Higher education and climate change: a snapshot of this month’s developments

How climate change may impact higher education: as I write more of Universities on Fire new developments and stories keep crossing my research radar.

Let me share several as a glimpse of the topic from the past few weeks.

ITEM: the United States National Weather Service decided to give up a research station in Chatham, Massachusetts, near Cape Cod.

On 31 March, the handful of workers who operated the National Weather Service station in Chatham were evacuated due to fears the property could fall into the Atlantic Ocean. A final weather balloon was released before they left, with a demolition crew set to raze the empty site this month.

Why take such a drastic step?

Until recently, the weather station had a buffer of about 100ft of land to a bluff that dropped into the ocean, only for a series of fierce storms in 2020 to accelerate local erosion. At times, 6ft of land was lost in a single day, forcing the National Weather Service to order a hasty retreat.

“We’d known for a long time there was erosion but the pace of it caught everyone by surprise,” said Andy Nash, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service’s Boston office. “We felt we had maybe another 10 years but then we started losing a foot of a bluff a week and realized we didn’t have years, we had just a few months. We were a couple of storms from a very big problem.”

To be fair, this is just one weather facility and was already perched on an exposed spot. And it’s a federal service, not a private nor state university. But it is certainly research of the kind that academics use, produce, and teach about. Our graduates conduct it.  And it is one datapoint for research capacity being threatened by climate change.

ITEM: 75 college and university presidents signed on to a letter to the Biden administration, “calling [on the government] to reduce [American] carbon emissions by 50% by 2030 and get on a path to hit net-zero by 2050.”

University Business didn’t share the letter itself, either by link or embed, so we don’t have much to go on. But the UB article points to an unusual form of political activism from institutional leaders.  It explicitly links academic commitment to the global crisis:

“Climate change is one of the most pressing challenge[s] facing humankind, and I don’t believe it can be mitigated, let alone solved, without the collective action of our nation’s – and world’s – universities,” said Joseph E. Steinmetz, chancellor of the University of Arkansas, one of the signees of the letter.

Steinmetz goes further:

The scale and complexity of the challenges involved, and the range of solutions required, will depend on the things that universities excel at: research and discovery, teaching and learning, outreach and engagement. It will take interdisciplinary collaboration, ingenuity, hard work, and creative problem solving, as well as the ability to communicate, educate and persuade the public that climate change is real. The earlier we accept and prioritize this goal, the better it will be for future generations.

ITEM: TIME magazine published an article on climate change and higher education.  The piece begins by noting some new work being done in architecture programs, like this new entity.  Then it moves on to the truly interdisciplinary impact of the climate crisis, chiming in with chancellor Steinmetz:

[A]s the effects of climate change have become more visible in recent years, and the breadth of the transformation needed to fight it has become clear, law schools, med schools, literature programs, economics departments and more are incorporating climate into their undergraduate curriculums, grappling with how climate will transform their fields and attempting to prepare students to face those transformations in the labor market.

and

Economics students in Buenos Aires are studying the financial cost of environmental degradation. Philosophy students in London are debating individual responsibility and the debts owed to future generations around climate. Media-studies students in Boston are analyzing climate narratives. Law schools have introduced climate electives for undergraduates, and Bond University in Queensland, Australia, has gone even further, launching what it believes to be the country’s first undergraduate law degree entirely built around climate law—likely to be an increasingly important area.

Ciara Nugent then turns to several curricular standards bodies which are exploring new requirements.

What do these stories point to?  What do they exemplify? Climate change is starting making a palpable impression on practical research. Some campus leaders are connecting their mission to the global climate crisis. And there is curricular motion under way.

More as the stories come, and as I keep writing.

(thanks to Andrew Zubiri for one link!)

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1 Response to Higher education and climate change: a snapshot of this month’s developments

  1. Roxann says:

    I’m even more curious now, and guessing the University of Notre Dame maybe one on the path to net zero. (and Ball State University).
    Geo-Thermal is something I’m becoming more familiar with as a family member’s house has this system. I’m glad to finally see interest and hopefully actionable planning by universities/presidents… and then I’m thinking why not 100 %?

    https://www.nd.edu/stories/going-geothermal/

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