Climate change: another week of a ratcheting up crisis

I’m writing this post in between a series of projects in various stages of deadlines.  Publishing the June FTTE report, getting ready to head out to the Reclaim conference, organizing a stack of in-person and virtual speaking engagements into next March, getting Future Trends Forum sessions set up through September, more interviews and book talks for Universities on Fire, preparing fall classes, advancing the next book projects … there’s a lot in the air here.  So this post may be shorter than usual.

Today’s topic: simply that the climate crisis is continuing to ratchet up.

ITEM: the state of Arizona called a halt to new housing in suburban Phoenix and its unincorporated areas.  Why?  Because water scarcity in that very arid land keeps growing as a problem and research indicates the situation will become more difficult.

ITEM: old libraries in a Mauritanian city are increasingly under threat from the expanding desert.

Mauritania city of Chinguetti from the air_WaPo 2023 June

ITEM: major insurer State Farm announced it would not offer many new policies (“including all business and personal lines property and casualty insurance”) in the state of California.  Why it is cutting back?  Several reasons: “historic increases in construction costs outpacing inflation, rapidly growing catastrophe exposure, and a challenging reinsurance market.” Rapidly growing catastrophe exposure indeed.   For one of the largest and most sophisticated economies in the world. And this is blue state, already committed to climate adaptation and mitigation.

ITEM: a new paper in Nature finds that humanity is – right now – overshooting most of our planetary boundaries.

[W]e use modelling and literature assessment to quantify safe and just Earth system boundaries (ESBs) for climate, the biosphere, water and nutrient cycles, and aerosols at global and subglobal scales. We propose ESBs for maintaining the resilience and stability of the Earth system (safe ESBs) and minimizing exposure to significant harm to humans from Earth system change (a necessary but not sufficient condition for justice)… Seven of eight globally quantified safe and just ESBs and at least two regional safe and just ESBs in over half of global land area are already exceeded.

ITEM: a massive fire has burned across two Canadian provinces for the past several weeks, and now another one is apparently uncontrolled in two more.

In total, more than 3 million acres have burned in 1,981 fires in Canada so far this year. As of Friday, Canada has 165 wildfires burning out of control, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, including dozens in Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia. Quebec alone has 116 active wildfires.

ITEM: a wildfire in northern Michigan has burned for a week, expanding to cover more than 3,000 acres.

These are data points on the global stage.  Signals of the building crisis.

What do they mean for higher education?

We can start with the threat – and reality – of physical damage to a campus and its community from fire, aridity, desertification. The Mauritanian libraries face item degradation. In Michigan alone, I count about a half-dozen colleges and universities in the Frayling area:

northern Michigan colleges and universities near Grayling fire_2023 June 4

How do campuses react to these threats?  How do they plan ahead?

Second, we can respond to them by addressing them from within our several domains, from teaching to research, campus operations to public outreach.  Here’s my reliable schematic:

How higher education engages with the climate crisis_overall

Possibly the weekly ratchet of disaster and danger provides material for this work. And maybe some inspiration.

Third, on the other wise of that question, we might reflect on academia’s role in exacerbating global warming.  I don’t mean to assign to colleges and universities the decisive influence exercised by, say, Exxon. I mean instead to consider how we fulfilled those functions cited just above in ways which helped enable the crisis, or made it worse.  How many faculty have published research and taught classes which enabled fossil fuel extraction and consumption, such as petroleum engineering? How many instructors taught or otherwise communicated elements of economics, politics, history, and philosophy (to name a few) which encouraged audiences to buy too much, to burn too much, to collectively create a vast, planetary heating machine in its many details?

Again, our academic actions may have only played minor roles in the climate crisis. Yet should we reflect on them now?  Think of historical antecedents where academics contributed to developments we now (and perhaps then) deemed dangerous.

Fourth, it might get harder to protect academic institutions.  The State Farm story really strikes me.  Insurers have pulled out of Louisiana and Florida previously, but those are far more exposed to global warming, and Louisiana isn’t that big a market.  But California!  How many campuses should expect to see their insurance costs rise?  How many will be hit if the federal government cuts back its flood insurance support?

Fifth – the crisis is going to get worse, overall.  We’re still emitting greenhouse gases at scale. Decarbonization is starting to pick up, but is way behind where it should be now. The atmosphere holds enough CO2 and methane to keep us warming for a long time, even if we magically suspected greenhouse gas emission and left all fossil fuels in the ground.  Where we now stand may look pretty good compared to what the rest of the century has in store.


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4 Responses to Climate change: another week of a ratcheting up crisis

  1. Robin Cox says:

    All the points you raise are important reminders of where we are at in relationship to global warming and the climate crises, but in this and other posts about academia you fail to mention the role that academia can play and should play. We should be aggressively shifting our programs to include and foreground climate change and climate actions / mitigation and adaptation. We have a responsibility to ensure that students, in all disciplines are climate literate and understand action pathways in their disciplines and sectors. Universities and colleges can be sites of transformative change if we embrace that mission in our teaching, research, and service. It’s not just about cutting our emissions, it’s also about helping our academic communities – staff, faculty and students become part of the solution. Thank for keeping this conversation on climate change alive.

  2. Ralph wolff says:

    The biggest contribution of higher education is the “mindset” supporting values relating to growth, capitalism as the best if not only economic model, individualism and disciplinary silos. In other words, for too many climate change is not my discipline’s problem.

  3. Dahn Shaulis says:

    In 2010 I created a Facebook site titled “The Great Ruins of Las Vegas Tour” in anticipation of all this climate change denial–and its horrifying consequences. I even used Stephen King’s “The Stand” as a scenario. In the interim, the effects of climate change have intensified, and become more apparent to us, yet growth continues. What do we have to see for things to change for the better?

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