How will higher education respond to climate change? Part 1

How will higher education change in the age of climate crisis?

Earth Arctic view_NASA GoddardThis is a very large topic.  Academia is a large, sprawling, disorganized ecosystem. Climate change presents enormous complexity, as do the many ways humanity can respond.  Their intersection is multi-leveled, multi-sided, diverse, and likely unstable in many ways.

With this post I’d like to begin exploring the topic and open up a conversation.  I’m going to blog about different aspects of the issue this week, starting with the nature of the involved academic population.  (So if you find a point missing from one post, check the others to see if I touched on it there) Then I’ll move on to introduce the role of the physical campus; next, the academic mission; finally, intersections with the rest of the world.  Depending on how this goes, I hope to follow up with more posts, Future Trends Forum sessions, and possibly other projects.

This week’s post series has some strict scoping.  It covers global higher education, with some emphasis on American colleges and universities.*  Its timeline covers the next two generations, or roughly from now to 2080 or so.  It assumes a worldwide environmental change baseline of two degrees of global temperature increase, a significantly greater incidence of extreme weather, some stresses to food and water supplies, and economic fluctuations.

I would also like to bear in mind the potential scope and impact of human responses to climate change.  Their combined scale within this scope could reach as high as, for comparison’s sake: post-1949 Chinese leaderships’ successive drives to reform that nation; the developing world’s 20th century decolonization; 19th century European colonization of much of the world; the combined US and Soviet space races.  The American Marshall Plan seems medium-sized in this context.** These human movements may have as much impact on academia than changes in the nonhuman world.

For reasons of time, I’m not going to start with an introduction to climate change or an overview of its likely impacts over this period, although I will work elements of these in at different points as needed.  There are plenty of easily available resources that will address introductory purposes. I’m also not going to engage climate change deniers or critics.  These posts are about how higher education responds, rather than being about the science per se.

There are other big topics I have to exclude or minimize for reasons of time and focus.  The Fourth Industrial Revolution, black swans, demographic transition, some geopolitical currents – I’d like to return to those in other posts, tracing out their intersections with an academia transforming during climate crisis.

Let’s start.

1. Who is involved when academia confronts the climate crisis?

To begin with, there is the question of who will decide how academia responds to climate change and how it participates in mitigation.  This is a strategic question, and one which traditionally involves presidents and deans, along with trustees (for private institutions) or governments (for public ones).

Faculty can also contribute through their governance function, but that varies depending on a given school’s culture, faculty organization, and to what extent there exists a critical mass of professors with tenure protections.  Additionally, professors can also shape policy based on their research expertise (Earth science, sociology, finance, etc.).  This may take the form of campus study groups or formal institutes.  On the other hand, if the adjunctification of the professoriate continues, at least in the United States, the faculty role in campus climate change strategy will recede.

To what extent will students shape campus strategy?  If Generation Z’s current political profile bears out, we should expect some degree of student activism in colleges and universities that primarily serve traditional-age learners.

climate change protest_stanzim

Those teaching a larger adult population will experience a different politics, depending on how that population balances its priorities.  If today’s sociology of work (precarious positions, increasing part time labor) persists or deepens, then all students will have to juggle employment and activism.  Students may also use climate approaches to help them determine which schools to apply to.

All other campus populations  – i.e., staff – may be involved as well.  IT, for instance, works exceedingly closely with questions of electrical power, not to mention aspects of campus facilities.  Librarians maintain a significant physical presence on physical and digital grounds, and therefore are subject to risk and mitigation.  They also help render access to climate change information.  Development officers may face new directions for fund-raising.  Grants and compliance officers may face new governmental regulations.  Lobbyists and communications staff must work with a changing environment. Everyone working on a school’s physical plant confronts potential challenges.

Each of these populations have interests in common with the others, starting with the most political and basic: how to survive and grow.  More narrowly we might anticipate:

  • the rise of professional development around climate change;
  • grant funding for climate-themed work;
  • an addressing climate crisis section on one’s c.v.;
  • different forms of personnel management around climate issues (rewards for innovative mitigation work or punishments for excessive carbon consumption, say).

That’s for on-campus populations.  Many others are likely to be involved beyond an institution’s students and employees, once we consider stakeholders and academically-adjacent sectors: businesses (publishers, ed tech companies, consultants), professional associations, nonprofits, foundations, governments, and local communities.  For the latter, we should consider how climate change impacts town-gown relations.

