Several times academics have told me that climate change is “too futuristic” to discuss, in terms of how it impacts higher education. It no longer surprises me, but it is still interesting. I wish I could understand where that idea was coming from.
Because reality is pretty darned futuristic now. Last week I described climate change driven heat and water disasters around the world. Today’s case in point is California’s colleges and universities, baking in a brutal heat wave. Inside Higher Ed’s Sara Weissman has a very good article on this, which I’d like to draw on in this post.
The heat wave is threatening vulnerable people with injury. It is also testing the state’s electrical infrastructure, as people crank up air conditioning and fans.
How does it impact academia?
Weissman describes a series of different effects and responses on two levels: the physical and human campus, and also town-gown relations.
Shifting classes online is one option (which I’ve referred to as a Toggle Term in the COVID context) already in play: “Laney College in Oakland closed its campus Tuesday because of the heat, according to an email sent to students. Online courses were held, but in-person classes were canceled.” And this may have some downsides:
Mel Ehlers, a sophomore at Laney, didn’t have classes at the college Tuesday and was not affected by the closure, but she was worried it might inconvenience students who rely on campus services, such as the food pantry or on-campus showers.
“One concern I have for my classmates right now is that … many are using the campus for other basic resources,” she wrote in a[n unlinked] Twitter message.
For those institutions still offering in-person classes, relocating people across campus is an important move:
Jonathan Eldridge, assistant superintendent and vice president of student learning and success at the College of Marin, said the sustained heat has put a lot of pressure on the cooling systems in some buildings and made them less effective. As a result, some classes were moved to buildings where they wouldn’t normally meet.
Setting aside buildings as cooling spaces is essential, it seems, when other buildings lack air conditioning:
[California State University, East Bay] has some dorms that have fans but no air-conditioning. The university kept certain buildings open each day of the Labor Day weekend to ensure students, faculty and staff members would have somewhere air-conditioned to go.
Pomona College is having a similar experience:
The older dorms at Pomona College, which make up two-thirds of student housing, lack air-conditioning, said Avis Hinkson, dean of students and vice president of student affairs. Fifty cots have been set up in various air-conditioned places on campus for students to sleep on if their rooms are too warm. There aren’t enough beds for all the students who may need them, but she expects some students will stay with friends off campus or in the campus center, which is being kept open 24 hours a day as a cooling area for students. Water stations and mist machines have also been put up throughout campus as places for students to cool down.
Others have improvised cooling spaces:
Some faculty members have also gone out of their way to create air-conditioned areas where students can hang out, he said. For example, the chair of the performing arts department put extension cords, power strips and cold drinking water in the lobby of the performing arts building so students could use it as a lounge.
Urging social practices on the campus population is another strategy. The College of Marin recommended certain behaviors for safety:
Temperatures are forecast to reach or exceed the high 90s beginning Friday, September 2, to Tuesday, September 6.
Plan ahead and have a buddy system! During a heat wave, check on medically vulnerable family members, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. pic.twitter.com/wwINFLYIWq
— College of Marin (@CollegeofMarin) September 2, 2022
The aforementioned California State University campus has its own behavioral recommendations:
How you can stay cool:
Drink water! Stay hydrated–if you feel thirsty, you are already dehydrated
Avoid alcohol–that frosty beverage actually dehydrates you
Wear loose fitting, light clothing
Refrain from working and exercising outside during the hottest parts of the day (11 a.m.- 4 p.m.)
Check in on the elderly, young children, sick and those without air conditioning. Don’t forget about pets, too!
They also offer tips on “What do watch for with heat exposure” and what to do “If someone is showing signs of heat exhaustion.”
At a different level, the heat wave impacts academic institutions’ relationships with their local communities. Up above I mentioned the pressure on California’s electrical infrastructure, which has led to calls for people to use less electricity. So the same colleges and universities which are trying to increase their cooling services are also asked to cut them back. For example:
[Kimberly Hawkins, news and media manager at Cal State East Bay] said campus leaders are also trying to conserve power to comply with a Flex Alert, a call for state residents to voluntarily reduce their energy use, by the California Independent System Operator.
“The university is aware and doing what we can to play our part,” she said. “Housing residents have been provided educational messages on how they can take a role in conserving energy and staying cool during this period.”
Meanwhile, some academic institutions are making services available for their local communities. One is to offer cooling spaces to the town:
Pacific Union College, a private liberal arts institution, on Thursday designated an air-conditioned room in its on-campus church as a community cooling center where Napa County residents can cool off, use power outlets and drink ice water, the Napa Valley Register reported. The center could stay open past Sept. 8 depending on the level of need.
Another is to help firefighters, as California is notoriously prone to blazes:
Salish Kootenai College, a tribal college in Montana, is operating as a base for firefighters battling nearby wildfires, as it has done repeatedly over the last two years. President Sandra Boham said between 25 and 75 firefighters are staying in tents in the campus parking lot each night and using gym showers, in addition to portable showers brought to campus.
Let me take a step back from these details and stories for a minute. They represent several key ways the climate crisis can impact academia. They don’t cover each possible way. As I’ve said before, global warming intersects colleges and universities along multiple axes:
Today we’re looking primarily on the campus grounds and local community aspects. There’s potentially more to say about the California heat wave in terms of research, teaching, and these institutions’ connections with the broader world in the Anthropocene.
Now, California is just one American state and the United States is just one nation in the world, albeit a major actor in the climate crisis. This single story is a small case study on the global stage. The climate crisis will play out in different ways in different areas, depending on local conditions as well as their position in global system. My point is that we can learn a lot about the future of higher ed in global warming by paying attention to this early crisis incident. There will be many more to come.