss reinsurance companies who were staring down trillion-dollar payouts related to the high likelihood of submerged coastal infrastructure. Seems like that moment is arriving soon.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Exactly right, Jeremy. I track insurance companies for a lot of purposes, and the ground reason being because they are research and data *machines*.

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