Some of these populations are charged with long-term strategy.  This is precisely the mission of private institutions’ trustees, for example.  Some presidents view their mission in this light.  Governments both local and national accept this charge, even if they carry it out poorly in practice.  Foundations often see themselves in this light, along with some donors.  I suspect many of these groups currently seek to learn more about the unfolding crisis, either publicly or quietly, and are eager to start taking necessary strategic steps.  This is a terrific time for collaboration and education.

…and more posts are on the way.  I’m aiming for one per day this week.

*The US focus (as a measure of partial attention) is due to my having spent the past year+ working on Academia Next, which is about American higher ed.  Now that that’s in print, I can return to my prior level of global analysis.

**My selection of these examples is meant to illustrate scale, not to indicate political endorsement.

(thanks to John Kellden for a pointer; thanks to Tom Haymes for reading; many thanks to my Patreon supporters for thoughtful conversations; Earth photo by NASA Goddard; protest photo by Stanley Zimny)

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9 Responses to How will higher education respond to climate change? Part 1

  1. I post this response knowing that it may be beyond the scope of the conversation, but since Thomas P. Barnett has lectured about the historical effect of globalization, climate change and demographic trends for so many years and to so many audiences, I felt it is worth offering as a framing of the context of higher education within those larger trends.

    Here is the playlist for all of the parts of his 2015 lecture:

    Please skip to “Speech #3” about climate change; skip to “Speech #4” about demographics.

    tl;dw: Climate change will impact the production of food which will change power dynamics towards the poles, and migration will follow (…is following). Whoever has the youngest population will reap the benefits of productivity and growth. (But watch the videos anyway…).

    My amateur take on the impact on higher education: We should be developing degree programs where all the course offerings are in Spanish language. Whoever embraces the migrating central and south American population will gain the demographic dividend. The U.S. still holds brand value for higher education. Use what is left to serve the population that will determine which country will maintain its youth.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Thank you, Steve. I like Barnett’s earlier work (Pentagon’s New Map) and look forward to these talks.

      Not sure about Spanish, though, since Latin American demographics have also dropped.

  2. Bryan, thanks for taking on this hugely important topic! How will/should higher ed respond to climate change? By skilling up people to play their part. My project in British Columbia involves 7 universities who are developing non-credit courses that are being offered to working professionals, on their roles, responsibilities and professional actions re climate adaptation and community resilience. I’m keen to connect with others who are focused on curricular responses to climate change.

  3. How will they respond?

    They won’t
    When I spoke at the Committing Universities to Sustainable Development conference in Graz Austria, kicking off UNESCO’s Decade of Sustainability I was invited to be part of a discussion creating a ‘Graz Declaration’.

    It was a great opportunity despite the University I worked at pulling my funding to attend this conference just 3 weeks before I was due to leave. They were significantly shocked when I said that
    a) I’d take time off using leave and
    b) I managed to raise some sponsorship dollars so would in effect self fund.

    The best they could respond was a feeble statement that I could not claim I represented the University – how delightfully freeing that was – I could tee off in my presentation and I did. The audience response was excellent and quite a people caught me up over the next few days to say it was so refreshing to have a non-university like presentation made

    The initial Graz Declaration statements were weak almost sickly in being ‘safe’. I implored the group that they needed to be willing to ‘spill blood’ – to get their knees skinned, to cop some bruises, to have their noses blooded by standing the line that needed to be stood. The statement was better but what was needed then was a commitment to it

    Universities haven’t. They had a chance 15 years ago when action was needed. They’ve done nothing in reality and only now starting to get on board, years after the broader community started to take decisive action

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Marcus, thank you for sharing this. Sounds like a great speech.

      So what’s keeping universities from acting?

      • Hi Bryan

        ‘What’s keeping them from acting?’
        for me it’s
        a) not an issue to the Higher Ups
        b) no interest in changing a suite or curriculum offerings across EVERY single degree
        c) no money to be made from it
        d) too much self interest to risk funding from Govt sources

  4. Hi Bryan, this writeup wowed me. You have hit the nail right on the head. In principle, the Universities have lost focus. They long lost touch with the realities and no one including myself do not know what is keeping them from acting.

    Thanks for inspiring me. Keep it up.

    I am following the Future Trends Forum very closely.

  5. Pius Tolani says:

    Hi Bryan, i love the writeup, it wowed me.
    Thanks for inspiring me. Keep it up.

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