How campuses engage with the climate crisis: a taxonomy

How might colleges and universities grapple with the climate crisis?

This question is the subject of much of my work now, as you can see from these posts. Researching answers can lead in a wide range of directions, not to mention down some twisty rabbit holes.  Today I’d like to avoid those depths and instead look at a very macro, very ten-thousand-foot level.  Let’s explore a schematic analysis looking at campuses as institutions and communities, facing perhaps the greatest crisis of the century.

(I draw the following from my forthcoming book on the topic, Universities on Fire.)

To start, let’s break down the different ways by which the climate emergency can hit academic institutions.

  1. There’s the direct, environmental way, as storms strike, desertification and aridification expand, fire rage, heat rises, and waters surge through a campus.   We can call this the primary impact vector.
  2. Other campus impacts result from the ones crashing through the primary vector.  Think of how temperature rises, the intrusion of salt into fresh water, and the arrival of new diseases can sabotage agriculture, which then leads to human misery and economic dislocation. This can reshape the area around some campuses, not to mention challenging a university’s ag programs.  It can also injure campuses which enjoy appealing physical grounds in terms of mental health and outreach. Additionally, these ecological shocks can also strike academics directly, through newly arrived diseases.  Increased storms can injure a local economy by damaging infrastructure, products, and workers, which can in turn blow back on a local college or university.  Let’s place all of these knock-on effects under the header of a secondary impact vector.
  3. Humanity responds to pressures exerted through the primary and secondary vectors, and these responses engage the academy.  For example, natural disasters can prompt migration; the tendency of some regions to become uninhabitable will drive even more people to seek new abodes.  Economic dislocation (a secondary impact vector) can breed social problems as well as feed extremist politics.  Further, as humanity revises its energy production basis to get away from carbon dioxide, all kinds of ripples can work through society, from changes to economics, human spaces, and gender roles.  If we extend our response to the crisis to include rethinking society and politics (viz anticapitalism, donut economics, decolonization, etc.), campuses feel the results as they are embedded within society and politics. I think of all of these organized together as the third climate crisis impact vector.

Given this triple threat, how can campuses react? As institutions, as individual people affiliated with schools, as groups within a college or university, academics have a broad range of strategies and responses available.  Following the tripartite model above, we can similarly break down the scope or domain of academic action. Seen through our macro lens, academia can act on three levels, starting with the smallest events and actions taking place on campus:

  1. The physical campus.  From renovating buildings to hosting renewable power generation, turning lawns to forests or gardens, banning carbon-burning vehicles, changing food service, and embracing green computing, academics have institutional grounds and materials as a major ground of action.
  2. The campus in its community. Colleges and universities partner with local businesses, nonprofits, government agencies, and civil society for a range of purposes.  The local community can also pressure a campus in many ways, from subjecting it to policies to protests. “Local” can scale up to municipal or other subnational governance, too. In short, there’s potential for productive work as well as friction. In America we call this “town-gown relations.”
  3. Academia on the world stage.  Already higher education contributes powerfully to humanity’s climate crisis actions by producing vital research. Individual academics can act as public intellectuals, translating their research for general consumption and influence.  The reverse is also true as nation-states and transnational entities implement policies or generate other influences on the academic world. Further, some within the academy – faculty, staff, students – will seek to organize for climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.  Indeed, some call on us now to imagine a new, post-carbon civilization; colleges and universities are fertile grounds for such creative work.

(I’ve also been thinking about the various arguments I’ve heard about why campus populations should not seek to change their institution during the climate crisis. Let me set those aside for now, perhaps for a future post just on the topic.  That’s a different response category.)

To be fair, we can easily think of responses which cross between these boundaries, such as working with a religious group with a powerful local presence as well as a significant global one.  Further, there’s not a hard and fast line between town-gown and academic in the world.   I tend these artificial categories to be heuristics, a very rough sketch of possibilities.

How do these two sets of three interact? Let’s play them against each other to produce that beloved tool of futurists, a grid:


Academia engages the climate crisis
Impact vector On campus Institution in community Academia in the world
Primary or direct impact


Secondary impact


Tertiary or socio-political impact



To explicate this scheme further, I can offer some real world and hypothetical examples for each cell on this grid.

Primary or direct impact: on campus, elevating buildings to allow flood water to pass underneath. In community: students and faculty partnering to construct and maintain a large seawall.  In the world: professors publishing research modeling the impact of an Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) slowdown.

Secondary impact: on campus, revising sociology curricula to focus on climate-driven social changes. In community: increasing partnerships with local medical care providers and public health authorities to address climate-caused health problems.  In the world: students, faculty, and staff lobby national governments to adopt a no-growth economy.

Tertiary or socio-political impact: on campus, setting up an institute for Post-Carbon Society. In community: offering housing and teaching for climate refugees.  In the world: scholars advocating in public to block geoengineering.

Let’s stick these into the grid:

Academia engages the climate crisis
Impact vector On campus Institution in community Academia in the world
Primary or direct impact Elevate buildings Seawall construction Researching AMOC changes
Secondary impact New curricula Local health partnerships Agitate for new economy
Tertiary or socio-political impact New academic institute Support refugees Against geoengineering

I think that shows the breadth of ways colleges and universities could engage with the climate emergency, both proactively and reactively.  It might be useful to give academics a sense of the options they have, and a pointer towards the multi-pronged nature of the threat.

I hope it’s useful to some of you.  What do you think of this template as a heuristic?

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2 Responses to How campuses engage with the climate crisis: a taxonomy

  1. Deborah says:

    This is an excellent heuristic for projection. Especially like the idea of help for medical and climate refugees. We are in the middle of the country where we grow wheat and Kernza, crops that grow well with little rain. Our college and church have recently built large new buildings with huge atrium spaces. We built for ambitious growth but they have been used by our entire county as large open indoor spaces for people to be vaccinated, give blood, and meet in socially distanced ways due to our smaller population. Think of a concert or meeting in a space meant for 900 with a crowd of 200, with state of the art broadcast capabilities. Every event and church service now available online. We are a significant wind energy harvest and use area to provide electrical power. Our remote landscape once thought a liability has been our shelter from disease and climate extremes. Suspect in future we will have climate refugees even within the United States if costal area flood.

  2. Jeremy Stanton says:

    This is a very useful template and could be very helpful for administrative scenario planning. I expect the tertiary impacts will have the most profound effects on the higher education sector as a whole, so it’s great to see that level included in the template. Capturing the multi-pronged nature of the threat is an important feature — it gets to the complexity of the challenge and the need to engage with that complexity when thinking about responses. Looking at the data out there, it’s not hard to imagine a set of simultaneous and mutually-exacerbating crises of climate, economy, energy, food security, and socio-political upheavals greatly destabilizing the underpinnings of our higher education systems, but I don’t get the sense that much institutional resilience-building and scenario-planning for this is being done. Hopefully, the release of your book will spur action on this front, and tools like this will help greatly.

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