Higher education and climate change, a view from late 2020

This week I gave a short talk on climate change and higher education.  The venue was the EDUCAUSE annual conference, online entirely for the first time.

This was a new talk.  I haven’t spoken solely to climate change and academia since… perhaps ever.  I’ve touched on it in many presentations, but never exclusively, so I had a good opportunity to dig into the ideas I’ve been blogging and book-writing about.

Here are the slides:

And here’s my outline.

  1. Impacts on campus operations and environment.
  2. Possibly relocation due to water, prairie, desert expansion.
  3. Changes to campus IT: funding, operations, assessing new technologies.  Example of open.
  4. Impact on research.
  5. ” ” teaching: curriculum, culture.
  6. Role of academics in the crisis.
  7. Lessons from 2020: innovation, stress, social justice.
  8. COVID-19 as dry run for climate change.
  9. Potential impact on national/international higher ed.
  10. How all of this interacts with trends before 2020? (Shameless book plug)
  11. Positive thoughts and inspiration.

I wasn’t sure how folks would respond.  This is a very heavy, very deep topic, and one that might not fit in mind during the crises of 2020.  But participants found themselves deep in thought:

The audience then offered plenty of questions, happily.  I answered some before out time was up, but wanted to share them all with you to give a sense of the topic’s depth and complexity:

remote work – a long term viable option versus returning to campus work. A lot of resistance – what to do? Any suggestions how to frame the conversation?

What are colleges currently doing related to Sustainable IT? Is there a report on this?

What is the future of instructional design? What skills and resources are needed for engaging online learning?

How do enrollment trends factor in? ie, how can universities tackle climate problems in the face of declining enrollments/budgets?

Should we renew the academic pool of lecturers? When the same ones taught business as usual for so many years? How can we expect them to change their mind (thinking about all those Business schools with their MBA for instance). We knew about the planet resources limit since the 70s

How would you propose we gather together the right campus folks to start brainstorming these problems?

how do you see climate change and COVID impacting both physical and digital accessibility for those with disabilities?

will 2020 be the big switch or just a major pandemic with every one running as fast as possible (once over) to life and business as usual?

What do you think of the desalination extraction of seawater?

You mentioned climate refugees. How do we as academics advocate for and facilitate the relocation of climate refugees?

We also have the most wind power in the world centralized in the United States. Have you considered this as a source of carbon free energy for power in the future?

How do you feel for profit education who has demonstrated innovation will impact not for profit higher education institutions?

I was struck by how practical most discussion was.  How do we plan for this?  Who should take the lead?  What is the role of faculty?

After my macro view, the audience did manage some big picture questions.  Connecting 2020 to climate change was difficult and rarely attempted.  Folks were interested in this year for its own sake, which makes sense.

From my side, I think I successfully communicated a few things: that climate change is a huge and sustained challenge to colleges and universities; that is hits across the academic ecosystem; that we need to plan out the complexities sooner rather than later.

My thanks to Christopher Brooks for moderating the session.  Thanks, too, to a very thoughtful audience, and to EDUCAUSE for providing the venue.

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2 Responses to Higher education and climate change, a view from late 2020

  1. Jeremy Stanton says:

    Great to see a reference to “circular economy” in the slides. There needs to be more work on this within higher ed, including the development of prototypes to understand what a circular economic model applied to higher ed might look like (guilds? apprenticeships? gifts of time and wisdom?) Once we break the taboo of questioning the fantasy of infinite growth on a finite planet, we open the door to other possibilities: not only circular economies, but also de-growth, managed descent, natural currencies, negative interest, and how the design of our monetary systems drives much of the ecological destruction that is the basis for our economy (and how their redesign could have the opposite effect).

    The big question for the education system is: how do the things we choose to teach (the ideas and assumptions about the way the world works) and the ways we choose to teach them (from the design of our top-down, centralized institutional models all the way down to how we design our classrooms–designs derived from those assumptions about the way the world works) reinforce the dominant ideologies that fuel not only the climate crisis, but also the other entangled and convergent crises of social, racial and economic inequality, ecological degradation, biodiversity loss, politicial instability, neo-colonialism, etc?

    Resilience magazine recently had a 3-part article by John Foran at UC Santa Barbara, where he explores these questions and how we might “create a different *kind* of university, fit for the purpose.”


    We need to actively scout models from the future and prototype them in the present.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Jeremy, I’m so glad you caught my pointers to a circular or degrowth economy.

      I also enjoy your question very much. Let me dive into Foran’s pieces in a new blog post.

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