Thinking about the intersection of higher education and climate change sometimes can be daunting in its scope and complexity. Sometimes small, individual stories are a good way into the topic.
Today’s case in point: a Russian gas tanker just traveled successfully across most of the Arctic Ocean bordering Asia. Twice.
Why does this matter?
It’s the first time someone has traversed this route. It shows that Arctic sea ice is withdrawing and thinning. Global warming is weakening that polar ice cap so much that what was once impossible – sailing north of Siberia in February – is now doable. This ties into one of the huge stories of our time, largely unnoticed, the opening up of the Arctic world. A field of scientific, commercial, and geopolitical contestation is emerging right now.
But what does this have to do with higher education?
Think about a range of future connections.
Research Polar studies is being radically transformed. For a parallel, imagine what would happen to linguistics and communication departments if humans suddenly developed telepathy.
Other fields also address the transformed Arctic. Think of Earth science as a whole, from oceanography to meteorology. Political science (new tangles between nations), history (which nations touch the Arctic? Canada, Russia, the United States, Denmark, Norway, Iceland…), and economics (new trade routes which means changes to current ones) also weigh in. Add to this many engineering challenges, from shipping to port construction to new platforms and petroleum engineering.
Campus endowments At some point colleges and universities with endowments will face investment choices around the changing Arctic. An increasingly accessible seabed may provide sites for mining. Ports around the Arctic Circle can grow. Climate change may, in this case, literally pay off for higher education.
Campus politics How will academic populations think and act about the warming Arctic? I’ve already mentioned two ways we can respond, in terms of research and finance, yet we could also see climate change activism turn north. Would activists who oppose endowments invested in fossil fuels oppose the same groups spending money in polar development?
Alternatively, would some campus populations want to join a rush to the pole? There’s certainly an intellectual excitement in grappling with the topic. You can get a related thrill in this Rosatom video, which openly brags about the gas transportation mission:
It is awesome to watch a mighty icebreaker just slide through vast sheets of ice. It gives off a buzz of successful engineering and exploration.
But note that that’s a Russian mission. There’s a touch of national and also former Soviet pride there in the name of one of the ships, 50 Year Victory (50 лет победы). Will such Arctic efforts elicit proud support on campuses within the same nations? Imagine, say, a new American ship that navigates from Prudhoe all around the Arctic and back. How many students or academic departments will use an image of that as an inspirational screensaver?
Such competition could then elicit pushback. Would a Norwegian campus encourage its Arctic experts to compete with those from Denmark? Could Canadian or American campus activists urge their fellows to not engage with a polar region dominated by Russia, if politics run in an anti-Moscow channel? International tension could play against international research and student exchanges.
Other connections are possible. Such individual stories can help us think about where climate change as a whole may be heading.