Higher education and climate change: two stories from August 2023

How might academics respond to the unfolding climate crisis?

Today I’d like to share two developments which can help us think through that question.

The first comes from Canada, where two campuses (so far) have been under evacuation orders due to out of control fires.  The University of British Columbia (Okanagan Campus), an institution with more than 11,000 students, announced a total evacuation yesterday as fires roared nearby.

British Columbia is now under a state of emergency. You can see the status of fires across the province from this governmental website:

British Columbia fires_2023 August 19

The UBCO main page now features this very concise announcement: “A fire is burning near UBC Okanagan Campus. Evacuate.”

At the same time, farther to the north, Aurora College of Yelloknife (their website keeps giving me errors; anyone else getting this?) is delaying the start of fall classes because of fires, which have prompted evacuation in the area.  The College’s Facebook account said this, two days ago:

Due to the evacuation of Yellowknife, Ndilo and Dettah, Aurora College’s Yellowknife North Slave Campus will be closed until further notice. We will re-assess the closure as updates are received from city officials and emergency organizations.

According to one local site, the delay is:

to provide more time for emergency personnel and affected communities to deal with impacts of the fires. In addition to the delay, the college says some of communications have been compromised by the fires, including some telephone lines, email and website infrastructure, and are forced to share most information through various social media platforms.

The second development took place in a Montana court, where teenagers sued that state for failing to do enough to protect their environment from climate change.  A judge agreed, although state officials disagreed.

Why do these stories matter?

To begin with, the Canadian fire stories offer examples of climate change-worsened weather physically impacting campuses, both the grounds and the academic population.  These incidents are very much for what I described in my recent book, titled in a very much on the nose way for today Universities on Fire.  Unless we are very lucky as a species, we need to plan on experiencing more such extreme weather events in higher education.

The Montana case offers an instance of a major aspect of how Americans value the climate crisis.  Note that it was teenagers (with adult help) who brought the suit.  This is very consistent with polling indicating that age strongly shapes climate view – i.e., the younger one is, the more likely they are to be concerned.  We saw this in a recent Pew survey, which offered findings like this:

Chart representing climate views by age and political party.

This impacts higher education directly.  Incoming traditional-age undergraduates are more likely than campus faculty and staff to be concerned about climate (compare the ages 18-29 to 65+, above). This may appear in terms of class and course of study selection, then evolve into research interests as they age up into faculty and staff positions.  We may also see activism among students, taking place on or off campus, as I’ve been forecasting. Suing a state government is no small thing, and points the way to a generation of academic politics.

Let me add a caveat – an obvious one, I think, but worth mentioning – that these two developments are playing out, and will play out, unevenly across the total higher education ecosystem.  Not all campuses are very exposed to fires. Not all colleges and universities will enroll students (then faculty and staff) who are energized by the climate crisis in sufficient numbers to be significant.  Enough will, though, for academics to be mindful, to plan, and to act.


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3 Responses to Higher education and climate change: two stories from August 2023

  1. Non-fire but certainly climate change impact, many Southern CA campuses going remote only on Monday August 21 (potentially longer) due to impacts of TS Hilary.

  2. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Do a power analysis and it looks grim for the near term. Power and money are on the side of destruction.

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