This week I’m participating in an exciting conference, the Science-Based Choices for Climate Action, Insights from the IPCC 6th Assessment Report. I look forward to soaking up presentations, and also to feedback from my presentation about higher education’s future.
Today we began with a panel about higher education and climate change. I was on it, alongside Tim Carter, President, Second Nature, and Debra Rowe, President, U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development. Our moderator: Ken Shultes, Dickinson College, started things by asking us to describe positive developments we see. Rowe mentioned her model of change via nudging and nurturing. Carter described higher education as a climate accelerant; changing higher ed requires catalysts (which can involve present and former students) and champions (who can be anyone).
In a darker mood, I recommended the growth of teaching about climate change across the curricula. I also argued that faculty governance might have taken a hit during COVID, suggesting greater administrative power might be in the offing for institutions facing the climate crisis. Further, I noted that student mental health issues will require institutional support, including for faculty teaching students with traumatic histories. Rowe recommended practical, positive assignments t0 boost student mental health, as well as undergraduate research and more climate-oriented career options. I chimed in with the last, noting rising climate jobs. Carter advised us that climate competes with dozens of other issues for primary in college mission statements, but recommended we pursue such a position aimed at the grandest challenges.
Shultes asked me to speak to what colleges and universities could do in the future, and I spoke rapidly to a range of points: improving or conflicted town-gown relations; academic organizations seeking to influence the world; instability of politics; the impact of climate migration and potential campus responses; challenges of improving our physical plant. In response Carter thought academia would not inspire society on climate issues, given that corporations were doing more impressive work. Rowe listed a series of projects she facilitates; I wasn’t able to capture their names. Shultes observed that while campuses have done some good work in decarbonizing, they haven’t done as well in getting that story known.
Rowe describes a group of academic climate projects she works with, including collaborating with textbook companies to get new materials out. She advised against class modules on climate, finding them underused. She recommended universities work with community colleges and that people mobilize alumni associations on climate.
One question appeared – how can we (students, I think) influence faculty to do more on climate? Rowe advised researching peer institutions to instill competition, while addressing a chief academic officer (dean, provost, academic VP) to encourage professors. Carter recommended setting up incentives to work on climate. I pointed to scholarship and publishing, with a side note supporting open access for monographs and especially articles.
Another question asked, what should we teach? There was a shared sense of students having to learn skills for activism, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and community development. Rowe posed two future humanities, one barbaric and the other caring, advising us to teach students to encourage that second world. I liked this, and asked people to think of long-term personal engagement with higher ed, a la the 60 year curriculum.
After this panel concluded I worked my way back to the audience for conversations.
Then the next panel, Teaching Climate Change in the Liberal Arts Curriculum, started up. All participants were from Dickinson College. One professor (I missed the name) teaches Earth science, emphasizing the concept of the Earth system as a complex system. Tony Underwood, Dickinson College, economics, approaches the climate crisis through a social science lens. His two classes on this subject examines the circular economy, externalities, how to frame the growth-sustainability dynamic. Moderator Emily Pawley is also an environmental historian, and her challenges include scale (a vast topic!) and convincing people that the past matters for climate change. Kristin Strock teaches environmental studies and focuses on water, yet has to deal with policy changes (definitions of navigable water) and wants to turn students into turbulent problem-solvers.
Question: how do you deal with despair? One professor describes current, traditional-age students are the climate generation, concerned about social justice, digitally connected, isolated, and stressed. Identifying community is one way to help that population deal: teaching “connecting before content.” It’s unfair to ask students to generate solutions and to blame their elders. Many climate solutions have a history which we can draw on. Faculty are able to share resources on trauma-informed teaching.
We broke for lunch.
Returning, the afternoon began with a virtual panel on Social, Economic and Technological Transformations:
What social, economic, and technological transformations are needed and feasible for creating a low or zero carbon future? What policies and actions can help drive these changes?
Rachel Cleetus, Union of Concerned Scientists, described working in climate change as interdisciplinary space. Sivan Kartha, Stockholm Environment Institute – USA and IPCC Working Group 3 author, researches equitable transitions, based on his physics training. Gabriel Blanco, National University of the Center of the Buenos Aires Province and IPCC Working Group 3 author, develops energy scenarios for different goals and purposes.
The panel’s moderator, Forrest Watson, Dickinson College, asked for which technological innovation people were most interested in. Panelists instead described ways they think about technologies, from people-centric frameworks to bearing in mind social justice. Conversation turned to trade-offs, starting with bioenergy.
