Extreme heat, reduced rivers, and higher education

For years I’ve been researching and writing about the impact of climate change on higher education. This summer has brought global warming to the forefront; will academia take the crisis more seriously as a result?

To recap from the past month: higher temperatures, too much water, and too little water, all exacerbated by the climate crisis have wracked the world.  Let’s start with China, where an unusually high heat wave is hitting province after province:

On 18 August, the temperature in Chongqing in Sichuan province reached 45°C (113°F), the highest ever recorded in China outside the desert-dominated region of Xinjiang. On 20 August, the temperature in the city didn’t fall below 34.9°C (94.8°F), the highest minimum temperature ever recorded in China in August. The maximum temperature was 43.7°C (110.7°F).

It is the longest and hottest heatwave in China since national records began in 1961.

Which is bad for reasons we’ll discuss, but I wanted to add this detail:

According to weather historian Maximiliano Herrera, who monitors extreme temperatures around the world, it is the most severe heatwave recorded anywhere.

“This combines the most extreme intensity with the most extreme length with an incredibly huge area all at the same time,” he says. “There is nothing in world climatic history which is even minimally comparable to what is happening in China.”

In Pakistan the monsoon has arrived earlier, apparently thanks to global warming, which has spawned horrendous flooding across that nation.   Property destruction, deaths, homelessness are all rising.  One third of the county’s surface area is under water and one in seven Pakistanis hit by it, according to the BBC. Bill McKibben has a fine, furious post on the story, and he shares these terrifying clips of the flooding:


Too much water or too little: in the Horn of Africa, three nations suffer from a 40-year drought. It’s worse now, as an “unprecedented four failed rainy seasons has killed millions of livestock, destroyed crops and forced 1.1 million people from their homes in search of food and water.”  Again, climate change is not the cause, but an accelerant.

In Europe higher temperatures have shrunk major rivers, including the Loire, Rhine (finally recovering), and Danube.

(What about the American megadrought?  That’s for another post.)

The damages and suffering are staggering. Floods and dehydration kill and injure people. Property destruction leads to financial losses and homelessness. Reduced rivers reduce shipping, hydroelectric power, nuclear power, and tourism, with all kinds of economic costs, even threatening to cut shipments of Chinese rare earths essential to electronics.  Droughts starve crops of water, making food more expensive and increasing hunger.

Those are direct impacts. Think of the secondary ones. Economic dislocation can breed further economic problems, especially in our hyperconnected world. This can lead to industries declining, recessions, a tide of human pain, as well as governmental responses and nonprofit activity.  Populations suffering from this can be more vulnerable to extremists political, religious, and cultural. We could see increases in substance abuse and domestic violence.  And so on.

And that’s not even mentioning other developments and trends which engage with this particular problem cluster.  Crop destruction, for example, is even more of a problem when the Ukrainian harvest is forced down. Parts of China’s economy and society are both already stressed by a current COVID wave and that nation’s strict response.

This is the present, happening now. Everything we have seen in climate science tells us things will just get worse. Even if we take major steps now, which we’re not, the amount of greenhouse gases we’ve added to the atmosphere have built in continued temperature rises.  We should therefore prepare for further heatwaves and their knock-on effects.

So what does this have to do with colleges and universities?

I’ve been modeling that intersection for the past two years, and have concluded that the answer is it’s a multi-leveled interaction. Here’s one infographic I made for Universities on Fire (now available for preorder):

How higher education engages with the climate crisis_overall

To break it down, moving from left to right: these heatwaves and floods impact campus grounds.  Media coverage hasn’t said much on this score, but physical campuses are as vulnerable as the rest of civilization’s built environment to too much rain, storm surges, and drought.  Extreme heat and water can hit the academic population, from students to staff and faculty members.

Such terrible weather also impacts some of our research agenda.  Storms, floods, etc. can damage research sites, from libraries and archives to archaeological digs to flora and fauna to specialized laboratories. On the other side of the coin, some (and I suspect an increasing number of) researchers will study these events in various academic disciplines: meteorology, hydrology, urban studies, economics, Earth science, etc.  The latter do not have to be colocated with the severe weather conditions, of course.

Similarly, floods and heat waves can intersect with postsecondary teaching in several ways. There is the nightmarish practical problem of classes scheduled to take place in these dangerous areas, and how to relocate them, shift them online, or defer teaching them – above all, how to keep students, faculty, and support staff safe.  There is also the intellectual aspect, whereby events may provide useful examples for certain classes, and eventually appear in different curricula. French nuclear reactors lowering their output because of declining river levels, for example, might prove a useful case study for certain engineering classes. Further, instructors face the challenge of teaching some students who experienced these disasters and bring some echoes of that experience, perhaps in the form of trauma, to class.

There are two more dimensions of the academia-climate relationship to consider. Moving along the infographic, we proceed to how a given academic institution interacts with the world.  First, a given campus exists in close connection to its immediate community.  (In American higher ed, we call this “town-gown” relations.)  When the area is inundated by floods, parched by aridity, or brutalized by dangerous heat, what happens to that connection?  For example, what is the responsibility of a college or university to assist its neighbors in providing shelter, emergency aid, cooling spaces, mental health support? Can a campus count on its neighbors to provide them with the same?

Second, academic institutions exist in the broader world, despite the semi-mythical ivory tower idea. Is such a disaster a subject for campus public intellectuals to address? Would local governments ask for faculty members to advise them?  What risks do individual academics and their home institutions run when the former act upon the world stage? Recall that networked and mobile digital devices give any member of an academic community the potential, however slim, to appear on that stage through media capture and production.

This is just a framework. You can probably generate other examples of the interaction between academics and the climate crisis.  The key things here are, first, to realize what’s happening in the world right now and, second, to start planning for what their worse successors might do.

In the meantime, I will follow up with another post looking at the North American heat crisis and its role in higher education.  And send my hopes to everyone afflicted by this intercontinental disaster.

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3 Responses to Extreme heat, reduced rivers, and higher education

  1. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Bryan, is any of this important work of yours getting into the mainstream media ahead of Universities on Fire? And is there a tentative release date yet for the book? Also, how do US universities handle resistance from the surge in Christian Nationalism (and their anti-climate ideas) sweeping the nation?

  2. Terri says:

    Maybe the problem is we thought the world was a present given to us, to do with as we pleased. And we are now so alarmed the universe isn’t go along with our plans? It’s amazing that we didn’t anticipate that things might change. Because they always have on this planet.

  3. Joe Murphy says:

    You have often pointed out the way that the climate crisis can provide direction and focus for research, and of course that’s true. But something about this post makes me wonder about the other side. At what point do drought and water use restrictions impact the progress of science? What does a lab look like when water use is curtailed? I’m thinking about sanitation first and foremost, but also watering lab animals, water use in chemistry, physics, engineering experiments?

    To work with your model, will some communities write regulations which protect university teaching and research water use, and others choose to curtail it as “outsider” or non-critical use?

    Even if the answer is that legal restrictions aren’t likely to aim at higher ed differently than any other organization, I imagine a lot of localities might try a market solution first and just increase the cost of water. How does an institution address that kind of cost across departments? (Should they?)

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