Watson asked participants about fracking. One observed the speed of technological change. Another noted that the fossil fuel industry has blocked alternatives from rising.
I asked the panelists what they thought about blockchain. One speaker was skeptical of proof of stake for being a problem if scaled up. At a different level, he also thought it more important to build trust between people and institutions, rather than to go around that issue with tech.
The next session dedicated itself to Just Transitions. Benjamin Preston, RAND and IPCC Working Group 2 author, described the climate movement catching up to social justice. Lisa Schipper, Environmental Change Institute and IPCC Working Group 2 author, mentioned her background in feminism. Fatima Denton, United Nations University Institute for Natural Resources in Africa and IPCC Working Group 3 author, spoke of observing male sexist behavior in her development work.
Preston spoke to the importance of social justice as something climate action shouldn’t lose sight of. Schipper describes a gender perspective which examines power and multi-dimensional inequalities. Climate change multiplies these inequities. Women bear the brunt of difficult times, including climate stresses, but offer smaller carbon footprints than men. Denton notes challenges for African women relying on natural gas for cooking. Women could take a leadership role in climate action, helping shape a just transition.
One question asked about women and the informal economy. Denton saw alternative energy not making much progress in the latter. She went on to mention the Fourth Industrial Revolution idea, and how it depends on extracting minerals from Africa. I ask about the role of the arts and humanities, including future visions from solarpunk, Afrofuturism, climate fiction, etc. Schipper approves, citing Ghosh’s The Nutmeg’s Curse and celebrating music as a way of thinking ahead. Preston finds the humanities useful at imagining futures, and points to the next climate assessment hosting an art contest.
The day and conference concluded with a keynote and panel. Ko Barrett, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Vice Chair of IPCC, described a groundswell of popular demand for climate action. She supports subnational action and celebrated the local actions this conference described.
A panel formed and general discussion followed. A New York Times headline article appeared, which led Barrett to remind us that international climate agreements are voluntary. Denton mentioned regressive movements, like turning back to coal and maintaining demand for other fossil fuels, and problems like supply chain issues. Yet she thinks some developing nations are rethinking extractive industries. They are also suspicious around other nations’ discourse (“doublespeak”) on their own use of fossil fuels and sovereignty. “We are off track now.”
How do local governments grapple with the crisis? Sam Robinson, Deputy Chief of Staff, Office of the Governor of Pennsylvania, described an oscillation between state and federal actions and resources on climate change. Will Bernstein, Climate & Energy Manager, City of Pittsburgh, said that international and national decisions influence urban policy work. Barrett asked about corporate pressure. Robinson said some exists, but trails, rather than leads. Bernstein mentions the state’s huge natural gas deposits. Bond markets are key to city finances. Debra Roberts joined the discussion to describe upcoming COP meeting themes: the global South’s frustration; details of implementation, especially quantified finance and loss and damage; connections between local governments and science. Multilateralism is at risk, as the global South might disengage.
One question asked about clarifying climate timelines. Are we always n years from catastrophe? One answer: the science isn’t precise enough yet, but is improving. Denton argues for balancing threat and opportunity language. “Global average temperature” is locally meaningless, place dependent.
One student (I think) asked about people valuing fossil fuels more highly than renewables. Leary recommended pointing out premature deaths due to fossil fuel burning. Preston thought pointing out emerging jobs is useful.
A question pondered massive migration into Pennsylvania from the American southwest. One official answered that there isn’t a lot of migration planning under way.
Robinson mentioned that environmental issues are dropping in polls. The trick is to make climate real in people’s lives while also identifying opportunities.
Roberts posed a question to applause: how many Americans are prepared to give up stuff – freedom of choice – so that Africans may live?
A faculty member asks us to think about, ah, non-polite means of political influence. A student responds that civil disobedience movements succeed when anchored on a concrete goal or clear identity.
Closing thoughts: outsiders can push government to do new things. Multiple means of political pressure are needed. Civil disobedience works… but only in some places. Too much mining has made it difficult for some area to recover agriculture. Climate fatigue is a serious problem – 27th COP meeting! The mitigation burden for one part of the world (1 billion, Global North) can’t be transferred to another, (Global South, 7 billion) and then the other required to run a race. Local politics: every decision can impact the climate crisis.
Final note: we have to be brave, to stay in the room, to find purpose.